On my most recent visit to Okinawa in March 2014, I was very privileged to have had the opportunity to spend some time with Katsuhiko Shinzato Sensei, both privately and with members in class at his home dojo in Yonabaru.
In short, I can say that the teachings he shared with me over the course of what was only a couple of weeks, have made a lasting impression on my karate, plus the kindness shown by Sensei and his students has made a equally lasting impression on my character, for which I am truly grateful.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Shinzato Sensei back in April 2010, when I gave an intriguing seminar for karate-ka from around the world at the Budokan in Naha. As soon as I witnessed him move, I knew straight away that he had something very special to share.
The footage of Shinzato Sensei on YouTube is amazing but believe me, to witness this man in real life is something else entirely! Many people do not understand what he is trying to impart, but I can't help but feel that through what now must be over half a century of comprehensive and exacting research, he has unlocked something very old in karate and his sophisticated methods of movement breathes a unique sense of vigour back into the art.
Check out the following video of Shinzato Sensei's approach to Naihanchi Kata...
His knowledge and understanding of body dynamics is in a word, 'extraordinary' and by comparison, leaves me feeling like a beginner again. This makes me smile. My journey in karate has always been governed by a genuine desire to learn and there is certainly no scope for any 'ego-based stagnation' within Shinzato Sensei's periphery!
One day, during a detailed discussion about the principles and application of kata, we moved onto the subject of embusen (line of performance). Through my personal study of bunkai, I have always placed great emphasis on embusen as a means of recording the spacial relationship and angular body shifts needed to successfully apply the associated movements of the kata. So Shinzato Sensei's comment on the subject was interesting to say the least. He said...
"Ah, embusen is just for beginners!"
Not a comment I expected! Just for beginners? Considering that there are plenty of high ranking yudansha around who struggle to make sense of the embusen in kata, Shinzato Sensei's view is certainly controversial. I spent that evening in my hotel room trying to understand exactly what he meant. The next day, Shinzato Sensei masterfully demonstrated what I presume was the answer. Without any preparation, he decided to spontaneously splice together various movements from different kata at blinding speed, moving smoothly around the dojo floor using a unique embusen he crafted on the spot!
The most impressive part of Shinzato Sensei's demonstration was that at no point did he stop to think about what he was going to do next. There was no dead time. There was no 'stopping mind'. He simply expressed the kata at will, using angles relative to his last position and breaking free from the binds of the form.
I had just witnessed what was a very masterful demonstration of kata integration and spontaneous continuation. This has led me to think about employing some interesting drills during my own kata training to help with kata integration and these have now been passed onto my students. In particular, my junior students love expressing kata in different ways. Plus it also helps them find patterns, angles and different rhythms, which in terms of bunkai study, can be hugely enlightening.
Here's a few examples of drills we often practice in the dojo that really help to develop a real sense of this 'spontaneous continuation'...
Here's a couple of YouTube video tutorials from a few years ago that show how you can start to analyse the kata, based on mixing up forms with similar embusen as in the drill described above...
If you'd like to check out my other tutorials on kata bunkai, then you can view my complete Bunkai of the Month series or you can subscribe directly to My YouTube Channel, which of course will provide notification as new videos are released!
Apart from being both interesting and enjoyable, playing around with kata in this way allows you to find different patterns of movement that will help to suggest new ideas for bunkai. You should also find that certain groups of movements from different kata will naturally fit quite well. This can often indicate variations on a central theme or become accustomed to a similar 'feeling' when performing the form. Once we learn to completely break free from the binds of specific techniques, the feelings that movements generate become extremely important and in terms of gaining a deeper understanding of karate, hugely powerful.
Try some of the exercises above or make up a few of your own and see first hand how well you really 'know' your kata! After my experience with Shinzato Sensei and his comments about embusen, I quickly realised that I have SO MUCH MORE to learn!
Chris Denwood has been studying martial arts since childhood and specialises in the practical application of karate's traditional principles for civilian self-defence, personal development, life integration and discovery.