In kata, less is more
When bunkai sneeks in.
Recently while watching a group of students demonstrating a kata I noticed that a common theme was starting to appear in various movements. What I noticed would have made no difference to anyone who might have watched with an untrained eye, but to me all of the telltale signs were clearly evident. There was no doubt about it, "bunkai" was beginning to appear in many places. It was apparent that at the next class a clear reminder of what is appropriate in kata, and what is not, was definitely in order. The last thing any student needs is for the blending of kata and bunkai to become a trend.
The use of bunkai certainly has its place, especially when the objective is to give someone a “purpose” for any of the particular movements and techniques that are found in any of the 26 the katas in the modern Shotokan Karate system. Issues only arises when students start to get what I call, "bunkai happy". This occurs when they start thinking, or being taught, that their kata will benefit if they show more "purpose" in some of movements. In fact, quite the opposite is true. This inclusion only makes the practice or the performance of any kata far more complex than it needs to be, and it does nothing to enhance the katas outward appearance.
Now the first time a student starts their journey down the bunkai happy road can often occur as early as white belt. This is because in order to help a new student begin to understand the reason behind the various kata movements, it is common for them to be told to try and "visualize an imaginary opponent". The reasoning behind this methodology is because visualization can often be very helpful, especially when students are learning something new, or complex. To aide in this it is common for the student to begin to train with a partner who will play the role of an attacker. This injects a physical entity to replace what up until now had only been a vague thought in the student’s mind. In this way when their partner attacks, the student’s correct specific response will result in physical contact giving the defender a real “feel” for the various techniques under review. It is this partner-based training that often leads to students to add a visual demonstration of a specific application when doing their kata, this is referred to as, adding bunkai.
Make no mistake I firmly believe in teaching bunkai to all grade levels, but there is a time and a place for everything and a student’s desire to add bunkai into their practice of kata is not one of them. The goal of kata is simple. To perform the required techniques and movements as they were laid down by past Masters, without any added visual attempt to add explanation. The difficulty often lies in trying to get a student to understand the importance of that simple fact. Hopefully, however, over time and with proper guidance from a qualified instructor the correct approach to kata will ultimately evolve.
So, take my advice. Empty your pockets of all the things that are not needed prior to practicing, or publicly performing your kata. Because, when it comes to watching a good kata, far less is definitely more.
Remember: "Without the body, mind, and spirit working in harmony, kata is an empty hollow thing indeed".