Although in common parlace, the two terms kata and katachi are very similar, in traditional martial arts practice it is a good idea to make a difference between the two. The difference will reflect, I think, a proper attitude about the purpose and function of kata in regards to one’s personal growth in budo and in overall physical, mental and spiritual progress.
I will first admit, though, that this concept is not anything I can say is original to me. I first heard of this concept from the retired Grand Tea Master of the Urasenke School of Tea Ceremony (chanoyu), Daisosho Genshitsu Sen. He was talking about tea, but it fits right into classical budo training as well.
Kata, as Dr. Sen (he holds an academic Ph.D.) said, and my Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary notes, means, “model, mold, matrix, impression, style, type, pattern, make, set form, usage.”
Katachi, Nelson notes, is very similar, and means, “form, shape, personal appearance.”
As Dr. Sen said, kata is not an end in itself; the goal of kata is to reach a certain katachi. He went on to explain, and I here’s how I think it translates from chanoyu to budo practice.
In classical Japanese budo, the practice of forms, or kata, is of paramount importance. You run through a particular “set” over and over again. Now, there are students who reach a certain level of their kata and they’re satisfied with it, and they stop progressing. You should never be entirely happy with your kata as it is. The best students (and teachers) constantly self-criticize their kata in order to get better and better at proper timing, stance, breathing, and physical movement.
In kata training, therefore, the practitioner should never be a “robot,” running through rote forms without thinking. He should be actively engaged mentally in performing the kata the right way, and a better way, during each repitition. This is more easily the case when doing kata in paired forms, such as what you can see in judo, aikido, kendo, or koryu (classical bugei) kata. Your partner keeps you “honest” because each partner will bring a different body type, timing, and distancing to the kata that forces you to constantly adjust your own timing and movements to “fit.” This is the danger of performing solo karatedo kata. All too often, karate students will fall into the “robotic” fallback, without engaging their creativity and awareness in each part of the kata.
It helps, in any case, to have a good model in your mind when performing kata so that you have a goal to strive towards. That’s where a good teacher is critical, because he/she must serve as the model and the conduit for what is “good” kata through actual performance, demonstration, participation as a training partner, and through critiques of one’s kata. DVDs and videos may be helpful as training aids and reminders, but they cannot take the place of such a living, breathing teacher standing right next to you and critiquing your movements.
In performing a kata the right way, you are trying to “mold” your body movements towards a particular way of doing things that is the “right” way, as opposed to what your body may THINK is the “right” way. Striving towards such “naturalness” may actually feel “unnatural” at first. It’s a real Japanese way of looking at body movement training, I think. It’s like training a miniature bonsai plant to look “natural.” There’s really nothing “natural” about forcing a pine tree into a faux wind-swept, assymmetric shape and deliberately miniaturizing its size. Yet, by human intervention, a bonsai becomes a work of art that appears to be the epitome of natural beauty.
In like manner, some students may step into the dojo with serious issues regarding posture and body movements. Maybe they’ve been slouching all their lives and suddenly they are asked to stand up straight. Maybe they duck-walk naturally and lean from side-to-side when they walk, or hunch over and waddle like a gorilla because that’s “macho” in their community.
I’ve said it before and will say it again. Budo is not for everyone. If a student cannot alter his physical state to perform towards the proper model of a kata, he will hit a ceiling and will never progress much farther than the simplest and most basic of levels.
This is markedly different from “sport” budo or “self-defense” budo in their extremes. Hey, if you’re in a mixed martial arts contest and you have the posture of Quasimodo but can knock out your opponent, nobody cares. The goal of such sports contests is not primarily character and physical development (although good teachers in those sports will probably emphasize these as well), but mainly to knock out the other guy, posture be damned. The same goes for martial arts that emphasize “self-defense.” You basically want to learn how to gouge out an attacker’s eyes, to kick butt and survive an encounter, not necessarily to work on proper spinal alignment when drawing a sword out. In some modern versions of martial arts, when you perform kata (or, as some of their exponents call it, “kadda”), you want to dazzle the audience, twirl your sword around like a cheerleading baton, and basically be as entertaining as possible.
Of course, exponents of such kinds of martial arts will demur and counter, arguing that they, too, emphasize proper form. That may be true, and in fact, proper application of techniques do make a difference in achieving peak performance in any physical endeavor, but I don’t think they come near as close to the preeminent position proper kata has in classical budo, especially the koryu, and that may very well be for both good and bad reasons, which I won’t go into right now.
Going back to koryu kata training. When you “do” a kata you are trying to make your body fit a particular “mold” of how it’s supposed to be done. That mold is your teacher, seniors and mentors’ version of the kata, augmented by your own studies about the kata’s meaning and application.
Trying to fit a “mold” is often the extent that most people aspire to or reach when training in non-sportive martial arts. Thus many critics of kata training think it just creates robotic, unnaturally stiff practitioners who really can’t “fight,” or react naturally in a self-defense situation.
There also comes a point when you can actually do a kata that is technically proficient but devoid of spirit. It’s got no heart. It’s like listening to a computer generated rendition of a classical music piece, or perhaps a violin recital by a precocious young preteen. Most of the time (up to now…who knows what the computer will be capable of in the near future?), such attempts are technically pitch perfect, but may lack the unexplainable tenor, imperfections, and minor changes brought on by a mature artist’s own life experiences, mature character and emotions, and humanity.
In such cases, practitioners of kata training, of trying to fit into a “mold,” forget that the ultimate goal of such training is not simply to keep doing kata over and over again, but to use the training to go from fitting into a mold to BECOMING a form or shape, having the right katachi, without the crutch of a mold. You should reach a point where you’re no longer forcing yourself to fit a mold. The “shape” has become internalized. It is no longer kata, it is katachi.
It’s like mold-making in sculpture. You don’t leave your piece of art in the plaster mold and call it finished. You have to take the cast sculpture out of the mold and have it stand on its own. The sculpture will then be released from the kata, or mold, and have its own shape, or katachi.
As in tea, Dr. Sen explained that however nitpicky the training of tea temae (the “kata” of tea) may be, its ultimate goal is not just to perform temae like being stuck in a rigid mold, but to use that training to create the proper “natural” form in one’s body, mind and spirit, to use “kata” to achieve proper “katachi.”
To further explain this transformation, if you train hard enough and in the right way, you don’t have to force yourself to get into “proper” posture anymore; it’s your natural posture now. You don’t have to spend as much time consciously thinking about how to form your fist and strike the centerline, driving the punch with your hip instead of your shoulder. Your body naturally assumes the proper alignment. You no longer need the crutch of a “mold” to remind you how to move your body. It’s already there, it’s already in the proper shape, it’s already an integral part of you. As in a tea performance that looks unrehearsed and natural, but took years to perfect, your kata looks fluid and flowing. It doesn’t look robotic or disjointed anymore.
In truth, this shift to “naturalness” can, paradoxically, take years and even decades of training to attain. It involves not just a physical altering of your body, but a mental sharpening, a spiritual deepening. The mold is not just a physical mold. It is a way of thinking and a philosophy of existence that has been honed by centuries of teachers who have gone on before you, made their own mistakes and corrections, and have passed down physical molds that encapsualate a way to form a mind-body-spirit shape that is the ultimate goal of classical budo training. You have moved from kata to katachi. Or, at the very least, you know what you are really striving for.