Five things to look for when exploring kata bunkai …

When exploring kata bunkai, I have several thoughts/steps/criteria that I take each kata technique through when exploring bunkai for that technique. For me to consider something a good technique, at least in my mind, the application in question must meet certain criteria.

And certainly, as with any rule, there can sometimes be exceptions. For instance, while Isshin-ryu Karate is essentially aggressive counter-striking, there may be a situation where you must strike first. If so, strike hard and strike fast.

But generally speaking, in karate we are defending ourselves from an attacker … meaning the attack is already underway. In the street, I am not really concerned about winning. I am much more concerned with not losing.

No first strike in karate (Karate ni sente nashi)

People like to argue about the meaning of this phrase, but I do take it quite literally, with the caveat mentioned above. The fact is, you cannot initiate an attack without creating an opening. The question is, does your training allow you to effectively take advantage of the opening your attacker has presented you? Even in the sport karate arena, and with all other things being equal, the toughest fighter to beat is typically the counter-fighter.

#1 – Begin your exploration of bunkai with the attacker moving first.

Remember, Daniel-san, best defense, no be there

Let your stance make you safe. In karate, you don’t fight from a stance. You transition into a stance as you execute a technique. This stance transition can do many things, including generating power or controlling the maai (distance of engagement). It can also break the line of attack, moving you to a stable position where you are safe from the attack and yet remain close enough to execute powerful striking techniques to vulnerable targets. And, if your stance makes you safe, your blocks and parries can be doing other things, such as repositioning your attacker.

#2 – The technique must break the line of attack.

A person’s unbalance is the same as weight

Often, this begins with the stance transition and involves whatever techniques (block, parry, strike, seize, etc.) that accompany the stance shift. At the completion of the initial exchange, the attacker should be either unbalanced or in a position of weakness and unable to protect themselves, or both. I often refer to this as “breaking Sanchin,” and there are many ways in which this can unfold. On the other hand, you should be in a position of strength and balance, with your weapons and their delivery mechanism ready to fire.

#3 – Break your attacker’s Sanchin.

Two hands meet in the air, suddenly enter

Once your stance shift has made you safe, and you’ve engaged your attacker, placing him in a position of weakness, what next? Sensei had two primary concepts here that have always stuck with me.

Light Socket Principle (Hard): With this approach, your attacker should suddenly experience systemic shock. Sensei would explain it this way – If an attacker throws a punch at you, and then immediately feels like he was dragged across the floor and had his tongue inserted into a power outlet, he is not likely to throw that second punch.

No Red Flag” Principle (Soft): Using this principle, if your attacker throws a punch and his brain is expecting a fight, and your technique sends no “fight” signals to back to his brain, but instead sends no signal, this will confuse his brain. His brain will have to analyze that unexpected turn of events. And by the time his brain figures out what is happening, it is already too late.

#4 – Include either the Light Socket Principle or the “No Red Flag” Principle in your technique.

The body must be able to change direction at all times

No “uncooperative” attacker will initiate one attack and then just stand there while you run through your favorite version of the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique! Attackers can and will throw more than one technique. Any solid application of your technique must be able to handle that by either taking the opportunity for a second attack away, or by providing a means to block, parry, or otherwise shut down the next attack.

#5 – In applying your technique, you must be able to handle more than one attack. Look ahead to two or even three.

While this is certainly not a complete, exhaustive, or definitive exploration of what to look at when analyzing bunkai, it provides a pretty good place to start thinking about the application of kata technique and what you should be trying to achieve. It is simply what has worked for me and is a short list of some key elements I look at in bunkai. As with anything in the martial arts, you can always dig a little deeper.