Creating a kata: Part 1

Recently one of my colleagues on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum referred us to the "24 Fighting Chickens" site which contains useful advice on "How to create a kata".

Now not everyone who creates a good kata was himself/herself a world beater or the most knowledgable. I've maintained before that kata is like a poem or piece of music (see my article "Kata: art or science") however not every kata has to be an "Eine kleine nachtmusik" to be effective.

I think what I found odd about the 24 fighting chickens article was the tone which suggests that everyone can and should make up kata - like those form competitions where you are judged on your own creation.

That said, the advice was fairly good and I actually have nothing against making up kata. Someone had to make up the originals! In fact I'm all for creativity. It's just that in any creative art you need a certain technical base before your creations are anything more than doodles (be they gifted amateur or otherwise). I like painting, for example. But I lack technical expertise/knowledge. I think I'd be quite good at it in my own way if I had that technical knowledge, but sadly I don't; I don't know enough about media, application, achieving a particular effect etc. On the other hand, I see people who are excellent technicians - they have these skills; but they don't have a creative bone in their body and so they are nothing more than skilled sign writers. They copy what others do. To be a creative artist you need both technical knowledge and creativity.

A 5 person form of Fukyugata ni as performed in my teacher's dojo (courtesy of Lao shi Bob Davies)

It took me 20 or so years to recombine existing techniques into a new "package" because I perceived a specific need for my own training and that of my students. And I consider myself a "creative" kind of guy. In other words, I didn't feel I had a sufficient technical base for a very long time to make even some small and conservative "creations".

My first "conservative creation", our Fukyugata Ni - a beginners' form which is taken from a 5 person practise drill for Fukyugata Ichi as practised in my instructor's dojo (see picture above)

I cringe when I look at some of the made up kata in the "make your own form" competitions because I see pointless twirls and acrobatic/gymnastic displays, techniques being misappropriated and also pointless recombinations (when the original sources are more than adequate - there are lots of kata!).1 You make a kata to fill a void or improve. In either case you've got have some knowledge and the more I learn the more I realise what I don't know.

The kind of creativity that I think IS useful at an intermediate or even senior (though not necessarily master) level is the kind that goes into preparing demonstrations of bunkai. I've been astonished by things I've seen by my own students or others out there. I also greatly admire the shorinji kempo embu where relatively senior students combine the rather conservative set of shorinji kempo techniques into 2 person fighting sets for their contests. This is really like preparing any other demonstration. It exercises creativity without pointless twirls and unworkable or even dangerous (to self) recombinations because you have pressure from a partner who is moving at top speed.

My Fukyugata embu - a basic 2 person form based on Fukyugata Ni that can be practised solo (in the 2 person versison both sides do the same sequence but start at different points). As at the writing of this article I am revising this form to take into account knowledge I've gained in the last 8 years.

The one last thing I wish to say about prematurely creating kata is this: when I was a fresh shodan I picked up book by an author (who shall go nameless) and saw a kata of his own creation at the back. It looked vaguely interesting - a cross between shaolin and naha te. So I taught myself the (rather basic) form from the pictures to see what it would look like (this was clearly in the pre-Youtube era). After several repetitions I noticed I was developing very sore knees. It didn't take long to work out that this was because the kata required some rather ill-thought through transitions from stances and turns. These were clearly putting torsional stress on my knees. I wondered myself how this kata could be "improved" to avoid this problem but eventually gave up. I realised that I simply did not have enough understanding of the way a human body moves, in particular in a martial way using traditional stances, to make something that was both functional and safe to practise.

Nagegata dai or Touxing Da - a form comprising a sequential packaging of stray qin na techniques taught to me by my teacher (the name reflects the fact that the applications are primarily take-downs). I would hazard a guess that few traditional forms were created "from scratch" but rather consitute "reworkings" or "assemblies of fragments" so as to preserve knowledge and provide a practical means of learning the appropriate "connectivity" between related moves.

You needn't be Mozart to create a functional form. Creating forms in martial arts is no different from choreography in dancing. But do a search of choreographers and you'll find that they are invariably highly experienced dancers who have a thorough technical background in their field. In martial arts there is an added element; creating a form for aesthetics is different from creating a form for function.

Accordingly a kata creator should be a cross between a seasoned trainer/coach and sufficiently gifted choreographer.

Next: Part 2


1. Here is a fairly "good" self-composed kata. It is good because it shows such an immense gymnastic skill level and crisp, clean technique delivery. But as a functional karate kata? Hmmm...

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic