...what fight skill is it really training? How does it help anyone learn anything concerning fighting?...
Previously, I posted clips of judo's nage no kata, in which the attacks and defenses are rather exaggerated and symbolic. I posited that these kata were not really meant to build a lot of strength or to directly develop fighting reflexes, but to teach the principles of the art to the mind through the body. But thinking it over, I realize that your ideas about kata as developers of free-fighting reflexes do actually apply to the kata of karate. And that comparison is probably what Matt Thorton is thinking of, too, since that was the dominant art when Bruce Lee set down the dogmas of jeet kune do. It was the best known art and the one against which he was compared. He was introduced to the martial arts world at a karate tournament.
I began my martial arts training with karate, in 1972, with a guy who had a picture on his wall of himself in a group with Mas Oyama. Next, I trained with one of Mas Oyama's direct American students. I hold no rank in karate, but through the years, I trained in karate through the yoseikan curriculum, learning the five heian katas and Mochizuki Sensei's happo ken no kata. I taught myself bassai and tekki shodan from books and at points trained with a former Navy UDT who had lived in Japan in the late 1950s and trained at the shotokan hombu for some time with Hirokazu Kanazawa in 1957, when Kanazawa became All Japan Karate champion. This teacher taught me tensho and sanchin. Another direct student of Mas Oyama taught me the kyokushin kata, yontsu.
In fact, karate katas do focus on actual fighting applications and on building strength and endurance. But it is wrong to say that they are dead patterns without live meaning. And I will illustrate the truth here with a series of clips that show some extremely interesting things about kata and free fighting. First, I'm going to reference one of the most basic kata of karate: heian shodan, here demonstrated by the great Hirokazu Kanazawa, who, to my knowledge, is still teaching today at age 79. Here, he shows only the form. The question I'd like you to consider is, "What is he doing to ‘the other guy' with those movements? What are the techniques?" But for the sake of discussion, I'd like to consider application only for the first move of the form.
Hirokazu Kanazawa, heian shodan
So what is he doing with the very first move? What attack does he visualize when he makes that move?
It's commonly taught as a downward block against a front kick from the karate man's left side. The downward block is followed with a step into a front punch.
But if you think for a moment where the "downward block" puts your body and how it would work against the attacker's leg, it means that the kick was never coming anywhere near where you were standing before the downward block. So the attacker is not attacking with a front kick if the kata is really addressing a fighting movement. Why go out of your way to bang your forearm against the shin of someone whose kick would not touch you otherwise????
So the first move is not a defense agains a front kick from the side and the question is, what attack does Kanazawa see himself defending against with that first move?
Let's say that, in fact, the attacker is standing very close to Kanazawa's left side and he punches with his right hand to the side of Kanazawa's head. Can you explain how that same first movement of heian shodan would function if that were the case?
That's where kata begins to open up. Consider that the attack is not what you've thought, then consider all the other possible attacks and how each movement would relate to various likely attacks.
For real fighting, on the other hand, here is the "tiger" of the shotokan, K. Enoeda, a contemporary of Kanazawa's, who broke Frank Smith's jaw with a front kick.
Here Enoeda demonstrates, tekki nidan
And here Kanazawa does the same form:
Anyone should be able to see the completely different qualities of the heian shodan form and the tekki nidan form. Each of the first five heian katas is similar to the others, but each is also distinctly different in nature. Moreover, watching Kanazawa and Enoeda do tekki nidan, it's easy to see that each man does all the movements essentially the same, quite without personal variation or expression, but each man's personality still shows itself through the uniform movements.
But how does this relate to fighting? Well, here is something I never expected to see (YouTube has changed the world):
Kanazawa vs. Enoeda kumite
I find that one fascinating, with several moments well worth considering. Keep in mind that it is probably fifty years old. And with that in mind, do you see anything in that clip that might have been the inspiration for some of Bruce Lee's screen mannerisms ten years later? I do.
Best to you.