Updated: Jun 24, 2019
In this series of short articles, I will be writing about some of the common fighting concepts found within traditional karate kata.
In this opening part, I want to delve into our body positioning when performing kata applications, with specific reference to our body positioning in relation to the enemies body positioning. One of the underlying concepts found in kata applications is that we should put ourselves in a position of dominance. How we achieve this aim will depend on the technique we are performing and the response from the enemy to our attempted technique.
An effective kata application should ensure that we have a clear line of attack towards the enemy. A very simple drill to start with is to stand in front of the enemy and ensure you can touch them with hand/arm strikes to the head, neck, body and kicks to the legs (drill 1). If you can do this with relatives ease then you have a direct line of attack to your enemy. This is what I call Your Attack-Line. The next stage (drill 2) would be to have both the enemy and yourself stand with one front in front of the other (say the left leg in front) and again making sure you can touch the with strikes and kicks. Practically speaking there is an issue here and this that as you and the enemy are starting from the same position, the enemy also can attack with the same strikes, they also have a direct line of attack to you.
We need to resolve this issue as any kata application which gets your to the point in which you are equal with your enemy is not effective and useful. There are three ways of resolving this issue. The first is to move ourself around the enemy. If we can put ourself in a position where our Attack-Line is facing the enemy and the enemy’s Attack-Line is not facing us, then we have created positional dominance. An extreme example would be to move so that we are directly behind the enemy. In this position all our weapons are facing the enemy and none of the enemy’s weapons are facing us! Of course, in reality gaining such a dominant position is difficult but the drilling moving to the rear of the enemy is still useful, if no other reason than to ingrain the concept of Attack-Lines.
As mentioned above, moving around the back of the enemy in real conflict can be difficult, however there are other positions we can move to in order to gain positional dominance. Moving to the side of the enemy is a very strong position to achieve. Again, this can be practiced from the starting position of drill 1, in which you can move to either the left or right side of the enemy. However, if the enemy has one leg forward then it changes the paradigm.
Let’s use the starting position of drill 2, in this it now becomes easier to move to the left side of the enemy as their left side is closer to us and due to their position their body is slightly turning their side towards us. However, this enemy’s position now makes the right side further away and more difficult to navigate towards.
The second method of gaining positional dominance is to move the enemy around us. A basic push/parry of the enemy’s arm could twist the enemy’s torso away from us and this would take their Attack-Line of us, whilst allowing us to maintain our Attack-Line towards the enemy. Another example would be pushing the enemy’s head downwards after clinching the enemy. In this example the enemy’s head and therefore Attack-Line would be facing the floor, whereas our Attack-Line is facing the enemy.
The third and final method of gaining positional dominance is to combine methods 1 and 2; move to the enemy’s side whilst simultaneously moving the enemy’s Attack-Line away from us. An example would include pushing/parrying the enemy’s arm so that their torso twists, whilst moving to the side of the enemy contemporaneously. Another example would be pushing the enemy’s head towards the floor whilst moving to the side of the enemy.
The training exercises I have described above are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to drilling this concept. We need to eventually move into sparring against a resisting partner who is trying to prevent you from gaining positional dominance.
Before concluding, it is worth noting that the concept of obtaining positional dominance is recorded in traditional karate kata via the ways in which the movements performed to the sides, to the back and to angles (such as 45 degrees). It is a wide misconception that the angles in which you move when performing solo kata represent where the enemy is attacking from. In fact, the kata is teaching you to move to that angle in relation to the enemy. Moving sideways in a kata can represent moving to the side of the enemy, turning to face the rear can mean to take the back of the enemy, performing move at 45 degrees can mean to move 45 degrees in relation to the enemy in front of you.
Kenwa Mabuni, the founder of Shito-Ryu, wrote the following in his 1938 book Karatedo Nyumon:
"The meaning of the directions in kata is not well understood, and frequently mistakes are made in the interpretation of kata movements. In extreme cases, it is sometimes heard that "this kata moves in 8 directions so it is designed for fighting 8 opponents" or some such nonsense. I would like to specifically address this issue now.
Looking at the embusen for Pinan Nidan, one can see that karate kata move in all directions, forward and back, left and right.
When interpreting kata, one must not get too caught up in these directions. For example, do not fall into the trap of thinking that just because a kata begins to the left that the opponent is always attacking from the left. There are two ways of looking at this:
1 - The kata is defending against an attack from the left.
2 - Angle to the left against a frontal attack.
At first glance, both of these look alright. However, looking at only number (1), the meaning of the kata becomes narrow, and the kata, which in reality must be applied freely in any situation, becomes awfully meager in its application.
Looking at an actual example, the 5 Pinan kata all start to the left, and then repeat the same series of techniques to the right. Looking at interpretation (1), the opponent must always attack from the left, and while fighting that opponent, another opponent comes from behind so the defender turns to fight that opponent. This type of interpretation is highly unreasonable.
Looking at interpretation number (2) however, the 5 Pinan kata show us that against an attack from the front we can evade either left or right to put ourselves in the most advantageous position to defend ourselves.”
There are a few parts of the above quotation that we should consider. Firstly, Mabuni calls out the absurdity of kata being used to fight against multiple opponents, in his words this is nonsense. He later points out the unreasonableness of defending against an attack to the left, then to the right and then to the rear. One quick round of sparring with multiple opponents should put this multiple opponent myth to bed as you soon find out that it doesn’t work.
Secondly, Mabuni expresses that kata techniques need to be able to be applied freely in any situation. This echoes the sentiments of Gichin Funakoshi when he wrote that “once a kata has been learned, it must be practised repeatedly until it can be applied in an emergency’. Now, if we limit a technique in kata to a specific defense against an attack from the side/rear or any other specific position, then we are only able to apply the technique in a very limited set of scenarios. In addition to the limited scope, the notion of being attacked from the side or rear and having the time to defend defies both common sense and logic to an extent.
Think about it for a moment, imagine there is an enemy to your side and you know he (or she!) is there about to attack you, what are you going to do? Stand in your ready stance waiting for him (or her!) to attack with a front kick, so that you can block gedan barai? No…. what you are going to do is turn so that you can see the enemy and attempt to maintain sufficient distance so that you can decide whether you are able to escape or need to try and diffuse the situation verbally or physically.
And for those who are going to ask, well what if you don’t have time to turn and face the enemy? Then, I would suspect you also don’t have to time to realize what attack they are using and you definitely won’t have time to perform your defense from kata! The reality is you will have been sucker-punched and you will need to proceed from there, and one good thing to do but would be to protect your head and try to use the concept of moving to a position of dominance (the enemy’s side/back and moving off their Attack-Line) as soon as possible!
Thirdly, Mabuni points out that some kata techniques are not sequential in application but rather provide us with alternative options depending on the situation. Mabuni writes that the kata show us that we can evade to the left or right of the enemy in order to put is in a positional dominance. This is linked to the other two points made about Mabuni’s quote. Whilst it is absurd to think of the kata as individual techniques performed against multiple attackers from different angles (and if not absurd, it severely limits the applicability of such techniques to an extremely limited set of unlikely scenarios), it is more reasonable to look at kata as providing options depending on the enemy’s positioning and reactions to our techniques. This method of training kata applications provides for the techniques of the kata to be applied in many scenarios, thus providing them with greater utility and usage in comparison to the limited scope which is provided with the multiple opponent and attacking from the sides methods of kata application.
In summary, an effective kata application should move us to a position of dominance with the enemy and this can be done in one of the following ways: -
1. Moving ourselves to a dominant position (our Attack-Line is facing the enemy but theirs is not facing us); or
2. Moving the enemy to a position of weakness (our Attack-Line maintains its line towards the enemy and theirs has been moved away from us); or
3. A combination of moving ourselves to a dominant position whilst at the same time moving the enemy to a position of weakness.
Thank you for reading, if you found this article informative and interesting then please share it with your friends and on social media.