Bunkai and iconic Kata form


 otsuka sensei wado ryu karate

chojun miyagi goju karate   mabuni shito-ryu karate kata


Comments re Bunkai form and iconic Kata presentation

     by Jason Armstrong       

There as an architectural maxim that says “form follows function” (a phrase created by architect Louis Sullivan in an article published in 1896). Many in the modern karate world interpreting kata take the form and try an fit function around the stylized motion i.e. they are having “function follow form”. Originally the kata were formed as icons to archive self defense scenarios and therefore were created on the basis of “form following function”. 

Bunkai should be flowing drills with active foot and body movements and often have impact techniques of a different nature that many Japanese dojos began to make standard in the 1950 to 2000 era. Writings from 

many of the style founders also re-enforce that formalized styles/patterns in kata were not to be taken literally in the practice of bunkai (real world applications). 

Otsuka sensei 
(founder of Wado-ryu, picture top left) said in 1977’s Wado-Ryu Karate, 

“It is obvious that kata must be trained and practised sufficiently, but one must not be ‘stuck’ in them….It is important to alter the form of the trained kata without hesitation to produce countless other forms of training…” 

Sensei Funakoshi (pictured top right), said in 1938’s Karate-Do Taiken, 

“”it will not do to be hampered or shackled by the rituals of Kata…” 

“Basic fixed stances are for beginners, later one stands in natural 

In the book The History of Karate on page 111 (by Higaonna sensei, 1995) text discusses how Chojun Miyagi sensei (founder of Goju - pictured top middle) has stated that ,“kata may appear one way, and yet have a 

different application” and that many actions of the application “are not shown in the kata at all”.

Based on the above statement and quotes about bunkai more often these days bunkai are not performed with a priorty of ensuring that stance, arm positions etc. map to the kata perfectly but rather ensure a self defense scenario that are realistic of street encounters. This includes such things as: 

- moving around the opponent (side to side, up and down) 

- loosening motions not seen in the kata (e.g. spit to the face, groin tap) to remove the attackers focus on his grip or offensive stance 

-striking at vulnerable point that reflects what will cause effect in the street (e.g. not forcing a chudan blow because the kata implied that). While the solar plexus can a great target (see article), most karate kata are full of “chudan” strikes and this contrasts the reality of what one sees in street fights. One must consider that before kata reached the “chudan strike point” often preceeding loosening techniques (e.g. groin tap, pulling techniques like kake uke) and other means may have dropped an opponents head to “chudan height” meaning that the strike is actually to a head dropped to that height.

Picture: Mabuni sensei is performing the knee impact from Bassai Dai – which today is most often represented as a sidekick in both Shotokan and Shito-ryu. Anyone performing the bunkai with a partner will find the sidekick a difficult implementation relative to the older forms of knee thrusting strikes that are pictured above.

Related article: Kata and bunkai speed - training for a real fight


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