Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Kata Escapology - Another Curse of Bunkai

Wrist grabs, lapel grips, locks and holds make up a large portion of isolated 'attacks' used in modern reactive kata bunkai. The attacker usually (and generously!) performs the grip or hold and waits patiently for the defender to perform the application. As with oi-tsuki (discussed in the previous post) this type of practise ends up causing more problems than it solves.

Many of the elaborate applications used to respond to grabs and holds are actually dependent on the attacker being fairly lifeless. The photo above being an example, why doesn't the attacker grabbing Choki Motobu's wrist simply pull him to the ground or let go and hit him in the back of the head while Motobu is turned away? What is he waiting for?

A strong active grip to the wrist or lapel (or anywhere else) is not an end in itself and is done in order achieve things like greater impact when hitting, throwing techniques, securing locks and holds etc. So does it make sense to have kata applications to respond to these grips? training to focus responses on a wrist grab or lapel grip can end up having devastating consequences from what quickly follows next!

Escaping from locks and holds is a very difficult skill to acquire, it is hard won through countless hours of grappling requiring not only knowledge of the escape manoeuvres but also an intimate knowledge of the holds and locks themselves.  A prerequisite for a good lock or hold is breaking the opponents posture and balance, many of the escapes taught as bunkai for various kata begin with the defenders posture and balance intact and lack the most important part of the escape, recovering posture and balance!!! 

Given the vast number of possibilities and variations that occur in grappling and the experience needed to be effective in escaping grips, locks and holds it seems counter intuitive to try to isolate a few techniques here and there and catalogue them in a kata. What if you have the escape from an armbar but not from the choke that follows it? the list of 'what ifs' goes on and on ad nauseam and quickly reveals that it is beyond the scope of any kata. To effectively prepare to deal with a grappler and grappling techniques grapple!

The aim of this post is to call into question that the antique forms (kata inherited from China) originally contained reactive grappling techniques and that the common isolated attacks used in modern kata bunkai such as wrist grabs, lapel grips, locks and holds are a poor representation lacking in vitality and far removed from reality. 

If the intention was to record responses to grips and holds etc it should in some way give meaning to and reveal the structure and sequence of a kata, otherwise the form is just another seemingly random series of techniques strung together for no apparent reason. What would be the benefit of this as a practise? and what value would the solo exercise hold for the practitioner? can solo kata movements ever honestly represent reactive grappling?

Please contact us with any comments, questions or most importantly for training please email Tom Maxwell at, thanks for reading!!!


  1. If you wanna swim you gotta jump into the water. It's the only way :-)

  2. I concur with Thomas. To learn how to run, we must first learn to crawl. I consider this article to be related to another mishap... Students who wait for the attack to touch their GI before blocking. The reflex we want to promote is the reaction when the attacker's technique starts, not when it has been completed.

    However, learning to block before being hit is(in my humble opinion) decidedly easier than reacting as soon as a grappling technique is applied, but not dissimilar. A reaction from the attacker should be reacted upon at its outset,regardless of whether the end goal of the technique is a grab or a punch.

    The ideal situation would be to start of with the polite attacker,holding on inactively, waiting for a reaction from the attacked, progressing to a much less inactive response from both parties,as they continue on their karate learning path. That is the gist of what we are being told in our dojo at least.


  3. Reading Jonas' reply, I recognize a few things that seem familiar from kendo kata practice.

    In our kata, a certain mindset is expected from both uchidachi (attacker/teacher) and shidachi (responder/student). At every step, uchidachi will offer shidachi an opportunity to react, or verifies the given responses. But all the time, both will need to 'feel' as if this is an actual duel to the death. The whole mindset is very well explained by Tsuneo Nishioka in the article "Uchidachi and Shidachi", in the book ‘Sword and Spirit’. Relevant excerpts may be found in this book (free) on kata ->

    Drawing parallels to the kata you discuss, I would expect that the attacker is not simply making a grab. The kata do not start once the grab has been made, but I would expect the kata to start before that. Both parties would perceive the kata as part of a greater whole, with the defender reacting proactively. Then again, I know nothing about karate and am only trying to find parallels ;)

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!