I thought this picture may be of interest. It’s of Chomo Hanashiro (1869 – 1945) performing the "first move" of Jion from the 1930s book “Karate-Do Taikan”. Hanashiro was primarily a student of Itosu, but he is said to have also trained with Matsumura. It’s interesting to compare this posture with the more formal “double-block” that we see in modern versions of Jion.
For those who don’t know the kata, this motion is preceded by a “salutation” where the right fist in placed into the left palm at throat height. This motion is often attributed highly-questionable symbolic functions i.e. “It represents the sun and the moon”, “It’s showing that martial arts are your secret”, “The ‘restrained fist’ is emphasising the emotional control a karateka needs”, and so on. Personally, I believe all motions in kata have combative function and I see it as simply holding the back of the enemy’s neck as you seize their windpipe with the other hand.
The next motion of the kata is a backward step with the left foot and the aforementioned “double block”. One of my favoured takes on this motion is that it tells us what to do should the enemy try to grab our throat in the way just shown. Before the grip on the throat is secured, drop back and knock the enemy’s hand away (the “lower-block”). At the same time, knock the gripping hand off the neck (the “outer-block”). The “wedging blocks” that follow at 45 degree angles are then used to move to a better position tactically (outside, at an angle, and with the enemy’s arm moved across and controlled) before kicking the knee and punching the head a few times.
Always hard to make these things clear with text alone, but I hope those reading this get the general idea. I’ll film it and get a clip on the website to show what I mean. Anyhow, the point though is that while the more formal “double-block” in the kata works just fine when used in this way, in the rough and tumble of energetic drilling, it frequently ends up looking more like the motion shown by Hanashiro. In fact that’s true of the whole sequence described above. Hanashiro’s kata looks “less neat” than modern kata, but much closer to how it looks in actual application.
In general terms, such comparisons between “older” and “newer” gets you thinking about the general evolution of kata and how the “less refined” kata of the past could be easier to interpret?
I personally don’t think we’ve lost anything with the stylising of modern kata; so long as we remain clear on the combative environment in which kata will operate, and we understand the evolution of kata generally. However, it can be very interesting to look at older versions for the proposes of comparing and contrasting.
All the best,