Having had a chance to review the beginning explanation of ‘bunkai’ as offered by Mabuni Kenwa, I’d like to offer some suggestions on the use of ‘bunkai’ drawn from my experience.
As those who have followed my blog understand the way I was taught Isshinryu there was no ‘bunkai’ or application studies for my Isshinryu kata. I have studied some of the ‘bunkai of Tristan Sutrisno with his Shotokan and Silat Tjimande studies, I have a very minor understanding how Faan Tzi Ying Jow Pai moves from form technique to full usage and I was fortunate to spend too short a time with the late Sherman Harrill and obtain a little of his understanding on Isshinryu kata technique application. Together with my own small effort these past 38 years I see some of a techniques potential and have had occasion to train my students in my understanding.
I am only interested in how we can find positive value understanding ‘bunkai’ and have no interest in focusing to any great extent on those versions that follow other paths. Life is too short to focus on the negative. The reason is that the entire concept of applying kata technique is so large none of us can approach but a part of the way. If you followed my suggestion and read the Charles Goodwin article I suggested you can see part of the reason I suggest this. I think you will find my presentation will ramble through the idea of ‘bunkai’ because of the depth of the material to review. In this it will parallel the same process I have been working on for a long time, looking at clues and working them out.
What we can suggest, looking at Okinawa, is that we do not know enough how the application of Karate was passed by each instructor on Okinawa in the Classical Era (pre 1915 or so). Mabuni Kenwa sharing 10 or so applications for Seienchin Kata showed a suggestion of karate usage.
Let’s start with the first applications Mabuni shared. The first thing I see is this is being done at mid range against the attacker.
The technique as illustrated and demonstrated involves moving away from the initial attack with a low block/parry and then shifting forward with a parry and counter attack underneath the line of the attacker’s 2nd attack.
This is a reasonable starting point for learning the application of a motion. Mid-range allows more time to execute the technique and gives the defender the time to choose to counter or break off, understanding the threat involved. On the other hand it also allows the attacker more chance to respond against the defense. This should not be under-estimated. Are the likely attacks the student may face requiring the most extreme response? Certainly that may be so, but it is also possible that won’t be the case and having trained in a range of possibilities allows them to choose appropriately.
Higher level understanding of the technique potential would involve executing the technique while moving into the attack which is a much quicker response for the response strikes them before they conclude the initial attack. In fact the quickness of a technique application when both parties are moving on each other is something that must be felt to be understood. In such circumstances many times you don’t even do more than the kata section and the opponent is struck hard.
Yet you have to start someplace. Working application from the middle range is a better starting point. The most important factor in making an application work is the skill of the performer. I don’t have kyu students work on application studies. I freely show how each movement they study may be used but for their own skill development they only work a very small set of techniques up to dan training. Without the correct skill, power and movement potential there not a chance to develop the application properly. In my understanding having beginning students learn a kata and it’s ‘bunkai’ before long term technique skill is built may inhibit correct application study.
Middle range actually helps the basic learning, the defender feels less threatened (this is on an emotional level) from the pressure of the attack making it easier to perform as directed. When there is a higher threat felt (as when moving into an attack, even skilled technicians often don’t trust a technique they’ve worked for decades and in turn use something else. This is where the Spirit behind karate, the belief in one’s technique, comes into play. If you don’t believe in your technique your training will turn to something else, even against slow motion beginning attack studies.
The role of the attack in bunkai studies. I often see comments about ‘bunkai’ how the attack isn’t realistic for nobody attacks with a lunge punch, or that the attack and stop flow create a false space to work the ‘bunkai’ and this would not occur in a real attack. What I see is far different, I believe this style of attack is a very good starting point and an extremely realistic training tool. It’s just a question of how you look at things.
I have received some small instruction in ‘bunkai (Sutrisno)’ a far different sort from this discussion, and the initial training attack was the same lunge punch. I simply accepted the training and in turn taught my students the same way, but then one of my students revolted with the comment this attack is ridiculous. That caused me to think and what I came to realize was it was too easy to assume an attack is any one thing. Really we can’t assume what a random attack may be. It might be a boxing style attack, it might be a grappling attack, or it might be something else. Especially as an instructor perhaps I’m larger and don’t fear some attacks, where a student with less stature is more open to other attacks than myself. If you assume an attack must be a specific sort you’re just opening yourself to being played if you guess wrong.
What I see with the stepping lunge punch is a line of attack that the beginner learns how to shift around/through and work against the attacker using the open space that line of attack creates. And every attack does leave space to counter attack if you acquire the skill. Beginning with mid range counters learns how to use those spaces, perhaps how to shift away from the attack. Then working at close range entering the attack you may begin to use your forward momentum to move the attack away from you.
A different skill if the attacker doesn’t open that line is the skill to draw their attack out and create that opening, and this requires different training than just the ‘bunkai’ or application potential.
The primary purpose of the lunging strike is that many attacks begin with a grab, as in the attacker grabs you and then strikes. The grab actually come at you on the same line that the lunge strike uses. You can practice against grabs, but the lunge punch allows a faster attack building stronger counters for an actual grab.
The lunging strike attack for ‘bunkai’ studies is only the opening. The next level is to increase the speed of the attack as well as increase the speed and power of the counter. Then follow with more complex attacks, etc. Working to light “bunkai” sparring and finally to random “bunkai” sparring.
Even so there is a range of technique you cannot use with any power and speed because of the damage they might cause your partner. This is where kata contributes as there’s no one to hurt and full speed and power can be practiced with the understanding fitting into the appropriate space from your other studies adds to those kata practices.
Part II fin.