As you travel thru' life you occasionally get a reminder that you aren't simply sitting on the beach in a chair sunning yourself with a bucket chock full of Corona and sliced limes sitting beside you while you drunkenly sing bad conjunto music to yourself.
When I started this blog some time ago I promised to make people think, not necessarily "flinch" per se, but think. I deliberately took this tack because having been in the MA since the late 1960's in one form or another (Aikido and Judo specifically since about '74) I have always noticed that many players adopt a view and sometimes find if difficult to see outside what becomes the norm.
In many regards I'm very fortunate in my MA career. I started in a small town in a community education center working on concrete floors with really bad gymnastics mats that had bad velcro that tore apart every time you were thrown. After finding out about the man who became my primary Sensei for about 20-some years I finagled a job transfer to Houston specifically to be able to train with the Sensei of my first Sensei. Barbara and Dave were fine people but they were not in the same class as someone who was trained in Japan and at the Kodokan and who was a direct student of Tomiki, Miyake, Owaza, Daigo, Kotani, Shimuzu, Kaminoda, Kuroda, etc., etc.
When I found out about his pedigree I made myself two promises; (1) I was getting to his dojo to train anyway I could and as fast as I could get there no matter how long it took and, (2) I would follow his directions no matter what they were or how bizarre they might seem so that I could be as good as he was when he was in his prime. I did the mental math and calculated that he had already done the map-drawing on how to learn so I simply took the map and his compass and followed the path he had already laid out.
If you make me go find the book I will but this week is really cold, I'm at my office trying to talk myself into doing real work and I don't want to go thru' cases of books in my garage to find it so hopefully someone out there will remember this story.
I cannot remember the name of the Sensei who did this but one day (I believe at the Kodokan) he was doing formal Judo kata, quite possibly Nage no Kata. In the middle of a waza (Ippon Seionage I think) his uke had a major brain poot
and attacked out of order. Tori did the correct throw for that "out of order attack" and then threw uke who got up, remembered what he had just accidentally done and then attacked on the left side with the same "out of order attack" allowing tori to complete that right/left sequence correctly and then go on to complete the entire kata. Afterward, the spectators apparently couldn't decide whether or not he had left anything out because there was not loss of momentum, grace or zanshin.
There is a concept called "being in the kata" that old time Sensei mention occasionally just as mine did. What this means is that the principles and the correct structure of each waza is so completely internalized that uke can attack and get the attack for that waza incorrect and that tori can still complete the move so effortlessly that unless the on-lookers understand what they are seeing, they can't pick up on anything done out of order. It just flows like a river and cannot be stopped.
This I think is where all this discussion is coming from (or going to).
If a kata (or even a group of techniques that just doesn't have the "official" word "kata" on the end) is taught and passed down over years and several generations of Sensei then it should be logical to assume the following;
(1) the waza came from somewhere in the past, quite likely an older art from such as Kito Ryu or Daito Ryu and therefore has some level of historical precedent and efficacy and therefore is deemed as having value,
(2) the waza are grouped together as a whole or into sub-groups within that kata because they have a common relationship of form of attack or form of response or base underlying operating principle that is to be shown and internalized,
(4) the kata is to be demonstrated and internalized not solely for simply memorizing waza but for understanding (and being able to illustrate that understanding) of the principles and "flavor" of that kata and of the overall ryu as a whole,
(5) the theme or principle can be illustrated throughout the entire kata (such as Tomiki Ryu Koryu Dai Yon Kata) or each sub-group can illustrate a principle within it-self (such as Koryu Dai San Kata) with all the sub-groups taken together (in the kata in 'toto) showing a broad range of principles while each separate sub-group shows a singled-out and separately distinguishable principle of its' own.
I think that if one considers Judo Nage no Kata or Tomiki Ryu Koryu Dai San Kata or the Seitei Kata from Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo then this should make some logical sense.
My rub (or take on this continual discussion) is that there is two ways to approach learning a kata.
One is to totally immerse ones' self into it with the best sources available and learn the flat template as stated. That is; don't change anything, don't manipulate anything, don't experiment with anything. Make uke do every attack the same and in the correct form and learn the kata rote in exactly the original form as is possible for you given your circumstances (and allowing for lack of access to high level teachers in the case of country dojo but making an effort to train under senior Sensei who know the material). This is why I eventually moved to Houston. I looked up and realized that the folks I started with couldn't take me where I wanted to go which is why I and they both, made many trips over the years to Houston.
The second way in which to study kata is to approach it such that it is always a laboratory with each training session subject to whatever whims accrue at the moment and with an uke who quite possibly attacks differently every time he steps into his gi-pants. The problem here is the same as exists in randori; that is, if you do randori and throw a waza that is really slick and just puts lead in your pencil then it was luck and you will be unable to replicate it a sufficient number of times to internalize it; such is the random nature of randori and if you actually attempt to replicate that "slick" waza then it becomes kata ("pre-set technique").
Kata then allows us to replicate "AN" attack and respond with "A" evasion and "A" kuzushi and "A" termination over and over and over until that moment in the universe is understood and internalized. This is possible only if uke attacks the same way each time and tori responds the same way each time. Randomized and different attacks/responses can so expand what is happening that "seeing" the sequence correctly becomes impossible because every time becomes different in kuzushi, in direction, in ukes' response to the kuzushi and in the specifics of the atemi or joint lock.
Now back to "being in the kata". Once the kata is understood in it's rote form and the underlying principles internalized then you will find that if uke attacks weird one time then the response is there.
It is there because the principles and movements have all been internalized and should uke attack differently then tori is able to make micro-adjustments on the fly without difficulty. At that point ........... you're "in the kata".
NOW ............... once you have the ability to "be in the kata" now's the time to experiment, now's the time to allow uke to do weird attacks, now's the time to make the kata a true petri dish of differentiated movements, ideas and ukemi .............. after you have the template internalized.
So you see ............... I also experiment and allow my senior players to also experiment but I want them to have that pure line first so that no matter how far off-base their experiments may deviate from the principle, they'll always have that bench mark (showing the elevation) to come back to and touch when needed in order to remember where they are (to quote my old Sensei) "in space and time"; else-wise they could wander so far afield that they eventually become lost in a sea of extreme power games or martial "tricks" since at some point the principles will escape them.
Since many players out there at this point likely consider me to be somewhat of a gadfly
then I'll make a proposal for us all.
Draeger and Otaki wrote book many years ago that I kept my copy of. The books' name is Judo Formal Techniques-A Complete Guide to Kodokan Randori no Kata. From what I remember the first half of the book is the kata and the last half is likely the best exposition written on the function of kata and how to study.
I think that for now, it's time for everyone (I'll include me in there) to go back and refresh our memories.
L.F. Wilkinson Sensei
Aikibudokan, Houston, TX