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Articles by Brian Jackson

Thoughts on Kata in the Martial Arts

18 December 2013

If I'd had the talent, I might have become a cartoonist instead of a martial artist. I always loved comic strips in the newspaper and, later, online. As I've followed several artists and listened to what they have to say about art, the term "iconic" comes up again and again.

A drawing of a pipe is not a pipe. A drawing of a person is not a person. The more iconic an artist becomes, the less detail and photorealism goes into the piece. An arm becomes two or three lines instead of hundreds of strokes. Only the necessary details to represent the item depicted are included, and the most masterful artist is the one who can evoke the idea of a subject with as little clutter as possible.

If I may play off of that idea, I think there's a corollary: figure drawing may be more photo-realistic, but it's also less true to life - you wouldn't use it to tell a complete story. It is, in a sense, inflexible. People aren't constantly posing, frozen in time. People are always moving, talking, changing in shape and tone.

In the martial arts, kata (formal exercise composed of precise, predefined sequences of techniques) is falling out of the place of honor it previously occupied. What was at one point considered the all-encompassing encyclopedia is now considered obsolete - a rigid, worthless, unrealistic folk dance. Many experts beg to differ, but on the whole, people aren't training for professional fighting careers or shifts as police officers or bodyguards by stepping through Suparinpei.

Instead, live fighting drills - kumite, literally "grappling hands" - are preferred. "Liveness" - constant motion and improvisation - is emphasized over adherence to ritual and rote.

How can the two be reconciled?

It's my opinion that kata and kumite have the same relationship that figure drawing and sequential, iconic art like comic strips do.

Rarely would someone make the argument that a real self-defense scenario or UFC match resembles a kata closely. But a punch is a punch is a punch. Successful fighters unite technique identical to those seen in kata with the ability to adapt.

This is because kata is our figure drawing. It teaches us to pay attention to details. Where are my feet pointing? Is my elbow out or in? Which part of the hand am I striking with? Where is my weight distributed?

But fighting is a flowing, moving thing. I won't always punch perfectly while I'm really trying to hit someone who's trying to hit me back. I need the essentials - I need to employ the underlying principles without considering every last detail to atomic precision. I need to be, in a word, iconic.

And like the artist trying to decide how a certain pose should look and what parts are vital, unless I understand the details, I won't really know what the essentials are.



In a broad way you are correct in the value of kata in training karate physical form.However, the value of kata is really in the mental discipline developed of the mind exerting complete and precise control over the body's physical strength at all times.Too many 'karate' practitioners look only for the physical athletics of karate training.... it's the mental discipline that distinguishes karate and TMA from the sport / MMA training.


I could certainly agree with that! But that idea needs its own article, I think.

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