How do you critique or judge other styles of karate and kata you don’t know?

credits, Dumbass Martial Arts

A friend recently shared this video from a Facebook page known as “Dumbass Martial Arts” which contains a, what you could say, overzealous kata performance by a young female black belt at some type of karate competition. First and foremost I want to say, I am in no means intentionally outing this person, style of karate, or their instructors in any way. But I’ve see a great deal of backlash against this kata from some anonymous people on Facebook…

“It’s a very famous kata named “Need to take a dump but I can’t”.”

😳 What a fucking disgrace to karate! 😡

Whoever told this woman that doing stupid shit like this was ok needs to have his/her belt removed”

“WTF was that!? Kata or was she giving birth!?”

… additionally I want to make it clear that, I also do not like this kata performance by this young woman. If I were judging this kata, I would have failed the entire kata single-handedly for the very poorly executed hook punch at around 15~ seconds. And that one move alone I believe speaks for itself in relating to the performance of the rest of the kata.

But this got me thinking; my judgement, as well as others towards this woman and her kata, it raises some big questions; who are YOU to judge someone else’s karate or kata, especially from a style of karate you never trained in your entire life? What qualifies you to judge someones kata you don’t know? Is a kata really “bad”, or do you just not get the kata or the style of karate it comes from? This topic pertains mostly to black belts who, at one time or another, who are going to be put into a position to judge a kata at a tournament they don’t know, or asked what their opinion is on such a kata, again not knowing anything about it nor the style it comes from.

Judging and Critiquing a Kata You Don’t Know

I’ve had this discussion with some fellow black belts many years ago. How do you judge or critique a kata you don’t know, or a style of karate you don’t know? In the past at my old dojo, I often times had to watch and critique students doing Seipai, a Goju-Ryu kata that I know absolutely nothing about.

When critiquing a kata/karate you don’t know, what I have summed up (as well as another black belt I used to train with) is that, it’s not all that impossible to critique someone else’s kata from a different style of karate you don’t know. No matter what style of karate you come from, I believe these are the most three most common things that transition from style-to-style of martial arts, and in no particular order, and these are what I look for when judging someone else’s karate I don’t know:

  1. Basics
  2. Attitude
  3. Execution

To go through the list briefly. No matter what style of karate you come from, you can most likely tell at black belt level if someone has good “basics” (kihon) or not. Whether you are watching someone that is of Japanese, Okinawan, Korean, or some other background doing martial arts, you can tell if someone throws a crooked punch, with a bent wrist or bent arm (such as the hook punch I mentioned earlier in this video). Another example is a snap kick; no matter the flavor of karate you do, a snap kick is a very basic concept that transitions from style-to-style; does the leg fully extend and retract in a perfect, mechanical motion or does the person drop their foot to the ground like a sack of potatoes? The point is, no matter what style of karate you do, it is easy to tell if someone doesn’t have good basics by all these criteria I listed and more. We also have to remember that, most of karate, it comes from the same well. There are drastic variations between styles of karate, but many of the basics and core elements of the karate don’t change quite that much.

There is a fine line between between Hollywood and Okinawa.

The next topic is attitude; does the person want to be there? You can see it in a persons face, especially at a competition, if they want to be there or not (such as a kid who hates karate being forced to do it by an non-negotiable parent). This is something I use to judge a good kata in general. Attitude is not just intensity, although they do go hand-in-hand. Now the woman in the video does have good attitude, and obviously takes competition and training very seriously. So it’s not all that bad in that aspect. However… can a person also have too much of an attitude? There is a fine line between between Hollywood and Okinawa. The performance of this kata, to my eyes, is a little over-the-top. The excessive facial gestures, constant kiai, it just kind of makes the kata look silly. The unfortunate part is, there are karate competitions that dwell off theatrics. If it would look cool on the big screen, that’s all that matters, and traditional karate is too boring for them.

 

The last point on my list is execution. Now this one is kind of hard to explain. But when I watch a kata, I look for that little bit magic in it. You can just tell when someone is really good at karate. And when they execute moves, they have that ferocious speed, focus, and agility that goes along with intense training. The woman in this video; she’s way too tense. She is so tense and focused on theatrics that it is making her execution of the moves sloppy. The fast blocking combinations, the punches, it’s all missing that crisp and clear execution because she’s simply too tense.

Where Things Become Hazy

This list above I like to follow in general, but it’s not an end to all means with critiquing other karate practitioners. One of the areas in which it becomes hard to judge a martial arts performance is when watching someone perform something such as a kung fu routine. I know absolutely nothing about kung fu; kung fu isn’t even “karate”, in fact it’s a word that doesn’t necessarily even describe martial arts. Who am I to judge or critique someone practicing kung fu, or any Chinese martial art for that matter? This is where I think the line needs to be drawn; “modernized” martial arts that originate from, say Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and even the Americas, I think they can also be generally critiqued. But to ask someone to watch something of Chinese origin, this is where  I think you can’t even compare the two.

Another point on this topic; even with similar territories, sometimes it is best to have a competition where judges are only of one style of karate. Even with my list above, there still is small level of unfairness; going back to my original example with Seipai, I don’t know that kata; if I tell someone their punch is crooked, well maybe there is a move in that kata where you wrist is inclined 30 degrees. For this type of scenario, it would be best to have only people of that style of martial arts judging it’s competitors. A big debate going on is whether karate will ever make it to the Olympics. If karate makes it to the Olympics, will we there truly ever  be a “worlds best kata practitioner“? Or would it be best to subdivide “best kata” by different styles? As long as there is competition out there, these questions are going to arise, and if anything I only see it becoming a bigger problem in the future.

Who Cares If It’s Not Good?

My final comments on the matter; we must remember karate is a journey for the practitioner and only for the practitioner alone. If this woman is enjoying karate, loves doing kata and competing, who are we to tell her that we don’t like her kata? I will say again; I don’t like the performance that the woman put on in the original video posted above; I think the performance is over-the-top, too theatrical, the basics are shoddy, and I even question where this kata came from and who taught it. But at the end of the day, if this person loves karate and is happy doing what they are doing, then who are we to say anything? Myself, karate practitioners, and trolls on Facebook include?

Lastly, I would like to extend an open invitation to the female in the video or her instructor in this video to drop a comment or write to me about this kata. You are beyond welcome to debate me and tell me why this performance of the kata is good. I would personally like to know more about this kata, the style, and where it came from. Because, to me, this kata does’t look quite right. In fact, it looks like a traditional kata that was heavily modified and changed to suit tournament theatrics. Maybe it’s even a made up kata for an open division…

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