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A Whiter Shade of Pale

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It’s happened to all of us – hasn’t it? You’re at a wedding or birthday party and suddenly ‘Wooo-oo-oooo – ooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’ the dulcet tones of Carl Douglas over the speakers signalling yet another play of the 1974 classic ‘Kung-Fu fighting’. A friend or relative rushes up to you to tell you that they have had it played especially for you so you better come and dance. You laugh as though it is the first time it has happened and, depending how drunk you are, attempt to politely refuse, or get up with people asking you to ‘show them some moves’.

It doesn’t matter if you do kung-fu, karate, kickboxing or krav, people not ‘in the know’ think that the song relates to you and to what you do. The meaning of the song, to them, is a representation of something that you are involved in. The song may have a very different meaning to you and maybe a completely different meaning to what the man who wrote it was thinking as he penned it.

Kata is very similar to this. We spend many hours researching the meaning of the movements and can have very different interpretations from each other for the same outward physical appearance. Are any of the applications conceived the same as the ones the originator thought of? How could we possibly know if they were or not? Even if they are, or aren’t, does it really matter?

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As the opponent attacks with a grab/punch, use both hands to ward this off. The knee can be deployed as a strike or to take the opponent off balance
Drop both hands down into the neck
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Take the song ‘A whiter shade of pale’ by Procal Harum, there are huge debates about what this song means, ranging from drink and drugs to penile dysfunction! The author says that he doesn’t know what it means, but is he just not saying, enjoying the debate or does he not want to say for some other reason? Some people say there have been extra lyrics at concerts (thus having special insider knowledge) and that at one point it implies part of the song is about raping a woman! So what is the truth?

The truth is that we don’t know and save a death bed confession, we are not going to find out! This is also the same as kata. Looking at Bassai/Passai we know that the originator is not with us and he can’t tell us the meaning of the movements, we also know that it is very unlikely that any new written evidence will appear to enlighten us on the subject. One bit of evidence that we do have is Funakoshi saying that some

of the movements in Passai/Bassai are ‘Kusariwa’ the ‘Arm Ring’ which essentially is a double leg take down. This is mentioned in Karate-Jutsu (1).

Although anecdotal evidence like this may point toward the original bunkai it may also just be Funakoshi’s own interpretation.When fitting this in with my karate, this interpretation comes in third to two others, one semi stolen and one of my own! So just because there is evidence of what the possible original intention was, it doesn’t stop us looking at the kata to try and find other combative functions. It also means that we don’t all need to have the same function for each move

If we are trying to recreate what the originator intended when he specified the movements we could all well be wrong as there is no way of telling what was in his mind at that point. If we are trying to find workable techniques that can be used in actual self protection, as long as they are thought through properly, we could all be right.

Some movements in kata seem to be very obvious just like some lyrics in songs.

If you take the iconic ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple, it is well known that this is a story of actual events ‘They burned down the gambling house, it died with an awful sound’ is a pretty obvious lyric and with other background information (Ian Gillan’s autobiography for one), we know exactly what it means

This shows us that if we know something about the creator of a specific kata then maybe we

Use the stepping punch as a neck crank
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would be able to better speculate on what the meaning of the kata was when he was constructing it in the first place. We know Itosu invented the Heian/Pinan kata and we know from Funakoshi’s writing that he used to leave opponents face down unconscious (2), so does this help us to work out bunkai in any of these kata? It can help and gives us clues as to the original meanings of the movements, which in turn should lead to good, solid and useable bunkai, but if the inventor was of a different body type, size and/or strength, they still may not be what you want and/or need.

When analysing bunkai there are many factors you have to consider, two of these being the relative size of the combatants and threat level of the attack.

Size is important no matter what anyone tells you (ask any woman who is strapped to a polygraph machine!) In combat there is no way that a smaller person can use some techniques against a much larger opponent, or if they can they would be silly to try. Some throwing techniques spring to mind and before people start throwing (excuse the pun) their arms up in outrage, I know it is all about leverage etc but trying to throw someone of twice your weight in the street using a Tani-otoshi (3) seems like asking for trouble. He actually mentions this himself in the narration before the pictures in Karate-Jutsu (4).

The threat level of any attack will also determine the level of response. I have argued with some people about this but I cannot see how you can justify the same level of force to be used against

someone who is trying to kill you and your family and a relative who has drunk too much and is getting leery at a wedding and or family party (this is usually just before Kung Fu Fighting is requested!)

Looking at it in this way and realising that the inventors of kata knew about fighting, this brings us to yet more questions. Did the originator of the kata decide on one principle for every technique or several dependent on other factors? Take Shuto Uke (knife hand block or sword hand reception depending on translation) for example. In my club this is probably the most prolific source of varied bunkai for a single movement and like ‘a whiter shade of pale’ could mean any of them. As long as they are functional surely it doesn’t matter what ‘we skipped a light fandango’ actually was supposed to mean and is more important as what it means to us and how effectively we can employ it.

Did the creator of the kata have a specific idea in mind for the shuto at the exact point of a kata? Or did he think that this could be used for x, y and z as well as p, q, r, s and t as well? Did he have one explanation, three or five? Otsuka said that Naifanchi/tekki was a profound kata that would take more than a lifetime to master.Was this down to the inventor or was this down to Motobu’s excellent analysis?

If you have ever fallen in, or out of, love then you will probably know that the lyrics to some songs change in your perception. One day the words say one thing to you, the next they are saying something completely different. The

same with applications; perspective is everything. If we look at the movement just after the third yama zuki (mountain punch) in Bassai/ Passai, where you turn 270 degrees into a low stance, anyone who knows judo will have seen it before as a throw. I discovered this at 4.15am one morning many years ago. My daughter was up in the night and I was trying to comfort her to get her back to sleep. She wouldn’t settle and I decided to turn the TV on as she snuggled into me (the way that babies can to make you forgive them anything). The Open University was on (there was nothing else in those days, not like the 24 hour TV culture now) and there was a programme about the structural integrity of pylons. As this went on they showed a judoka throwing someone, then him performing the technique again without the uke, demonstrating the stability in his stance. I stared at it and wondered why I hadn’t seen this technique in that move in Bassai before. It was all a matter of perspective.

I am almost sure that we read more into kata now than was originally intended and that the creators of kata would be impressed with some of the bunkai that has been invented. The reverse engineering method may not be historically accurate and we may end up over analysing everything but as long as the bunkai produced is combat functional, does it matter if the kata masters are sitting on their cloud laughing at our attempts to analyse their whiter shades of pale?

Footnotes


(1) Interestingly if you look at the same ‘throw’ in To-te Jitsu and Karate Jutsu there are variations of the explanations and the names.

To-te jitsu it mentions grabbing the opponent’s arms instead of his legs, saying “when the opponent tries to strike ones face with both his fists, defend and counter attack by attacking with both hands and stepping towards him while attempting to grab both of the opponent’s arms.” P 62

Karate Jutsu says “parry an opponent’s two- fisted attack towards the face with a rising block and then leap in and use both arms to encircle his legs with udewa.” P 55

Are these translation errors or two possible bits of bunkai read into the same thing by the different translators? The two passages, which have been translated from the same text, have very different ideas; this is food for thought for any document that has been translated.


(2) “I now recall a well-known incident when Itosu was set up upon by a group of young toughs, but before long the hoodlums were all lying unconscious in the street. An eyewitness, seeing that Itosu was in no danger, rushed off to tell Itosu about the incident. Interrupting his account, Azato said, ‘And the ruffians, of course, were all lying unconscious, with their faces to the ground, were they not?’ Much surprised, the witness admitted that that was true, but he wondered how Azato could have known.

‘Very simple,’ replied the karate master. ‘No karate adept would be so cowardly as to attack from the rear. And should someone unfamiliar with karate attack from the front, he would end up on his back. But I know Itosu; his punches would knock his assailants down on their faces. I would be quite astonished if any of them survive.’” Karate-do: My Way of Life – Gichin Funakoshi P18-19

If referring between the books, ‘To-te Jutsu’, ‘Karate-Jutsu’ and ‘Karate-do

Kyohan’ you will see that the Kyohan has a different set of pictures for the Tani-otoshi.The Tani-otoshi referred to in this article is called Sakatsuchi in Kyohan.

To-te Jutsu – Gichin Funakoshi P 62

Karate Jutsu - Gichin Funakoshi P 55

Karate-do Kyohan - Gichin Funakoshi P 232


(4) “I will mention, however, taking the technique called taniothoshi (“to drop off a cliff”) as an example, that when one is much stronger than one’s opponent, the technique can usually be executed smoothly and with ease. But when facing an opponent of equal or larger size, there are also times when the technique just will not work and in order to defend oneself one may have no alternative but to “swallow one’s tears and resort to using one’s head as a mallet.” P 53

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