Fortunately for us there is historical film footage of both Jigoro Kano and Kyozu Mifune that are a joy to watch and learn from. These visual references offer the serious student a wealth of quality information if they are diligent, particularily if they explore Variation (Henka) related to their martial art. Look them up on Youtube
While following the footage there are many avenues of exploration in techniques that can be used in your own study. They have definitely expanded my understanding of Technique (Waza), Collapsing Structure (Kuzushi), Timing (Hyoshi), and helped me understand my own Kata.
We rely on Variation for so many things. Variety in the way musical notes are put together to make music endlessly enjoyable. We rely on diversity and variation in biological systems from genetic diversity through species diversity. We like to eat diverse foods given the choice. Can you imagine a world where there is only one song, one species, and one kind of food?
So why do we think there is only one way to do a Kata? Time to shake Newtonian (absolute time and space) views of Kata into a more Einsteinian (Spacetime and relativity) view.
With the explosion of video resources on the web these days there is great opportunity to do a meta-analysis of Kata. So I thought I would share my exploration of one Kata that is common to a number of styles of Karate—Seisan.
Below are three videos to show various forms of this Kata – there are plenty more – fill your boots. This kata has wide geographic distribution and illustrates many forms of Seisan. I am not interested in whether “one form is better than the other.” I am interested in what they can teach me about my understanding of the Kata. The three below are a good representative number without getting too big and messy.
These visual references offer the serious student a wealth of quality information if they are diligent, particularly if they explore Variation (Henka) related to their martial art.
My observations can be found after the the vids.
1. Seisan – Shito Ryu
2. Seisan – Goju Ryu
3. Seisan – Uechi Ryu
Kata Evolves – So Get Over it
Use it to as a Tool
to Make You Stronger
First of all, there are no wrong kata. Kata evolves and changes, follows different pathways and personalities. Kata is Variable (over both time and geography). Picking apart a kata or the person doing it because you learned it different is a sign of immaturity. Comments of this nature can just be thrown in the dustbin and chalked up to inexperience.
Take the Variation (Henka) you see as a way to explore the meaning in your Kata—the facets of other types of thinking and emphasis.
Variation is the Key to Being Flexible in Combat
Imagine reacting the same way to every attack. It better work the first time because your opponent is going to adapt, sometimes faster than you would believe. Variation allows you to adapt to circumstance. Combat is fluid and circumstances change. Quickly adapting to conditions and even moving into predictive approaches to identify and exploit Gaps (Suki) in combat, place you ahead of the opponent.
Variation Doesn’t Mean Bad Thinking
Even badly performed or conceived kata can be instructive. Analyzing poor biomechanics, technique and bunkai can help you improve yours. What is important is that you consider what each has to offer to make your kata more complete in both understanding and application.
If you want to find a great kernel of information, sometimes you have to go through a lot of chaff. You need to filter the information based on your level of understanding. Learn to identify the gems, but be careful, the gems can look just like any other rock see my article on Exploring Kata Horizons. Just remember, your level of understanding changes over time—what you might think as chaff might be a hidden kernel of truth that you discover later.
Exploring History and Origins
As we can see, the Kata Seisan has a number of incarnations that can be attributed to different people and even different areas of Okinawa, and if we look further we can see Seisan’s roots in China as Okinawans went to China at different times and brought back their version of this kata.
Researching a Kata, history and origins gives you a much broader understanding of the Kata, but it’s easy to get lost in all the ambiguity, half truths and forgotten history. There are great sources of the history of these Kata available if you search for them. I’m not even going to attempt to go there in this article. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is value in this research, because it gives you confidence that the kata you study has roots and depth, and is based on considerable thinking. It can also show how your learning has deviated from others.
This is an unfortunate aspect of the martial arts journey. There are many branches of kata that have lost depth and understanding. Tracing your Kata to pivotal personalities gives you confidence that the depth is there, or that you can rediscover it. These things are dependent on your teachers and organizations.
Similarity and Differences
These different versions of Seisan are interpretations made by different groups or individuals. Each version has emphasized particular aspects and de-emphasized or lost meaning in others. This is the essence of style (Ryu)—a way of thinking about how to solve the problems of combat. Evolution in action with selective pressures both good and bad. Can we say that a moth is worse than a butterfly, a hawk less magnificent than an eagle?
Let’s look at a few similarities and differences in Seisan and what they can teach us. Don’t even think this is exhaustive. The following are broad brush strokes used to illustrate:
1. What I find striking in all of these examples is the use of the arms like the wings of a bird, regardless of whether the hand is open or closed. This tells me that there is possible history related to white crane styles of Chinese martial arts, and has shown me several new ways of looking at bunkai in my Kata.
2. Both arms are used in unison—blocking and striking. This tells me that there is much consideration to Against the Initiative (Tai no Sen) timing, where one wing blocks and the other strikes (with both open and closed hands).
3. Shito and Goju Versions use a low Joint Kick (Kansetsu Geri) whereas the other two emphasize front kick or knee kick. The kicking shown in this kata is very instructive. It has shown me that I can use my knee against an opponent, a front kick and a low sidekick all as Variation (Henka). It has also shown me several different locations in my own kata where these techniques can be used that are not overtly shown, especially in the turning movements.
5. Some blocking movements are different in height (Jodan, Chudan, Gedan). For example one version uses a middle block, while another uses a low block in the same movement. So why should I be fixed with one type of block when the condition of combat dictate another?
6. Some movements in other Seisan lineages I am not as familiar with, gives me the idea that similar meanings are found in other Kata that I know like Niseishi and Sanchin—a new avenue to explore those kata.
What Can We Conclude?
Looking at the Variation in Seisan (that I have studied for more than 40 years) makes it immensely more interesting.
Variation is the key to understanding your kata more fully.
The Variation between lineages of this kata provide new avenues to explore and new perspectives to your Kata’s bunkai.
Kata, like an Engagement Posture (Kamae) is a distillation and indication of thinking. Certain individuals were pivotal in developing these kata into something more mature or evolved. My conclusion is that I want look at these individuals in more detail, because the variation in their thinking led to the differences we see in these Kata.
Is the Seisan I learned the same as that learned by Chokuto Kyan, who taught Tsuyoshi Chitose, who taught it my teachers—I doubt it. The question should be – Is it better, richer, deeper?
Our generation has spent more time delineating and codifying kata than evolving it. For some it’s good enough just learning the sequence of movements. For me it’s about evolution to something richer—because Kata is fighting. Understanding the richness in Variation is why I keep studying, and training, and dropping sweat on the dojo floor.
Variation makes my Seisan richer. By inference, Variation makes all my kata richer, in fact, variation makes much of my life richer.
Thanks to the people who make these type of resources available for someone like me to swim in variation. My eyes open a little more each time I stop to look.
As a homework exercise, take any movement from your Seisan and come up with five variations. If you don’t come up with ten you aren’t looking hard enough.
“Ichi o kiite ju o shiru” – Hear one understand ten.