Category Archives: Kata

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…

Heian Godan Kata, One Kiai or Two?

One of the biggest issues with traditional martial arts today is consistency from school to school or instructor to instructor. When teaching or taking karate, you will start to encounter problem areas in kata and other basics/drills. What do I mean by “problem areas”? Lets take a basic example. For 20+ years, you may train with an instructor whom will tell you to punch one way. But then down the road, you train with someone else, perhaps even someone who trained under your instructor at one point, and then they tell you to do the punch different from how you’ve been doing it for 20 years. Who is right, and furthermore, what is the right way to do the punch?

The finest example of this “consistency” problem is Heian Godan. When watching/training with outsiders from our karate school, we often run into one trouble area of the kata. Most people in the world today do Heian Godan with two kiai in the kata. One on the punch and the second on the jump. But in our dojo pretty much since the beginning of time, we have only done a single kiai.

How We Do It Now

In our school, our head instructor Master William Viola recently told us that we are only to do one single kiai in Heian Godan. Despite what any one else says, what any videos show us, or anything else, we are to do one and only one kiai in Heian Godan. Now for me, I  follow what my head instructor teaches. If he said do one kiai, I am only going to do and teach one kiai in the kata. In his own words, “Western Pennsylvania is right and the rest of the world is wrong!”

But wait, is this correct? Is the rest of the really world wrong? Well, those words should be taken in a light-hearted way and it’s not meant to be taken negatively towards other schools or instructors. The truth is, our Sensei passes down what he originally learned when he came up through the ranks. Since then, the “people in charge” of Shotokan, such as organizations like the USAKF and JKA have amd always will change their minds about things. Whether you belong to organizations or not, different groups of different instructors disagree and before you know it there are fifteen different right ways to do a kata.

Why We Only Do One Kiai

Our instructor trained with Master Kanazawa and several other head honchos of Shotokan karate back in the mid 1960’s. Our instructor told us it was like this. Back then, a group of Shotokan instructors got together at a huge table. He described it exactly as a poker table. This “table” included several huge names in Shotokan history (including Kanawawa and I think Nishiyama), most of which I regrettably cannot remember. But anyway, they would exchange moves/ideas for karate. Things to change or keep in kata, where to do kiai, and so forth.

The truth is, in the 1960’s it was agreed upon by this table of black belts that there was to be ONE kiai in the kata Heian Godan. There is evidence of this in a a book from the 1960’s with Kanazawa. It was the “OFFICIAL” Shotokan series of handbooks where Heian Godan only had ONE kiai in the kata. I do not know the exact name/release of the book but it was an official book  by Kanazawa, part of a series of books released in chronological order on Shotokan kata.

 

Back then, it was settled. One kiai in Heian Godan. And from then on till today, my instructor has only done a single kiai in the kata and that’s that. But fast forward to 2013. Look in recent books not only from Kanazawa but from other kata masters, and there is now two. So what happened? Why did it change?

The answer is politics. As I stated earlier, it has to do with the organizations behind karate, not just Shotokan, but almost all Japanese styles of karate. Instructors disagree, ego’s come into play, and before you know it instructors change things in kata and the basics of karate. When Gichin Funakoshi died in the 1950’s, he took with him his leadership and control over Shotokan karate. None of his head students knew what to do. No one was deemed the head of Shotokan to carry the torch. This caused most of his head students to get in arguments about what was the right way to do thinks in karate.

How You Should Do it

Apart from all the politics and nonsense, I think the “right” way to do Heian Godan simply depends you and your karate school. If your Sensei tells you to do one kiai, you do one kiai. If you’re told to do two, you do two. But you’re training on your own, it doesn’t matter. You do what works for you. And if you train with someone else and do it different, I highly doubt they are going to roundhouse kick you in the face for it. The more important thing here is that you do the kata and you do the kata to the best of your ability, nothing more. A simple kiai isn’t going to change the fate of the the world. It isn’t going to make the karate gods angry and strike down upon you with their wrath. So do it the way you want to do it! For me, I have and always will do only one kiai in the kata. My instructor told me to do only one, I’ve only done one for my entire life in karate, and any videos, books, or groups of people I’ve never even met in the world aren’t going to change my mind about it that easily.

The History and Bunkai of Bassai Sho

In last weeks Monday night black belt class, we given a homework assignment. Shihan Viola asked us to research the application behind Bassai Sho. The week passed by quickly and today was our day to break down this kata. We spent the entire class discussing the bunkai (application) behind the kata. Take a look at the kata Bassai Dai, infamous tournament-style kata recognized in many styles of martial arts, even in Korean styles of karate. The moves are very practical. There are blocks, punches, strikes, and the works. The application can be very easy to figure out.

Moving on to Bassai Sho at black belt level, the kata is far different. There are slow moves, strange hand formations, circular blocks with strikes, and a very strange ending to the kata. In class, everyone had their own input from doing the entire kata with a bo staff, to blocking a bo, to even some Jujitsu style application.

 

Personally, I feel that weapons do not coincide with Shotokan kata, or any empty hand kata. Karate translates to empty hand and I feel as soon as we start introducing weapons into the mix, it becomes something different. By all means I do not mean that the moves cannot block weapons, but often I find the generic responses to blocking weapons very impractical.

For example, the third move into the Bassai Sho. We do a two-handed block with a slow press. It almost looks like a move where you “catch the bo”. However, I think that someone swinging a bo staff a full force to hit someone, I don’t think that’s the right move to block that. Shihan agreed with that statement, stating that, number one, weapons are dangerous.. He always said “weapons are an extension of the body”. Before anything you would want to move in on an opponent before they swing. Number two, going back to my original argument, I think that move is simply impractical for blocking a weapon. Here is an interesting video of Kenneth Funakoshi showing his application for the kata. He is one that does the “catching of the bo” move that I personally hate.

I can spend all night explaining moves. And I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong way to do it. But picking any application for kata, I don’t like the weapon explanations given. Anyway in the end, what Shihan told us was, there is basically no real answer to the application of Bassai Sho. He explained that there were  meeting(s) between several high level black belts in various organizations such as “USAKF” that couldn’t agree on the application to the kata. Certain moves represented different types of applications and over the years bunkai to not only Bassai Sho, but many other kata, it’s almost becoming a lost art.

Looking at the bigger picture, this is becoming a problem in modern karate. Kata gets watered down, altered for tournaments and different styles, and many people don’t retain the information for the application for all the kata which is really the most important thing. One reason why I like coming on here during the digital age and blogging about it is that digital information is this information never vanishes. Books, physical text papers, it crumbles with the masters who wrote it. Back in the early 1900’s, martial artist didn’t have YouTube, videos, and etc. to retain that information. And because of society, laws, and political reasons, I think many of the masters back then never knew karate would get so huge nor did they think about these types of things back then.

 

Finally we went into a brief history lesson over the kata. I believe Shihan mentioned Funakoshi acquired this kata from Azato. However, other sources claim he got it elsewhere. To my knowledge I don’t think there’s any solid evidence to back where this kata originated from in terms of Shotokan kata. I find it interesting though. Sometimes you get to black belt level and you end up having more questions than answers about a particular move or kata. I’m starting to find out slowly that there isn’t always a dead set way of doing things, whether it’s kata, bunkai, or the works.

I think after today’s lesson I have a new respect for finding the application to each kata.  I think it’s in my generation where people are going to have to start figuring out application to these kata and finding practical and useful ways to make people learn it and retain it. But this goes into a whole other argument. The younger audience (10 and under), they really struggle with bunkai. I think somewhere in-between this kind of stuff has to get reintroduced into the repertoire.

The proper timing for kata Hangetsu

This past several month’s we have been practicing the kata Hangetsu in our Monday black belt class, translated to “Half Moon” in Japanese. Gichin Funakoshi felt the need to introduce tension-style training into the Shotokan repertoire as this was not only a great training and conditioning element, but also something very common in other styles of karate. Hangetsu was added to the list of Shotokan kata to make up for this missing element.

Before diving into the kata, we spent several months practicing the proper technique for executing the tension in the beginning moves of the kata. We practiced doing very slow punches in a hangetsu stance, giving special attention to the powerful tension and focus at the end of each punch. These were slow, concentrated punches that take approximately 5 to 6 seconds of movement before the full extension of the punch takes place.

Once we got the basics down, we started to practice the kata. On average, the kata should take approximately 63 seconds from beginning to end. Our entire class was surprisingly dead on each run through with the kata. One spot we immediately fixed when we started the kata were the “block punch punch” moves in the middle of the kata. The second primary spot were the slow hand-draw after the first kiai.

 

Overall Hangetsu was a great kata to work on. One different between our instructors methods and what I have seen elsewhere is the “block punch punch” moves. I have seen others do these in the Hangetsu stance, yet we practice them in a front stance. In my practices I always train how my master informs me so I am now doing these as front stance. But I always make note of things like these for down the road.