The Representation and the Represented: Applying Organizational Schema to Kata

This is a continuation of some ideas presented in the post The Representation and the Represented. Reading the first installment will provide the background information for the concepts explored here.

Kata as Algorithms

Moving down through these three schema, the major practical implications are the degree to which the training method resembles/prepares one for actual conflict, and the degree to which the student is taught to think for him/herself with regards to interpretation. In the case of kata as an algorithm, prescribed applications are understood to be the practical meaning of the gestures. These may be taught as part of a required organizational syllabus, or be derived by independent instructors. This level of interpretation seeks to use a portion of a kata in its exact form to counter an attack. There are two common ways that students learn these:  executing a specific application against a specific attack (ie, one-step sparring), or there may be a multiple-technique exchange of attack and defense, a ‘set’ that students perform together. A series of such drills might be taught alongside a corresponding kata.

The nature of these attacks will necessarily be highly artificial because of the complicity required from both participants, and the mutual usage of “in-system” technique. An application calling for a single stepping straight punch as an attack will not function if the attacker shifts in and throws an uppercut.

Algorithmic interpretation produces models of skills inspired by fighting, but the models are not an exact representation of actual fighting. By their nature, these interpretations require complicity and highly artificial attacks. The scenarios should not be understood to be realistic depictions of how to counter a violent assault, or the form that a violent assault will take. They may provide a framework for students to develop improvements in contingent areas such as balance, coordination, targeting etc. However, practice of the content of the applications themselves is not sufficient preparation for actual conflict.

The familiar “3 K’s” (Kihon, Kata, Kumite) training model that is adhered to in some schools is a good example of this scheme. In this pedagogical model, the three areas are said to be inseparably interlinked; however, kata applications, if taught, rarely appear in kumite. Kihon training is not in itself fighting, nor is it highly representative of the movements found in a fight; kihon are an algorithmic representation of punches, kicks, etc. As such, kihon training is not sufficient preparation for the conditions of actual fighting, although it may develop some of the necessary skills (listed above) for negotiating a physical conflict, albeit in a tangential way. Successfully applying kihon techniques to defend/counter other kihon techniques is an example of the algorithm at work; both sides are working within the boundaries of the representation. When these techniques fail against untrained persons, or martial artists of other backgrounds, it’s because the algorithm is being applied to a situation in which the other is not working within the boundaries of the representation. For these reasons, this stage is useful for beginners but may be detrimental to the development of more experience students. Endless “polishing” of basics is not in itself an effective martial pursuit, and any claims about character development are highly questionable.

Kata as Heuristics

In the case of kata as heuristics, the gestures within the kata are interpreted as responses to various types of attacks, although the gestures/passages do not necessarily have strictly prescribed meanings. The student may be presented with the kata or portions of it and encouraged to “discover” the application values. Different types of gestures are understood to correspond to different application values, and there may be multiple corresponding values depending on the context of the gesture. The values assigned in this way may be based on observations of violence, or they may be derived from an attempt to “make the kata work.” In that light, this schema is concerned with reverse engineering the kata.

For example, in passages where the hands come together, a seizing or joint manipulation technique can be assumed by someone with sufficient experience in randori or a grappling and seizing method. If a kick follows this gesture, the sequence can be interpreted as first controlling an opponent so as to kick him in a vulnerable area. If the kick is usually performed as a high, face level kick, the student may realize that such a kick would not be feasible against a target that is very close and has been controlled with the hands. In this case, the student may decide that a mid-level or low kick is a better representation of the application. A student with no experience of close-range seizing may interpret the same gesture as an exotic block or something more fantastic (for example, the hand ‘clap’ in Nijushiho is explained by some as making a noise to ‘distract an opponent’ before blocking a low kick, which makes very little sense outside of the fantasy realm).

An excellent example of the heuristic model is the Fukien “sink, float, spit, swallow” model of kata interpretation (as advocated by Harry Cook). Each term is a strategy for overcoming an attack or neutralizing an attacker. For example, sequences involving low straddle stances (kiba dachi, shiko dachi) suggest that the application involves dropping your center of gravity and/or the opponent’s (sink). Rising techniques, or those with opposing vertical hand movements, imply uprooting an opponent or manipulating a limb to cause him/her to lost control of their center of balance (float). Striking sequences, or those that correspond to throwing techniques, imply that the defender is actively projecting force into the attacker (spit). Circular or sweeping blocking gestures imply deflecting an attack but allowing it to continue moving in order to manipulate the limb or create a target (swallow).

If the resulting application is too contrived to work in a free exchange, another heuristic can be applied to produce a different, more plausible application. For example, if a sequence consists of what appears to be three blocks in succession without a strike, and the suggested application involves blocking the same attack three times without countering and then turning to face another attacker (which requires an attacker who is participating in the algorithm to be successful), a student may decide that “block” is not an appropriate value to assign to all of the gestures. To correct this, the heuristic of hill climbing (approaching the goal [functionality] through a series of steps that increasingly resemble the goal), can be applied. Some of the blocks are interpreted as strikes or joint manipulations, and the turn as a throw or sweep of the same attacker, producing something that bears more of a resemblance to fighting. Training in partner drills derived through this process builds skills related to managing violence, and the encounters are less artificial than those derived through algorithmic interpretations; however, the drill is still a representation that requires a certain level of complicity from both partners to work.

Kata as Mnemonics

In the case of kata as a mnemonic, the student learns skills related to fighting via a process of investigation and reflection. Partner drills (including those drawn from the previous two classifications), open ended games (in which both participants have differing goals, with varying limitations for achieving them) free sparring, randori/grappling and where relevant, previous violent encounters can provide experiences from which a student “discovers” a lexicon (vocabulary) of useful skills and responses to situations found within fighting. Within these activities the student has repeated chances to experience the success and failure of skills that they have been taught, and to experiment with skills that they have derived independently.

As these are reflected upon, the student may recognize that gestures within a kata are analogous to the unnamed/unsorted contents of their lexicon. The kata can then be used as a repository for the skills and techniques that a student has “discovered.” In this way, the kata becomes a non-verbal representation of fighting skills unique to the student. Once a student has begun to catalog experiences this way, heuristics can be derived for interpreting unfamiliar kata, or similar contents within other kata. This can be taken a step further, in that algorithmic drills can be created from experiential knowledge to expose a student to specific skills or contexts. This is balanced by the understanding that “However expressive, symbols (within kata) can never be the things that they stand for.” It’s important to note that a mnemonic usage of kata does not automatically mean a student has/will develop skills that are a close match for actual fighting- the experiences that inform the development of their lexicon will determine its contents.


3 responses to “The Representation and the Represented: Applying Organizational Schema to Kata

  1. Beautifully written article. Kata does have numerous benefits apart from simple technical development. In Tae Kwon Do, kata helps to develop what we refer to as the “six factors of power.” These factors [speed, mass, equilibrium, concentration, breath control, and reaction force] are the pillars to our art. Kata provides a very efficient means of training both the technical and conceptual aspects of Tae Kwon Do. The same can be said when training with various ninja weapons. Kata is truly a mainstay for traditional art forms.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. I tend to feel that kata offer the most benefit as a mnemonic tool rather than a mainstay of training. Factors like power, speed, mass, balance and stability are better developed through other means of training, kata are an end-result. Never tried the ninja weapons, since ninjas are of course invisible and I’ve never actually seen one.

  3. These models of kata analysis perhaps can be applied to other martial encoding encryption forms around the world-

    52 Blocks- origin of Breakdancing

    Ahati Kilindi Iyi showing combat applications of African dance:

    Alexander Ivanovich Retuinskih showing applications of Cossack dancing moves (see Part 2- however the rest of the seminar is also good- shows wristlocks, ukemi, weapon use- in English and Russian). I also commented about him in the last post in this series.

    Part 1

    Part 2 (starting at 10 min- he shows the move “Playing the Accordion” and some of its applications – then he moves into other stuff)

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