Reversing kata movements in application

There are one or 2 moves in goju kata where I “reverse” the direction of stepping/movement while performing bunkai (applications). I’ve often wondered whether —

(1) the kata were deliberately designed that way “as a code” (something I think is a bit overstated nowadays); or
(2) the kata were deliberately designed that way for an application I haven’t seen; or
(3) the kata were deliberately designed that way for training or symbolic purposes (eg. stepping forward on the last move in gekisai dai ichi — said to reflect the “boldness” of the kata), not for any particular bunkai; or
(4) the kata have been wrongly passed down in respect of a particular move.

Consider the following move from sanseru kata at about 7:38 in the following video of Higaonna Morio sensei.

In most kaiha it is performed as a leg catch with a step back — see the following video at about 0:48: (note however that I would personally prefer a leg catch on the other side, but the move is the same in principle).

Over the years I have found leg catch matched with a backward step is consistent with application in a dynamic context: I regularly catch my opponent’s leg in sparring. I’ve even noticed that it happens in MMA bouts etc.

However the problem with this application is that the kata is performed with a step forward at the point of the “sukui uke” or scooping block which is used to catch the leg. It is my considered opinion that it is practically impossible to catch a kick as it is moving toward you and you toward it. You’re likely to jam and break your fingers since the leg is still accelerating.

However if you step back and let the kick reach its full extension, the outward speed will be exhausted. Since snap-backs are often neglected (especially by beginners), the kick’s backward velocity, if any, is often such as to permit a catch. The logical point of a leg catch therefore seems to me to be at or near the conclusion of the outward part of the kick. To do this you need to evade the kick, meaning a backwards step of some kind — not a forwards interception. Besides, the leg catch with a step back is a common technique in the Chinese martial arts from which karate descended: consider this picture (to the left) of a technique that can be applied as a leg catch.

Tou’on ryu and some goju-ryu kaiha such as Meibukan and Goju-kai make sense of the leg catch by going right down to the ground and scooping at the ankle. While this makes sense of the step forward, I’ve always felt that any “diving attack” must be a secondary application of a kata move. It is not often I have been tempted to dive for my opponent’s feet: I feel it is a risky proposition at best. Instead, I would have thought that the primary application of the “sukui uke” or scooping block is as a leg catch.

The Goju-kai sanseru

So how can one reconcile the forward step with the needs of the “leg catch” application? Is it code? Is there another application? Is it just symbolic? Or is it just plain wrong? I’m going to discount the second and third options: there appear to be only 2 principal applications (any others would be variations) and the footwork is consist with at least one of them (albeit not my favoured application). So is it a code or is it “wrong”?

As you will see in the video embedded below, my best guess at this point is that the kata move is most likely a design compromise caused by the fact that the kata designer always intended to include both a step back and leg catch application and a step forward diving attack to your opponent’s ankle. Unfortunately the kata can’t do both at the same time, so the designer had to adopt a certain methodology to encapsulate or “permit” both applications within the movements of the kata. I feel this methodology is quite evident once you examine the kata movements closely. Loosely speaking, the methodology might be described as a “code” — although not a code in any secretive or cryptic sense. Rather it is “code” in the sense of a design (and hence interpretive) methodology, borne out of necessity. As I will note below, I don’t know whether a conscious awareness of the “code” is at all necessary for the kata to function as both an effective method of inculcating (“grooving”) certain body movements and as an “encyclopaedia” of techniques.

You will note that the scooping technique is immediately preceded by a breakout from a wrist grab — performed with a step back. However it seems to me that the step back is arguably unnecessary for the purposes of the breakout. The breakout, when done correctly, doesn’t require a great deal of strength or body movement, and accordingly the step back speaks of a certain amount of “overkill”. Could the step back have originally been done at the point of the leg scoop rather than the breakout? In other words, is it possible that the breakout was originally done first, followed by a step back with a leg scoop, followed by a forward step as part of an attack (the kicks etc. that follow)?

Clearly you could do the kata this way. It would make perfect sense of the leg catch. But if you did so, you would be robbed of the option of stepping forward with the diving attack. As much as I don’t favour the latter application, I have to acknowledge that it has its place in combat. I’ve seen grapplers applying diving attacks very effectively against “stand-up” fighters. It also flies in the face of goju-ryu tradition: no kaiha performs the kata this way. Neither does goju’s sister school tou’on ryu (which, as I have said, emphasise the diving attack to your opponent’s ankle).

With this in mind I have come to the conclusion that the kata designer chose a compromise: step back with the breakout (which might be necessary with a strong attacker) but step forward with the catch. Either way, your body is still grooving roughly the same sort of tenshin or taisabaki. Once you realise the applications you appreciate that whether you step back or forward at the exact point of the leg scoop doesn’t make a great deal of difference to the mapping of the neural pathways that enable you to apply the technique. The fact the practitioners gravitate to a step back during the leg catch, and do so unconsciously despite grooving the kata, speaks volumes of the genius of the designer. Yet the diving attack option remains.

I think that as compromises go, it isn’t a bad one...

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic