Although this post is primarily referring to Karate, I think a lot of it will also apply to other traditional martial arts that practice kata (forms/patterns) just as much.
Iain Abernethy is a world renowned teacher on the practical application of traditional Karate. I’ve trained with him several times, found him to be really good at what he does and a really nice approachable guy with no ego at all. He’s very knowledgable both in terms of practical application, the history of Karate and is a truly inspirational teacher on many levels.
So when Iain talks, people should listen and learn. Below is a recent video that he made on the Quest For Original Kata. Iain makes the case that many people often search for the original version of a kata on the assumption that it will contain the most combat effective version of the techniques (being closest to the originating Masters intention). I will admit to having been a little bit guilty of that myself in the past.
But as Iain points out, as subsequent people have learnt, progressed and become teachers themselves, they might have changed things to improve them. The old saying holds true, that we sit on the shoulders of giants. Even the originating Master may have changed it several times him/herself as with anything that anybody produces, we seldom settle for the first draft.
Also, position of a given technique might change depending on whether the practitioner was tall or short. So functionality does not just depend on it being the original version, but partly on how the given technique relates to the actual individual performing it and their environment. So without any more ado, lets have a listen to Iain!
Iain makes the point that this thinking of original version is best, probably comes from “3 K thinking” where emphasis is often put more on form of the technique, rather than function.
For non-Karate people, 3 K is:-
Kumite (partner work – prearranged and free fighting)
I’d respectfully like to add a bit more to reasoning already forwarded by Iain. Many of us have long since become aware that much of today’s martial arts have been dumbed down. Many of today’s Masters (especially in Japan and Korea) have only really learnt to fight in competitions, NOT for the street; so their interpretations of kata applications is often seen through the filter of sport fighting. Therefore they see it all in terms of kicking, striking, blocking; with little regard to throws, locks, takedowns etc. This is particularly true of Shotokan Karate (which is my primary style so I’m allowed to say it 🙂 )! But in fairness, I don’t think we’re the only ones guilty of this.
So when people with only competition fighting experience change kata, they often do so without a real understanding of the original combative principles behind that movement. Furthermore, the kata has been changed to make them more aesthetic for kata competition. Just watch how slowly some of the competitors perform their kata, some of the functionality is lost just by the enormously long pauses between movements (put in purely for dramatic effect)!
Add to this, that it is alleged that Giching Funakoshi (who introduced Karate from Okinawa to Japan) stopped teaching throws and locks etc out of respect for Kano Jigoro; who was the founder of Judo. Kano was high up in the Ministry For Education and his support was very important to Funakoshi.
So taking these factors into account as well, it’s little wonder that people look back to earlier versions of kata. So my own outlook is that by all means look to earlier versions, but we don’t have to (as Iain says) go back to the very first original version.