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By Daniel Burbank

A kata is a series of pre-arranged movements following a prescribed pattern. There is an inherent rhythm and pace to the movements, a "beat" if you will. A kata can be compared to a piece of music, as simple as a lullaby or nursery rhyme, or as complex as a symphony.


No one truly knows how the great composers heard their works internally. What we have, from the point of composition onward, is a series of interpretations by learned conductors. As well, no one studying a well-established martial art knows exactly what the creator of a particular kata was envisioning. There is a resurgence of practitioners who are delving into the possible interpretations of each kata. These are the modern martial arts equivalent of the musical conductors.



Karate-feataIn much the same way as a musical composition follows certain principles, such as scale or timing, a kata composition follows certain principles, which include bio-mechanics, physics and geometry. Each component part of a kata movement represents a note, quarter, half or whole. When these notes, or movements, are put together they form phrases, which in combination complete a bar of music, the same way combinations of techniques complete a segment of the kata. As one note leads to another in music, so too does one movement within a kata lead to another.

As well, the pauses between the notes are often as important as the notes themselves. This translates to our breathing, our tension or softness, our kime. These pauses also have their own internal logic within the framework of the music, or of the kata.

The complete kata, from rei to rei (opening bow to closing bow), is the melody. The melody consists of the supporting bass clef of stance, hips and breath, and the treble line of blocks, strikes or connecting movements. How that melody is played depends, like good musicianship, on practice and understanding. In much the same way a musician learns and practices a scale, a martial artist will learn and practice basic techniques.

Once those notes are learned, the scale can be applied to the process of playing a score. When first we tackle a kata we generally approach it slowly, one technique at a time, until we become more proficient. We learn the melodic line first, how the complete tune is to eventually sound. However, to understand the whole we must break it down bar by bar until we're able to put the whole back together: So, too, in kata. We watch Sensei or Sempai perform the kata for us, then begin to break it down into those component parts.

An intermediate kata is like a song, with verses, and a chorus that repeats. This helps us to balance our bodies and our minds by repeating techniques on both sides.

We can compare a basic kata to a short and simple melody such as a nursery rhyme. The tempo is easy and structured, and the tune will tend to repeat itself. It may contain only a few notes in a major key, short and direct, much like a basic kata that teaches us stance, movement, breathing and rudimentary limb techniques within a simple embusen, or pattern.

A senior, or master's kata most closely resembles a classical piece, with variations on a theme, changes in tempo and key, different movements of the symphony representing different aspects of the internal logic of the kata. The layered compositions for bass, strings, wind and percussion translate perfectly into the multiple interpretations inherent in a technique. There is the obvious melodic line, but underneath that there are other notes being played that take both the musician and the listener or observer to a different level of appreciation and understanding.

Classical music is one of the best resources for experiencing the variations great conductors bring to a composition. Here is an excellent example of how all the variations of one kata, Seisan, can be viewed in exactly the same way: http://www.ikigaiway.com/2012/a-historical-walking-tour-of-seisan-kata/

Karate-featbFinally, the concept of "bunkai," or analysis of the intent of the kata, and of the movements within it, can be compared to the idea of improvisation by a musician. Once a musician is completely familiar with the melody of the piece, usually through long practice, he or she may then experiment in a more free-form fashion. This improvisation is based on the melodic structure and the scale, but it may take the music in a new and interesting direction, based on the knowledge, experience and personal inclination of the musician.

This concept can be applied to the study and practice of kata, culminating in bunkai. The karateka's knowledge, experience and ability is tapped to provide a personal interpretation of the technique within the kata.


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