Danse Macabre

The Dance of Death  (1493) by  Michael Wolgemut , from the   Nuremberg Chronicle   of  Hartmann Schedel

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel

That age old question, does life imitate art more than art imitates life?

Oscar Wilde seemed to believe so, in opposition to Aristotelian mimesis, which Wilde states "results not merely from Life's imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy." - Oscar WildeThe Decay of Lying.

I am reminded of this in the everyday, from food, architecture, gardening, transport, in allegories and of course in Karate.

Recently there was online chatter regarding a video on Youtube of a choreographed production of a Karateka doing Kata alongside a professional dancer. (Which I can no longer seem to find)

It is one of many streams where Karate is being blended with music and dance. Nothing new as even in Okinawa some Karateka like to perform alongside a Sanshin strum or two.

And this is something that troubles some people.

That this sophisticated combative practice would be treated like a dance, a mere form of  artistic expression.

This video only moves to blur the lines further between what is useful for self defence, and what is useful for entertainment.

A Tobi Ushiro Geri using the classical pointed toe

A Tobi Ushiro Geri using the classical pointed toe

By no means do I degrade the skill and dedication of a dancer; it is equally as demanding a practice.

I also do not see the problem with Kata being expressed in such a fashion. And I’ll tell you why.

I see this form of Kata, where it can have artistic expression, as the latest and inevitable iteration of which all things arise to.

We humans have one primary function which is to survive. When confronted with threats to our survival we will use our creative and highly intelligent consciousness to meet that end. This is when we go beyond our basic survival instincts.

When we are no longer faced with mere survival we find ourselves left with time and space at our disposal and our creative side is used on the less practical.

This is something which I believe is made clear from the evolution of Karate.

Now, a brief history lesson.

Kata, in its’ original context, is all of three things: Primarily as a tool to allow fighters a method of practicing and memorising their techniques, principles and methods created from 2 person drills.

Secondly as a way of passing down this information to future generations, to those within a family, a collective group or immediate relation.

Thirdly as an effective way of training where otherwise running, doing laps by the pool etc., are unavailable. What use would a ruling warrior class be if it wasn’t fit and ready to fight when they’re not managing estates?

As times changed so to did Kata. It’s first evolution was when Kata was created not out of personal fighting experience but in order to honour and remember the methods of a teacher or important person.

This method of transition appears from Tode Sakugawa developing and transmitting Kata to Sokon Matsumura, who also in turn created new Kata.

The  Kata this applies to can be said to be Kusanku, Chinto and Wanshu.

This is not to say they are anything less than an original form, just that they are representations of another's fighting techniques.

The next transition for Kata comes when it is required to be taught to large groups, mainly children, in isolation of the applications.

Here the Kata change in a manner which allows the principles of fighting to be taught, and later understood by serious practitioners.

At this point we have the formalisation of the Pinan series by Itosu Anko. As well as the creation or alteration of Naihanchi Nidan and Sandan along with Kusanku Sho in which the same fighting principles are being shown albeit with Itosu’s personal fighting preferences.

Jasmin Bleul demonstrating a particular trend on Instagram (I am not envious......)

Jasmin Bleul demonstrating a particular trend on Instagram (I am not envious......)

Having two Kata with the same fighting principles to study can also be beneficial to the ardent practitioner.

This phase continued with Itosu Anko’s students altering the forms further to make things simpler and more streamlined into one system.

Whereas before a practitioner would only know 2 or 3 Kata, invariably different in their execution, Funakoshi and Mabuni, etc, would learn many more and so alter the Kata to be more inline as a system with each other.

It would also become the phase where Karate Kata came to be viewed as an Art form and an expression of Budo.

The last transition is the one we are still exploring, where the Kata becomes increasingly a form of beauty, artistry and athleticism.

I believe we haven’t fully explored this transition yet as Karate Kata are not yet in the same league of acrobatic display such as WuShu and the latest trend in TKD where the increasing number of spins, flips and kicks gets more likes on Youtube.

This of course is what divides some practitioners old and new.

How can a Kata that is showy and glitzy be practical, and how can the slow, blunt and practical Kata attract anyone?

Well, shouldn’t Karate be for all?

I am going to diverge for a moment and talk about Kobudo where even today there are debates as to the original, best, most authentic and most practical versions.

This debate is moot, however.

It was recently highlighted to me by a Facebook post from Hanshi Cezar Borkowski that Kobudo Kata has perhaps existed for a long time in various forms.

  • Forms used for practical fighting. Kenka-Jutsu.
  • Forms used for public display. Matsuri-Jutsu.
  • Forms used for sporting purposes. Shiai-Jutsu.
  • Forms used for religious purposes. Kaminchu-Jutsu.

It seems that only the first three are still in existence today.

Hold on, hasn’t it be said that the folk dances of Okinawa contain Karate moves!!!

My point is, that it is OK to have various versions.

So long as we can tell them apart, and understand the reasons for each.

Today some might argue that the Kata for public display is a waste of time. Indeed, in the context of being the most effective way of defending yourself it is.

On the flip side, who would bear the responsibility for the untrained or devious persons learning dangerous techniques.

It is a fact that Kata was often altered by Sensei to hide the meaning from prying eyes, to protect personal fighting information, and to reduce the likelihood of dangerous and advantageous techniques ending up in the wrong hands.

Now consider that you understood this method of hiding and protecting fighting techniques and yet you were now faced with displaying your forms in front of crowds, not just individual students.

What if you were stuck between continuing on your historical cultural practice whilst ensuring the above mentioned safeguards.

Seems only natural that you would distort the movements, don’t you think?

You can then safely train groups in Karate, still allowing progress, whilst retaining the meaning to be shown to trustworthy students.

Or, as has been happening over the past generation, have the Kata available so that those with creative and pragmatic approaches are able to unlock them for themselves.

So how does it compare to Ballet?

Ballet is the artistic expression of story and body movement. Kata is an expression of fighting techniques and principles.

To the outside perspective, Kata is a dance, to help train the body. The same.

To those in the know, it is a blueprint in which to help us understand how we can use our bodies to fight. Very different.

As we have moved farther away from training in Karate for personal survival, we have progressed further towards creating artistic expressions of the Kata.

In this respect, it has become our dance which brings life to our expression. And so Kata becomes, but not completely, a dance imitating Life, or Death - just like, say, the Danse Macabre.