Karate kata a physical encyclopaedia, a meaningless dance or a moving meditation?
The populous view hovers between kata offering the practitioner and insight into ancient fighting techniques and an excellent practice methodology for those wishing to improve their technique.
Both or neither maybe true but what is clear is that without the correct application of mind and depth of understanding, kata can easily, and very quickly be reduced to a meaningless dance routine.
Hundred’s of years ago if you were an accomplished master warrior and wanted to pass on your experience to others how would you go about it?
With little or no access to writing materials and the likelihood that any potential student would be illiterate, word of mouth appears to be the most obvious choice.
Verbally handing the martial baton to the next generation was undoubtedly commonplace but hampered by misinterpretation and limited by the understanding and or physical ability of the receiver.
It is widely accepted that Gichin Funakoshi was one of the first karate masters to record kata in words and in pictures.
His classic, To- Te Jitsu book written in the 1920’s pictorially records the great man as he demonstrates his kata. Some say that this was Funakoshi’s attempt at preserving the past for future students and in so doing standardise the interpretation of each kata.
The kata theme continued when he later published his second and arguably more comprehensive book “Karate do Kyohan”.
One of the unforeseen problems possibly created by Funakoshi and his innovative approach was the staccato photographs used in each book. The images focussed on the stances and techniques but they were demonstrated in isolation and there was little or no grasp of the more holistic aspects of the kata practice.
Somehow diagrams illustrating feet positions and directions of travel together with some accompanying text just didn’t quite convey the complexities and subtleties present in kata.
In the late 1960’s some of Funakoshi’s students utilised home movie cameras to capture this missing essence of the kata movement.
Unfortunately grainy images of distant figures performing swift movements, although helpful, still failed to fully express the kata form in all of its glory.
These short films are definitely captivating for the karate enthusiast and traditionalist as they record a bygone era and culture. What they were not was instructional.
Today YouTube and the DVD market place are awash with detailed footage of masters practising their kata.
Talented individuals with good communication skills produce helpful and instructional material designed to pass on their approach to practising the moves within kata and what their overall interpretation of kata is.
Paradoxically the advent and proliferation of visual records brings into sharp focus the very thing that Funakoshi was perhaps trying to avoid.
In other words rather than standardising kata knowledge today’s media driven culture is able to advertise the range of different opinions and the variety of interpretations that exist. Even the most basic kata are demonstrated in a myriad of different ways. Some “masters” change the emphasis, some even alter techniques.
What ever happened to Funakoshi’s dream of preserving the past and standardising?
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