As someone who teaches courses on Kata applications, and as a writer of books and articles on the subject of bunkai, I’m often asked what is “the correct application” for various kata movements. The fact is that there is no single correct application for any movement! Master Itsou – who had a huge influence on the way that kata is now practised – once wrote, “There are many movements in karate. When you train you must try to understand the aim of the movement and its application. You have to take into account all possible meanings and applications of the move. Each move can have many applications.” I feel that it is very important that the individual discovers their own unique understanding and expression of kata applications. You should actively study the katas – as opposed to just practising them – and endeavour to come up with effective applications of your own. There are no right or wrong applications, only those that work and those that don’t! In this article, I’d like to cover some brief guidelines for kata-bunkai that should help you to extract effective applications from the katas for yourself.
1, All kata applications are designed to end the confrontation there and then. Any application that would leave your opponent able to continue the fight is incorrect. Examples of this are the sequences that are often interpreted as multiple blocks with no follow up. You would get badly hurt if you just blocked an opponent’s strikes and then turned away in a real fight, so why would you do it in kata? The ‘blocks’ themselves must be applied in such a way as to disable the assailant. Remember that kata applications were deliberately concealed, just because a movement is labelled as a block does not mean it was intended to be used as such.
2, All parts of a movement are significant. Hands are not placed on the hips or wound up before ‘blocking’ as a preparation for the following technique. No movement is without purpose and a good application must take every single part of the movement into consideration. If the hand moves out to the side before coming back in, then both parts of the movement serve a purpose not just the inward part. In particular the application of the hikite (pulling hand) must be considered. In Gichin Funakoshi’s 1925 book, ‘Rentan Goshin Karate Jutsu’ there is a short paragraph devoted to the use of the hikite. He writes, “Here the meaning of the hikite, or pulling hand, is to grab the opponent’s attacking hand and pull it in whilst twisting it as much as possible so that his body is forced to lead against the defender.” It would seem that the true meaning of hikite is to control the opponent’s limbs such that they become unbalanced. Be sure to take this into account when studying bunkai. The hands are never held on the hip in preparation for following moves.
3, Every kata move is designed for use in combat. It is important to understand that all movements within the katas are designed for use in real fights. This includes the opening and closing salutations. Although certain moves may increase strength or improve balance that is not their primary function. Their primary function is to disable an assailant in combat. In his 1974 book, ‘The Heart of Karate-do,’ Shigeru Egami wrote, “Despite a lack of complete understanding, one should not assume that the movements have no meaning or function. I advise performing the movements, thinking about them, and interpreting them in your own way, concentrating heart and soul. This is practice.” So when analysing your own kata be sure to understand that every move has a combative purpose and endeavour to understand that purpose.
4, The angles at which the techniques are performed are important. You are never turning to face a new opponent. Most fights do not just ‘start’; they are normally preceded by some kind of heated verbal exchange. Statement such as, “What the **** are you looking at?” or, “Give me your money!” are common examples. Only a fool would not turn to face their assailant before blows were exchanged. The vast majority of kata techniques are designed to deal with an opponent who is in front of you. The main reasons that kata techniques are performed at angles is to instruct the practitioner that they need to be at that angle, in relation to their opponent, in order for the techniques to work, or that by moving in that direction the transfer of their body weight will aid the technique’s execution.
5, The stances are a vital component of the techniques. Stances are never assumed because they look nice, or to strengthen legs, or to improve balance. Stances are taken because they put body weight into the technique or they help to unbalance the opponent. Look at the stance, the weight distribution, the resulting shift in body weight and the manner in which the stance was assumed. Ask what techniques the shift in body weight would aid and you will be one step further to unlocking the hidden application of the movement.
6, Real fights are sloppy affairs and the way the application is performed will reflect this. When performing a kata, we are practising the ‘ideal’ movement. Which is relatively easy to achieve against the thin air, but another mater entirely against another human being who is intent on doing you harm. When applying the kata’s techniques your main concern should be the movement’s effectiveness, not retaining an inch perfect performance. What is a graceful movement when performed in the kata will become rough round the edges when applied in an all out situation. The visual appearance of a technique must never be a concern – The only valid measure is whether or not the technique disabled the opponent.
7, The likelihood of the type of attack must be considered. The majority of kata techniques deal with likely attacks from an untrained assailant. Karate is a civil tradition and hence its methods were not designed for use on a battlefield against a professional fighter. The great Choki Motobu once said, “The techniques of the kata were never developed to be used against a professional fighter, in an arena or on a battlefield. They were, however, most effective against someone who has no idea of the strategy being used to counter their aggressive behaviour.” Kata techniques are more likely to be counters for techniques such as lapel grabs, hook punches and head-butts than as defences against advanced combinations etc. It is also worth remembering that most fights occur at close range and hence one would expect the majority of kata techniques to be for use at that distance. Defences against long range attacks, such as lunging style punches or long range kicks, may be included but they are far less likely to occur in a real fight and as a result will only account for a very small percentage of kata applications.
8, Strikes should be delivered to anatomical weak points. There should be no doubt that techniques delivered to the body’s weak points will have a greater effect than techniques that are not. You should be as specific as possible with regards to the areas struck when studying bunkai. It is not sufficient to say a blow is delivered to the side of the skull, when it is meant to be delivered to the temple, as the resulting effects will be radically different. That said, you should bear in mind that the accurate placement of strikes during an all out fight is nowhere near as simple as some would have us believe.
9, No kata techniques rely upon unpredictable responses from the opponent, however predictable responses should be acknowledged. It is quite common to see applications that depend upon the opponent performing certain actions; e.g. “it is at this point the opponent responds with a back-fist.” There is no reason why the opponent should respond in that manner and hence this type of application should be avoided. Some responses are predictable however, and as a result are often taken into consideration by the kata. An opponent who has just been struck in the testicles is very likely to bend forward from the waist and any follow up movements should acknowledge this and any other similar involuntary actions.
10, There are many effective applications for every movement. If your own applications are different from others that you have been taught or shown, that does not automatically mean there is anything wrong with them. If they work, and are consistent with the guidelines outlined in this article, then they can be looked upon as being correct.
11, Endeavour to understand the principles upon which the techniques are based. The key thing is to understand "why" the techniques work. Try to get beyond the simple memorising of individual techniques and endeavour to fully understand the principles of combat upon which the kata are based. Principles are far more important than techniques. Principles can be applied in an infinite number of ways, but techniques are very specific and hence limited. You should aim to be an adaptable and versatile fighter. Endeavour to fully understand the principles and learn how to fight in accordance with them. Whilst initially this understanding will be on an intellectual level, you should aim to integrate these principles into your subconscious (this being the main purpose of kata practice). At this high level the body will instinctively act in accordance with these concepts and hence make the karateka extremely formidable. By concentrating on the principles, and the various ways in which they can be applied, the kata becomes an inexhaustible supply of martial knowledge and it is possible to appreciate why the masters of old said it would take more than one lifetime to fully understand a single kata.
12, All applications must be workable in real situations. When looking at applications, ask yourself the following questions: Could this technique be applied when under extreme stress? Is it simple to use or does it require too high a skill level? Will it work against an uncooperative and possibly physically stronger attacker? Is the application truly practical or am I settling for the first application I came across that seemed to fit the kata? Is the technique for use against violent untrained attacks or predetermined karate techniques? All kata applications should be relatively simple to use; they were designed that way. If the application you have came up with is not practical then scrap it and start again. For every kata movement there are many practical applications, just keep looking.
Use the guidelines in this article to keep you on the right track when studying your kata. With enough study and practice you will be able to effectively interpret and freely express kata in a way that is unique to you. Please refer to my books and videos for more information on how to effectively apply your katas. Thanks for taking the time to read this article and best of luck with your study.