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Bunkai literally means “analysis” or “disassembly” in Japanese but in the context of karate, it refers to the self-defence applications or intent behind a technique or sequence in a kata, which is often not obvious.
To understand and unravel the mysteries of Bunkai you must understand a little of its history.
A lot of Kata Bunkai was lost over the years. Many karate kata evolved from Kung Fu forms which then over time changed and evolved into karate kata. Later, when karate was introduced from Okinawa to mainland Japan, a lot of kata were stylised and refined to fit into uniform basic techniques making them easier to learn but in the process losing the original intent of the moves. As kata were handed down through generations largely without record they suffered from Chinese whispers and the interpretation of techniques by different masters.
An excellent example of this is the two kata in the video: hangetsu and Seisan which evolved from one kata which was taught to two students who later went on to start their own schools and eventually different lineages. Each of the lineages versions of the kata “Evolved” and changed the kata until they almost everything but the basic floor pattern directions of the kata has changed.
If the form of the katas has changed so radically it is increasingly hard to determine what the original bunkai was.
As a result, there is a lot of conjecture about bunkais, and there are often multiple interpretations of bunkai for a move or sequence. It is good to be open-minded but in looking at bunkai, considering whether it fits into the sequence, relies too much on presupposed attacks or movements of the hypothetical opponent or is simply too impractical or overcomplicated.
The exception to this is the modern kata which are unique to Shinkyu. They were created to support the study of our self-defence syllabus and as a result, their bunkai is known and doesn’t require interpretation or conjecture.
There are lots of other factors in deciphering traditional kata bunkai:
One of the important things to understand is that a lot of what may appear to be basics may have a different purpose but are performed as a basic largely for the sake of uniformity.
Blocks aren’t always blocks sometimes they are strikes, releases, or even grabs. Strikes aren’t always strikes they can be blocks or grabs too. Even preparations like drawing the return hand back may be something different.
If a move is repeated several times it is because the creator of the kata thought it was important to practise more than once or need to be practised with both sides of the body.
Some katas have multiple redundancies built I.e. Some move sequences show what to do next if your first strategy failed.
Sometimes there are moves in Kata that just help “neaten” the pattern of the kata or were created simply to make the kata finish on roughly the same spot as you started.
Slow moves are either to demonstrate that execution of this technique, in reality, would require strength or that the creator of the kata wanted practitioners to pay attention to the detail involved.
Shotokan katas are the most removed from their original form and bunkais, Goju katas are a lot simpler or obvious to interpret.
Look for the recurring theme in a kata, for example in saifa you are often throwing your opponent off balance through the use of your centre of gravity. In bassai dai you use your hips to gain strength and effectiveness in your moves. In seiunchin you are learning the importance of lowering your centre of gravity in close quarter and grappling situations, tensho is teaching the basic strategies in clinching situations.
The study of bunkai is fickle due to its lost history; nobody truly knows what the intent of the creators of the kata was or even for that matter what the original kata looked like. This can be a source of great frustration and also fascination with the study of kata.
It could be argued that it is crazy to spend years studying techniques that are ambiguous and conditioning yourself to perform sequences in a stylised manner that is different to how you would perform them in reality. Which is true, it would be crazy if it wasn’t for Oyo.
Oyo are principles that are taught through kata. They are not necessarily dependent on the interpretation of bunkai. They are broad concepts that range from principles of human movement to strategies and tactics.
A bunkai is specific to a move or sequence, but Oyo are principles of movement, strategy or tactics, they can be used where ever it is appropriate. And more importantly, they broaden a karate-ka’s skill sets and understanding not just for a specific situation that fits a bunkai but throughout their karate.
When Bunkais are sometimes up for interpretation or in some cases are unworkable or abstract, Oyo prevails as the more practical part of the study of kata applications. The most important thing a karate-ka can do is start to apply the oyo from kata to sparring and self-defence.
A good martial artist should always be looking for the oyo behind the bunkai and thinking to themselves, ‘where else could I apply the practical lesson from this oyo in my sparring or self defence training?’