When I learned Isshinryu it was within the paradigm of Isshinryu taught by Tom Lewis.
Among many things applications were not studied for kata technique (for the most part).
Now before we go further I am going to ask you to turn off your purity of Isshinryu tests based on the paradigm you studied. For one thing I strongly believe in the strength of all the different paradigms within Isshinryu. I would be a fool not to see the power they evidence, and I am not a fool. But this is my story in part.
At much the same time Charles Murray taught me Kusanku kata, he also told me of the story that Shimabuku Sensei could see Kusanku as a Night Fighting kata. I had no reason not to believe him. He was my senior under Tom Lewis, he was training me, and he had trained at Agena when stationed on Okinawa in the USAF. I just accepted what I was told.
In any case specific applications of kata technique were not part of the training.
And when I began to study with other people I did not find any of them using the term ‘bunkai’ either, either in their schools or at the tournaments I attended.
However many of those schools trained in specific ‘wazza’ as they called them, or specific attack responses. I learned whatever I could.
Then in 1980 I took up another friend’s offer, Tristan Sutrisno, and began visiting his program. In turn he allowed me to understand how his students were being trained. On that first visit for one thing I learned the aikido defense drill, one I later taught. After a while he began to discuss that he never saw anyone at tournaments do bunkai for their kata. Then he began to explain what bunkai was to him. That was the first I had ever heard of the term, I also learned that the study began at ShoDan and continued with very specific applications though GoDan in his father’s system (that of an Indonesian Shotokan Instructor). Around a year later his own students started becoming ShoDan’s and his explaination became clearer as I shared in their own studies.
About 1982 the karate magazines picked up on the term ‘bunkai’ as used in Japan and before long articles about kata bunkai became the norm. Later I recall reading Americans who returned to Okinawa started asking their instructors about ‘bunkai’ and those instructors did not know what the American’s were talking about. But shortly after they got the idea and began showing ‘bunkai’ for the kata. [Note: this was not about Isshinryu but other systems from Okiawa.]
As I understood the Sutrisno paradigm for ‘bunkai’, one different from other uses that I see from anywhere around the word, I developed a fondness for use of ‘application potential’ as ’bunkai’ had come to have a very specific meaning for me. Later I realized ‘application potential’ was just the beginning. The larger study was moving from ‘application potential’ to ‘application realization’. But that is another story.
So for about 8 years I studied with a wide range of people in many different styles, acquiring some knowledge how to enter an attack and disrupt it in many different ways.
Finally having some understanding how a technique could be used, I began my own study of application potential. And of course at first I began small, and that was a wide range of studies.
Now feeling I had some grasp as to how to find use for a technique, the next idea I tackled was that story about Kusanku Kata having night fighting potential.
I never interpreted it to mean that the fight was group of attackers being fought continuously with the kata. Rather that movements from the kata could have value in night (low level lighting) conditions.
Understand the idea of night does not mean total darkness. Actually night means a variety of different light conditions. From total darkness at one end to daylight bright moonlight at the other, and a whole range of conditions in between.
For one thing I remembered the military used to train soldiers to close one eye when a starshell exploded to retain visual purple and night vision in one eye. The bright light temporarily destroys night vision (visual purple) in the other eye. Not relevant to Kusanku perhaps, but illustrative that night conditions often require different awareness.
Then it helps to understand that in low light conditions, people often respond to pattern awareness for attack. That means holding still can be a way not to be noticed. And then again sound can be use to distract someone moving in the dark, and you can use that to your advantage. Before you discount this as illusionary allow me a brief story.
When I was living in Scranton I hears a story about an instructor, of a large school, that used to have a summer camp for his students. Took them to a campground and they played ninja warrior at night. (and I have participated in some things very similar). But this story had a caution. It seems one of the students sneaking about in the dark, noticed what they felt was another student crouching nearby. Sneaking up on them, they decided to give them a strong front kick (and knowing what some students are like, I can believe it.). To make a longer story short he discovered it wasn’t a student, but a boulder. And he broke is leg. Additionally that instructor terminated his summer camp program.
When I began considering night applications for Kusanku, I started with the beginning section were I was taught to stamp the rear foot on the ground, and then strike in that direction. Using holding in stillness to discourage pattern recognition. Then the stomp of the foot to be a distracting sound, when hearing someone move toward that stamp a strike into their body (or a double strike)
Thus one low level lighting use.
The next likely use I saw was in the section of Kusanku near the beginning where you are moving forward with knife hand strikes. I saw it this way. When in a low level lighting situation, you begin slowly searching your way in the dark. Instead of the standard shuto strike, you begin slowly reaching out with the back hand of the shuto strike (or a haito movement if you prefer), ending that by slowly turning your hand over into the shuto position. Then you slowly step forward and repeat the process. Finally a 3rd time you step forward again, but this time the back of your hand lightly touches another arm. Your hand swiftly turns over in a grasping shuto, using the descending pressure of the shuto formation to draw their arm forward. At the same time you step forward with your right leg quickly, and using the force enhancement of that step to drive your ascending right palm into their arm (to hyper-extend their arm), followed my an immediate collapse of that right fist to become a rapid shuto strike into their arm pit.
Now those were the primary night fighting applications I saw for Kusanku.
No I haven’t forgotten the drop in Kusanku, rather I consider it a special technique.
I don’t advocate dropping to the ground in the middle of a fight and then popping up a little while later to continue to fight.
At the same time I have to ask myself why Shimabuku Tatsuo changed that movement from the way most in Shoin Ryu in the Kyan Lineage do it? Of course I have no special insight into what Shimabuku Tatsuo thought.
For myself I have never thought very much of the way those stylists do that technique. Of course being Isshinryu it is clear it is not my way after all.
Perhaps the simplest answer is because Shimabuku Sensei thought this was a stronger technique. As simple as that.
That section before the drop, where you step out into horse stance with a side strike, and then crescent kick your hand to finally drop down to the floor. I have seen in a variety of different ways.
There are the dramatic high jumping crescent kicks then the drop.
There are the more standard crescent kick to the hand and then the drop.
As I began to explore the uses of that kick, I saw a wide range of possibilities. First a kick as toward their hand/arm (which I considered and discounted as unlikely in a combat situation. Or more likely a crescent kick into their side, more likely when under stress of an attack. But going deeper I began to realize a much lower target, one about 6” above the floor. The use of that crescent kick to strike into their lower leg to distract them, even to the possibility of breaking their leg as a option.
Now to be honest none of these potentials are confined to night combat. But my logic for that section began here.
Concluding the crescent kick that leg can come down between their legs, to be used in a takedown to conclude that attack. A solid reason for grounding an opponent in any case.
Then when on the ground you might look around to see if there is anyone else.
Continuing that the leap to change direction allowing you to look in a different direction also can make some sense.
But to be honest I see, this as more a potential possibility. A lesson in awareness building, than something actually to be used. (Everything was a possibility)
But when I saw one of the variant versions of Tristan Sutrisno’s senior students working their Nijushiho Kata, which included a crescent kick to the hand and then a drop to the floor (This is not the standard in JKA shotokan, so I just chalked it up to a family verson). I could clearly see the same in our Isshinryu Kusanku kata.
But this new version threw in a twist, for the crescent kick was not to strike a hand, but to launch you up and deliver a rear leg thrusting back side kick in the middle of the jump, the possibilities for that movement in Kusanku kata sung out to me. And after that kick was delivered you landed lightly on the floor (as in our Kusanku Kata). Following that you spun clockwise rising from the floor into a left kamae (or preparatory movement).
I learned from observing that movement use.
Further more I had experienced a bit of another of his family arts, namely from his tjimande tradition. Going to the ground was a large part of the way they responded to any attack, day or night, to fight from the ground, or to ground, respond and then to rise to continue against a new attack.
His ground work was very effective, I learned that the hard way. When you have not faced someone so schooled you might well consider such foolish.
Over my years I did learn a few things, I remember one movement where for a kamae I spiraled to the ground to deliver a back heel thrust kick to the groin, then I spiraled counder clockwise to resume my kamae position.
The use of extremely low positions 1) offensively 2) defensively 3)waiting and observing then rising when appropriate is a definite sign other martial traditions use a similar concept.
Of course much of the techniques of Kusanku also are appropriate for anytime use.
This brings to mind so much criticism attached to what some styles use a bunkai.
I do not believe any training is worthless, just perhaps not in the way you just see them as.
It is just that everything is not instantly needed for the student.
Skill takes time to acquire. What is often seen as bunkai for kata is just that skill development for the student to move to a higher level of potential.
If you have time to develop potential (and I am aware there there are a world of different needs out there) then there is time to use kata as a lesson for other things. One cannot do everything at once after all.
But in today’s world where everyone wants instant answers, the reality that every student is simply not ready to learn some things is ignored, by design or perhaps unintentionally)
What I did was teach the kata, then share the story.
Much later to explore those potentials. How and when became an art form requiring closely following the students potential development.
Never did I concern myself by sharing everything I saw. Even with the black belt. Each student had different needs, within their environment.
Of course if had to train a group of night fighters I might have a different answer.