Bunkai

A term that should be known by students who study Japanese martial artists, which for some is part of the training whilst for others it is of little consequence and seen as a legacy of the old ways not needed in the age of competition. 

Literally translated it means “analysis or disassembly”, “Bun” means to take apart, to segment and “Kai” means to understand referring to breaking down kata moves into techniques of a fighting disposition to understand them.  These moves are then practiced separately and for some combined into a continuous kumite explanation with one partner and then multiple partners.  Predefined attacks are engaged with defensive moves, counter attacks or just evasive movements based on the kata interpretation.  This allows the students to get a better understanding of the meanings and benefits of kata and realise they are not just a sequence of moves undertaken.         

The question many want to ask, “Is Bunkai relevant and how does it provide benefits to actual fighting”?

The answer depends primarily on what type of Bunkai is taught, how it is taught and with what intensity?  The comment to preserve and promote (Hozon Shinko) divides significantly!  One retains the pass down without development and the other changes this often to the unrecognisable moves of the kata and its original meaning and interpretation.  There is a necessity in both but over influencing undermines the benefits and can make the Bunkai ineffective. 

Too much or only just competition Kumite causing a more one-dimensional style of fighting, acknowledging rules and regulations and not enough open development, especially in the intensity of what happens in real life.  The contrary however is being stuck in the art and losing the martial, another dangerous path.

I am a strong advocate of some exposure to competition Kumite and think it is a must for all Karate students to understand the speed and reaction timing needed to compete along with the control of the nerves to perform under pressure with an opponent you have never met before.  These skills underpin the study of Bunkai done with a sense of reality and pressure.

The concern is the evolvement of Kata for competition where moves become too large and kicking heights for example are Jodan instead of the original Chudan or Gedan.  An example is Jodan Yoko Geri followed by Chudan Tsuki or Empi.  If you kicked an opponent in the neck such follow on techniques would not work.  This asks the question also of the referees, how they judge and their knowledge and understanding of authentic Bunkai!

It is known that repetition creates habit and gradual instincts to read based on the multiple exposure to the approaches.  This is often called the third eye (Sunden), which is part of the principals good Bunkai practised many times, triggers.  This reactionary skill is a core benefit to reality conflict.  Good Bunkai should also train awareness (Zanshin) another much needed principle in reality.  I have listed some benefits as follows to underpin Bunkai relevance if practiced and taught correctly:

  • Fighting drills taught that would not be comprehended without Kata – relationship entwined to understand the matrix of importance
  • Utilising the broad scope of thinking and interpretation from many teachers who have walked before us
  • Short, medium and long distance techniques practiced
  • Against and with kicks, punches and grappling
  • Techniques prohibited in competitions such as head butts, groin kicks, eye gouging, throat ripping, mouth ripping, joint destruction, etc. 
  • Combination moves more akin to reality required
  • Awareness before and after the drill is completed. (Zanshin)
  • Stability and strength (Fudoshin)
  • Structured syllabus to allow the practitioner to develop continuously
  • Interaction with singular and multiple attackers
  • The natural inclusion of weapons in defence and attack

There are many more but all students should be aware that if Bunkai is not practised using authentic techniques, then it does not relate to traditional kata, is not practised with intensity and does not include aspects such as awareness, speed, timing and power.  Without these it just becomes art where the inevitable overconfidence arises with base skills and abilities being poor.  There are some that hide behind the teaching of Bunkai without the doing and many more who make up Bunkai, which has no or limited foundation.  For the serious students of the complete way, they worry about the dilution of traditional authentic fighting forms, losing their true meaning and diluting to eventually become ineffective.  

As I have said, some styles compose their own Bunkai, which for the traditionalist is worrying but it is reasonable to say that as long as it is practised with the core components already listed, value and benefit will be found.  Softer styles will show more body evasion and movement (Tai Sabaki) and harder stronger styles will show more holding of the attack line and using more power (Chikara) in the interpretation.  This is also reinforced in open hand when analysing Nahe Te, Shuri Te and Tomati Te.  The ways independently are different and the Bunkai shows this.  Where there is a cross bread and the pure form is prejudiced the generalisation can be seen and the Sensei’s thinking becomes more dominant.  The worry is a Sensei’s style can over dominate the approach, which can lead to a one dimensional or predictive way of interpretation and movement.  

Body size and capability also play a role in the practise of Bunkai.  Large powerful students instinctively hold the line more whereas those of a lighter smaller disposition move and deploy avoidance and speed of entry with multiple techniques.  This does not detract from Bunkai being a valuable and intrinsic element of martial arts.   The subtlety of deployment and interpretation varies based on body size and ability.  

There are many who consider the retirement from competition to be the end of their study of martial arts and training with refereeing being the only vehicle left for them.  This is a misconception and it at this juncture that should be the start of the next step in the deeper study of martial arts and the authentic ways passed down.  Kata and Bunkai provide this and more and will give a path of study until the clock finally passes.  I remember the very last time when I last saw O’Sensei in hospital and he talked of the journey he had undertaken.  He said he had almost made it to the end of the tunnel but could not quite get there.  This is testament to his serious study for all his life and the appreciation of the three principles so evident in Japanese martial arts, Kihon, Kata and Kumite, underpinned and entwined with the study of Bunkai.

The relationship between Kihon, Kata and Kumite is the bedrock of good Bunkai.  Techniques should be consistent from Kihon and enforced in Kata and the practise of Kumite connecting and interacting with Bunkai.  For many Bunkai is not undertaken with this relationship being consistent and poor stances (Tachi Kata) and unnatural attacks are common.  To see the Bunkai from a student is also to see the style and the teacher’s way and thinking.  The mirror never lies.  The simple matrix is a reminder of the relationship between all the key component

In the study of Karate there is competition but for Kobujutsu there is not in the sense of freestyle.  However, this does not dilute the study and moreover this endorses the study of Bunkai and training to take the use and understanding of weapons to a greater height and deeper study.  Moving closer to the edge and knowing a mistake will costly badly needs concentration and a serious disposition.  This is the way for the serious who feel the nerves and real threats that exist.  

Historically we can find Sensei Shinken Taira for example showing Bunkai with Sensei Kenwa Mabuni in Karate and being both the attacker (Seme) and the defender (Uke).  Whilst most know Sensei Taira for Kobujutsu it is refreshing to see him also doing Karate Bunkai with other well known Sensei of the past.  This endorses the need to study open hand and weapons Bunkai and not let the pass down of history slip through our fingers, lost forever!

*  A cautionary note

I am aware from my on going studies into Kata and their origin that some were created rapidly, too rapidly to have such deep meanings for Bunkai.  This needs to be recognised!  Also many of the old Bunkai passed down are relatively short and direct set against the thirst for more complex meanings most look for and expect now.  I would also acknowledge that too many look for Bunkai in every move, not recognising that they never originally existed. 

The lack of understanding of authentic Bunkai is not just an issue in the west, in the east it is also common.

Literature is overwhelmed with Bunkai interpretations most of which have no or limited historical connectivity.  This has caused a chasm between the original wanted interpretation and the approach now.  This has been further exacerbated by the lack of historical visual or written handed down Bunkai to authenticate.          

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