Sometimes things just don’t go as you planned it. Or, as the Scottish poet Robert Burns would say, “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley (often go astray).”
In my last blog, I stressed the importance of repetitious training in order to be “natural.” Kata training is really glorified repetitive drill training (well, it’s more than that, but mainly it’s drilling) that is supposed to embed movements and reactions into your body and mind so that you don’t need to spend precious amounts of time cogitating over whether or not to block, say, a sword stroke at your head or scream like a little girl and just die. Hopefully, through such training, you won’t curl up and die should the actual time arise.
On the other hand, you may have trained incessantly for a specific action, but when the time comes, the situation is not quite right and your technique needs to be altered in order for it to work. For martial artists who have a component of training with a resistive partner (as in “sparring”), “catch as catch can” action-reaction is nearly second nature. No partner is going to let you apply that choke hold perfectly without resistance in judo mat work, for instance. So you improvise. For kata-based training, however, developing this ability to improvise is a bit more problematic, but still important nevertheless. Not everyone is going to come at you with a perfect forward-leaning stance so you can throw him magnificently in a kote-gaeshi, for example. In a self-defense situation, you may have to improvise a lot to get that throw to work.
Although in kata geiko (“forms” training) it’s best to try to perfect the kata as is, unless the practitioner is aware of the possibility of your partner “breaking” the form and going at you in a different way, you’re just going through the motions. You don’t have the right frame of mind of being focused on executing the right counter to the right attack. That’s why solo kata exercises are great for developing your own stance, balance and timing, but it’s a good idea to also include partner-based training or some form of free exchange. For kata based systems, going overboard with “free exchange” might taint the style with too much emphasis on sports budo. But sans that, working in kata with different partners who have different heights, weights, timing and attack patterns are a decent way to develop the ability to adjust one’s form.
Thus, if you look at the few solo-type kata styles, such as iaido, karatedo or even a Chinese art like Tai Chi Ch’uan, the solo exercises are always augmented in some way with partner-based training. You never know what a partner will think of doing, even in a regulated exercise. Your distancing, angles of counter and attacks will change according to one’s partners.
The ability to improvise is not absent in traditional Japanese budo. It’s there, but most beginners don’t know about it because the emphasis in the beginning is on getting the form right. Later, when the “form” is inherent in your moves, you should be able to “break” the form yet still move within the framework of what you learned in the style.
Let me explain by drawing on a term and examples from a different art, the Way of Tea, or chanoyu. Japanese tea ceremony is concerned with seemingly infinite minutiae of details of movements and timing. Many of my tea teachers hammer me incessantly in practice if my arms are just one degree to high or too low when I’m holding the tea whisk. Each temae, or form of tea, has to follow very rigid steps, rules and movements. Yet, when you host an actual tea event, a chakai or chaji, any number of things can go wrong, throwing your performance off kilter. What do you do? You can’t very well tell the guest, “Oh, well, this room is not the right size for the amount of steps I’m supposed to take to get to the kettle, so I’m cancelling the ceremony.”
No. You improvise. You take smaller or larger steps, or you add or subtract the amount of steps you take. The hot water in the kettle may not be hot enough for the tea when you start your temae, so you slow down your preparation to let the water heat up before you scoop the tea and add the hot water. In tea, this is called hataraki, a word from the Japanese verb for “work.” Literally, you “work” the problem out. You improvise.
It’s assumed that by the time you’re capable of putting on a chakai, you have had enough experience in practice and in assisting at other people’s chakai to learn how to improvise, or do hataraki, when things don’t go as planned. In kata training, the same attitude holds true. You should have enough training to eventually improvise should the moment call for it.
Be careful, however, how you try to improvise in kata training. There’s a good way and a really, really bad way. A bad way is to use it as a kind of one-upmanship, to show how you can tag your partner who is trying to learn a kata properly when you don’t follow the kata form yourself. Sometimes that will work and you can feel superior to your partner. Sometimes it can backfire very, very badly.
One of my acquaintances once told me of a time when a training partner had come at him during a complex kata and deliberately swung his bokken (wooden sword) at his head at the wrong time, in the wrong way. The bokken was coming fast and furious. My friend, who had decades of training, reacted by instinct. His jo (short staff) went up from a low position where it should have been to block the expected low strike, it whipped the bokken away and the tip came down square on the partner’s head, literally right between the eyes. Bam. The partner went down like a ton of bricks, on his rear end, nearly unconscious.
A better way, perhaps, would have been if his partner had said, look, let’s take apart this kata at half-speed. I’m going to “break” the kata at some points and react in a different way that might still make sense, tactically, and let’s see if we can figure out alternative defenses and attacks? Let’s work on this together.
Such an investigation might have led to insights as to why the kata was set up the way it is.
In solo kata like in karatedo, you might take apart a form, say such as Annanko, and say, okay, sensei’s bunkai here is that it’s a turn and block against a punch from someone attacking to your rear. But what if the guy in front of you holds your arm? What if it’s not a punch but a kick? How would I improvise as I am turning? …And then you work it out at half speed first, trying to see what works, what won’t. Stick to the theory of the kata but change your reaction. So for example, if you turn and use a chuudan uke, maybe you turn the same way but try a gedan barai uke. Does the theory of turning and blocking still work? Can you improvise with what you know about body turning, balance and deflection blocks?
The fact that not all opponents will react the same way impelled many kata-based systems to add what are called henka, or variations, to their basic kata. That also explains, at least in my own jujutsu school, why we have so many kata. Actually, we have a limited set of body movements; it’s just that over the centuries, the system developed variations and variations of variations of the same defense if the attack came at a different angle, position or distance.
In one kata, for example, an attacker strikes and you deflect the punch, lock his elbow in an arm lock, and then step to his front, leading him to his front and throwing him forward so he takes a forward roll. But what if he doesn’t want to do a forward roll? In a kata right after this one, instead of throwing your partner, you feel his resistance to the role and instead step in and sweep his front foot so he falls flat on his face. And there’s yet another kata with the same initial movements, but this time the attacker, upon being forced down, fights against the throw and tries to stand back up, arm bar or not. So then there’s a leg sweep throwing the person on his back. One initial attack, one reaction, but depending on how the attacker reacts to the first application of the lock, three different scenarios.
By having a skillful partner who can react properly as “uke,” you can train in these three forms and develop a sense of “feel” as to what would work under such scenarios in reality. These examples help to build in hataraki in martial arts that are primarily forms based.
And one of the best ways, as my teacher told me, to develop this sense of improvisation in a kata-based system is to occasionally do embu. For those who aren’t aware of this term, embu is a kind of “demonstration.” But it’s more than just showing up at kid’s day at the local shopping mall to demonstrate your karate school’s children’s class. Koryu embu are serious stuff back in Japan. When different koryu ryuha (schools) get together, there’s a feeling of camaraderie, but there’s also an underlying sense of competition. You don’t want to look like cow poo compared to the other schools. So you do your best.
As one koryu practitioner told me before she went up to perform her naginata embu, “I’m off to battle.” I thought she was joking. But no, her kata didn’t look like it was just going through the motions. It looked like if her partner didn’t get out of the way, he would be in a serious amount of hurt, even though the naginata was wood and not sharpened steel.
Her kata looked magnificent. At the end of the kata, she bowed to her partner stoically, they walked off the embujo (performance area), and then very quietly she said, “Dang it, he went thataway instead of thisaway, and he nearly took off my head. So I had to block that cut and whack him in the shins to make him realize his mistake.”
So the kata done in an embu is intense. My sensei encouraged me to choose quality embu to participate in, now and then, because “one embu is like 10,000 regular practices.”
Or, as another person said of his first embu, “Holy shit, he came at me like it was shinken shobu (a duel with live blades) so I thought, okay, I’m going to give as good as I get.”
Thus, another reason why serious embu is good for training is because so many things can just go totally wrong but you can’t just stop in the middle of a kata. If you’re used to working on a smooth hardwood floor in the dojo, doing kata swinging solid wooden swords on an uneven, grassy and rock-strewn field can really test your concentration and balance. There’s bound to be mistakes, slipped feet, and missed targeting. So you get good at improvising. You do some hataraki.
At one embu, I complimented a student of a sword art. I had never seen that particular kata of that school, I said, but it looked really good.
“Yeah, well you’d never seen it before because we don’t have it!” he said. “My sensei was totally out to lunch. We started off in a kata and then he just lost his sense of where we were. Maybe it was too hot and his brains were fried. He came at me with something when we should have ended it! So I blocked it and looked at his face, and his eyes told me he was on autopilot. He came at me again with a strike and I blocked it again, and we went on and on until I finally whacked him HARD on the wrist. That kind of woke him up and we just stopped, finally.”
While he said it was a weird experience, it was also telling in that the student was trained enough to quickly improvise and block all the cuts directed his way. He was doing hataraki, without stopping the kata and bawling, “No! You got it wrong!” You can’t do that in an embu, and you can’t do it in a battle.