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Immutable Kata

Are kata immutable? "Immutable" means "unchangeable; changeless."

Some people like to say that kata are like the mountains.

But even as you look, the mountains are changing. They are eroding due to the wind and rain. Plants are growing, causing cracks. Landslides happen from time to time due to earthquakes and the weather. The mountains are always changing. One day they might be completely gone and new mountains will rise somewhere else.

So kata, if they are changeless, really are not like the mountains.

If kata are changeless, when is this measured from? It is easy to say that a kata has not changed for 10 years, but how about 50 years, 100 years, 500 years?

I practiced Matsubayashi-Ryu for many years. I think that we had pretty immutable kata. And yet when I compared film footage from the 1960s with the kata of the year 2000, there were differences. Had the kata changed? It certainly looked like they had, even if in only small ways.

I now practice the Kishaba Juku form of Shorin-Ryu. We do kata many ways. There really is no one single way to perform a kata. How a student performs a kata depends on the student's level and his grasp of body mechanics. It may also depend on the assumed circumstances -- night, rough terrain, ideal ground, etc. Kata can even be practiced in a drunken-like manner.

Sometimes my Sensei will notice that students are having a difficult time with a certain movement. He might design a modification so that the students will do the movement correctly. Once the students can perform the movement correctly, he might let the movement revert to the normal form.

I have a very open attitude about kata. Why? Because I practiced them strictly for many years and did not experience good results. If you can learn to move properly, then the form of the kata does not matter very much. But if you are moving improperly, then even a 1000 year old kata form will not help you at all!

I do think it is important for there to be a main form for a kata. Otherwise, the students will be confused. And it is nice for the students to be able to perform the kata together and at least look similar. But this is a minor concern. Learning to move properly is the goal.

I will give you some examples of change in kata. You are supposed to step and punch. There are many ways to alter the timing of the step and punch and of the shifting of weight and setting. You could step and then punch, step and punch together, or even punch and step -- and all variations in between. Your punch could be at chudan level, but could just as easily be at jodan or gedan levels-- and all points in between.

My Sensei says that each movement in a kata represents a range of possible movements. If you can do the movement well, you should be able to do each movement in this range equally well.

Of course, I do not teach this to beginners as it would be too confusing. But after a few years, students are ready to learn the versatility of their kata.

Immutable or versitile? Should kata be a prison or a stairway?


Charles C. Goodin