“Art” or “Fight”? Exploring the Two Sides of Rhythm in Karate’s Kata

By Jesse | 21 Comments

It’s been a while since I answered awesome reader questions in public.

So it’s about that time again.

Last week I received this e-mail.

It went:

Jesse-san! Good day to you a lot!!! I’m one of your fascinating fans of your articles!! Every time I open the Internet my homepage is Your site! I really enjoy reading your articles a lot! Especially when it concerns about the meticulous parts all about kata…. by the way I’m a Shorin Practitioner but I’m not the kind that places itself inside the box =], get what I mean? =] Looking and knowing a lot of kata from the other styles especially in shito ryu gave me a broader outlook or view for my own Shorin style… Jesse-san sorry if I want to take some part of your time… Or its just a little request from your fan… hehehe Can you elaborate some deeper info about rhythm in kata?

Of course, in the course of my reading your articles, there where some artices that mentiones about the rhythm… like the interview with Lucio Maurino… I read also some articles that the “1-2-3″ rhythm is a good guide in placing a basic rhythm in a kata… and the “1…2-3″ or “1-2….3″ may be applied for an advance rhythm… I know that these topics are not much discussed out there… but I hope… that you Jesse-san could share a lot about this… Hoping for your soon reply and thank you for actually reading this message from a guy like me… Thanks…!! —ODIE—

Dear Odie-san,

On behalf of the whole KbJ sect/cult community of passionate followers; thanks a lot for the topic suggestion!

When it comes to Karate in general, and kata in particular, the concept of rhythm is something I’ve always found to be one of those crucial elements really playing a part when it comes to distuingishing between real Karate experts and fake Karate phonies.

Because, the way I see it, an elevated feeling for rhythm in Karate can only be developed through repeated exposure and continual practise (also known as experience) – which is getting rarer and rarer these days. And yes yes, although some kids are apparently born with an innate talent for finding rhythm in things like music and dance, I believe that for the regular Karate aficionado out there, who wishes to understand the concept of rhythm in Karate a bit better, it’s best if we simply break down the thing into its two basic categories.

That’s right.

I believe there are two fundamental categories of rhythm in kata.

These two categories have a set of followers each, who unfortunately rarely understands, knows or cares about the other category (unless they’re Karate Nerds™, obviously). This schism sometimes creates trouble in heated Karate discussions, so I hope we can clear some smoke with this article. Because no concept of rhythm in kata is actually better than any other – it’s just different.

And different is the new sexy.

But I digress.

So now, let’s look at my two basic categories of rhythm in kata. As you read this; try to envision your own Karate quest in the back of your mind, to see where your own idea of best expressing your understanding of kata fits in.

Let’s go:

Rhythm in Kata #1: “Fight”

The first kind of rhythm that I believe you should be taught (and teach) is based on the presumption that kata is a vehicle for storing mnemonic self-defense templates aimed at saving your butt in a possible physical altercation.

(By the way, I love the word mnemonic.)

Thus, the rhythm you have between movements in a kata should correspond to the respective meaning of each and every technique.

Obviously, this requires you to actually know the underlying meaning of every technique in the kata (or at least a majority of them) and how/why they are interlinked in series or combinations.

In other words, you need to know the bunkai of a kata in order to have a proper rhythm.

I strongly believe that as we gradually progress in elevating our understanding of a kata’s meaning (bunkai), this understanding should be shown through a shift in our expressed rhythm of the kata. That’s why a kata should look so different a year after you’ve learnt it: Not only because you are faster, stronger and more flexible (which I hope you are after a year of training!) – but more importantly because you have understood and internalized the relationship between the combined techniques of the kata… and therefore changed the rhythm.

  • From ‘technique-pause-technique’
  • …to ‘bunkai-pause-bunkai’.

In other words, since kata is originally meant to be a pragmatic record of several self-defense situations, it makes sense to practise these self-defense situations in their whole – without adding unnecessary pauses or stops in places that have no meaning from a practical point of view – and do each technique with full speed and power (as suits each specific bunkai).

Pauses in kata, then, are meant to be nothing more than natural transitions between the different “invisible opponents” in your kata – that’s it.

And the overall rhythm of your kata depends entirely on how fast you choose to dispose of these invisible opponents.

That was the first basic category of rhythm in kata, also known as the “fight” rhythm.

Here’s the second one:

Rhythm in Kata #2: “Art”

Try this:

  • Imagine an action movie with no love scenes.
  • Imagine a song with no bridge between the hook and verse.
  • Imagine a kata performance without changes in tempo.

Pretty boring, huh?

That’s right.

Because if you consider kata a physical expression of art (as in ‘martial art’), then you need to approach the concept of rhythm in kata just like Beethoven, Picasso, Shakespeare or Spielberg approaches their art forms.

As providing a mind-blowing experience.

Look, I saw the latest Batman movie last week – and even though it’s almost three hours long, it literally felt like 20 minutes!

Why?

Because the rhythm of the movie had a hold on me.

So why shouldn’t a kata be the same?

People who watch your kata should be blown away – every frickin’ time – even if the kata is a whoppin’ four minutes long. When you’re done, they should go: “What? Is it already over? I want to see that again!”.

Approaching kata like an art form (your physical expression of the martial art of Karate) requres you to see the kata as a whole. It requires you to take a step back and really consider what parts should be slower, what parts should be faster, where the kiai should be, where the stops should be, where the climax should be, how the crescendo/diminuendo should play out, and a whole lot of other elements that make up a great experience in your opinion.

Exactly like photographers, painters, directors, dancers or musicians work with the positive and negative, slow and fast, high and low, hard and soft…

…leaving the observers feeling re-born.

If kata is a martial art, then nothing is set in stone. Nothing is fixed or decided by some higher force, organization or textbook.

This is your show.

Make it one to remember.

_____________

Right.

These were the two basic categories of rhythm in kata, that you surely recognize to some extent from your own approach to Karate.

One based on “fighting” and one based on “art”.

So where is the schism?

Well, the problem arises when people who view the rhythm of kata based on one concept are confronted by the other concept – without really understanding it. But as we all know; Karate is a personal journey where the reason for practising it varies as much as our fingerprints vary.

Each journey is highly unique.

And, depending on how far your have come in your journey, the rhythm of your kata will reflect that.

To finish this off, let’s check out this video of sensei Luca Valdesi, several times WKF world champion in kata. Try to identify which category he belongs to.

(Hint: All you need to watch is his first technique):

The question I think we all need to ask ourselves is:

What category do I belong to – and why?

Let me know in the comment section.

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

21 Comments

  1. Boban Alempijevic

    August 17, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    I love to watch Art type of rhythm in kata, I actually cant get enough of watching it. But there it ends for me, looking, sipping it like a fine wine it can be when a proper grape ( see “Practitioner” ) is applied to it, or should it be vice verse.. That is what I enjoy.

    Anyhow, For me personally Fight is my melody when performing kata, why, well for me Karate is first and foremost a self defense art, and I want to learn to defend my self. This was the case when I was a teenager, this is the case now 15 years later. I look at kata just the way you said in the “fight” part, as a set of Bunkai´s.

    But like I started the comment with, I still LURVE watching a perfectly executed “Art” Kata, cant get enough of the Japanese National team, both men and woman, but mostly, I cant get enough of watching Valdesi :)

  2. Greki

    August 17, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    Oh my goodness, you reminded me of something extremely important!

    Anyway, besides rhythm, this article reminded me of a story where a musician had to play some forgotten melodies that could possibly kill her. There’s a phrase I remember vividly because I related it to Karate.

    “I tackled the dirge like a monk, pure in form and devoid of flare. One does not show off before the reaper.”

    If you translate that into Kata, well… you realize some things.

    • Boban Alempijevic

      August 18, 2012 at 1:12 am

      Loved that quote and found where it came from, I thank thee, for this is how it feels whenever I execute a kata after first draining all my energy in a hellish training. When limbs are like led and legs can barely keep you up, when your brain simply shuts completely down and lets you move your body from pure muscle memory. One does NOT show off in a real life situation, why should one do so while training Kata?

      Still love to watch Artistic kata though :D

      • Greki

        August 18, 2012 at 11:01 am

        I think art is art because art seeks perfection and perfection is achieved by being pure in form. Therefore, a pure kata is indeed artistic. XD

  3. paulh

    August 17, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    I tend to fall into the Bunkai-rythym category…though every now and then one of my sensei has to whack my upside the head because I add a “ninja-turtle” flourish into a transition (especially in Iaido it seems…)

  4. Andreas Quast

    August 18, 2012 at 1:33 am

    For myself I try to not only play whole notes and half notes, maybe quarter notes and sometimes eighth notes; they are important, but the fun starts with the sixty-fourth notes. Of course, music is made of notes AND pauses; otherwise it would just be noise. That’s the analogy left of my time as a guitar hero, which I shelved for being a Karate swagger. At some point, I want to integrate all I ever did. Don’t know yet how soccer will fit in, though.

  5. Gio Ds

    August 18, 2012 at 5:20 am

    My early experience of kata was purely as a tool for grading. Then later as a means to compete. The style I trained in had formalised bunkai and so I first experienced bunkai to grade and then later in competition. Life has many twists and turns and in my early adulthood I took employment as club security and suddenly my focus shifted…I need practical solutions to violence and I found many in kata…and the bunkai that came with experience. I enjoy watching sport Karate kata and I admire the dedication and consequent beauty of the performance, however I am a pragmatist and I focus my own training on preparing to respond to violence.

  6. Odie

    August 18, 2012 at 8:52 am

    Great Article Jesse-san!!! Wew!!! And I like both!! Just flipped the coin… depending on when to apply the rhythm..

  7. Charlie

    August 18, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Surely we are missing the point here?! Why does art and fight need to be mutually exclusive? I mean we all practice a “martial art”, do we not? Hmm.

    Good article Jesse-San but I disagree with categorising two aspects that in my mind intertwine like the helix of our DNA.

    I will settle with practising both -- AT THE SAME TIME. ;-)

    • Jesse

      August 18, 2012 at 10:37 am

      Indeed, that is the ultimate goal, Charlie-san. Having your “fight” viewed as “art”, and your “art” viewed as “fight”.

  8. Bruno Ballardini

    August 18, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    I think that it’s only a “linguistic” misunderstanding: when we use the word “art” we immediately associate karate with music, sculpture and other true arts, with deep aesthetic contents. So, someone could think that also karate could become an “art” in that sense. Instead, the term “martial art” is only a rough translation of the word “jutsu” which means “ability”. So, what Valdesi does it’s not just “art”, but a rhythmic deformation of a kata if we consider that in the ancient karate the katas were executed without any rhythm and they were conceived only as a form of training for real fight.

  9. Bruno Ballardini

    August 18, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    Sorry, I must correct. I meant that the term “art” inside “martial art” is only a rough translation of the word “jutsu”

  10. Te'o

    August 18, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    Jesse! Talofa my Braddah! I wish that this article could be sent to every dojo instructor in the world! I know too many schools that are either one way or the other, and don’t feel the need to incorporate the other. I’m a language teacher in my real life, and it would be like teaching grammar but never speaking the target language. In our school and organization…it is required of every student to not only learn the kata (art), but to know the bunkai (fight) from both sides. Meaning they know how to attack the person doing the kata. I enjoy watching my students stand in the center of the dojo, surrounded by four other students, and see them adapt, improvise, and overcome their attackers using the kata techniques. We had this experience when a girl from another school stopped by to train with us one evening. We went into kata, and then bunkai…her first question was, “What are you doing and why are you doing it?” I explained the reasoning and then asked her, “Why aren’t you doing it? Ask your Sensei.” Good job again with a great topic. Alofas Uso!!!

  11. Adam

    August 18, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    A good read Jesse, like all your articles! However, I disagree with the usage of the word art in this context. In my mind the “art” in martial arts refers to developing skills to such a level that they no longer require thought and become a form of personal expression through combat. The katas are tools to teach us movement and integrate it with our own bodies, each of which is different. If we ever do reach a level that could be called art, my guess is that it would be unrecognizable to others (and very hard to judge). What I see Valdesi doing is great, stylized performance art. But hey, that’s just me and what I do is a long way from art.

  12. Vasili Vasilievich

    August 19, 2012 at 4:44 am

    I’m an art person, that’s my rhythm. In my mind I’m fighting for my life against an army of people who want nothing short of my head on a pike. Every technique I execute counts…if I block your punch your arm gets broken, if its a front kick you will not be on your feet anytime soon… Speed, precision and power that’s what my Sensei says… But it has to be beautiful two… Linking the two forms of rhythms is a task.

  13. Szilard

    August 20, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    My problem with #1 approach: techniques in kata are lets say: A,B,C, 180 turn, D, E, F, G…
    It often happens that the bunkai overlaps:
    bunkai 1: ABC,
    bunkai 2: BC,
    bunkai 3: BCD,
    bunkai 4: CDE,
    bunkai 5: DE, etc…
    Which means no matter where you pause, you chop up a bunkai simply because kata is an extremely compressed form of expression. Especially around the 180 turns, there is usually a lot of overlap.
    So I am all for #2.

  14. Szilard

    August 20, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    The gankaku kata at the end… I think it is a good idea to compare it with one of the performances in your video collection (chinto/gankaku, same difference):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6rB3yhXJZk
    And some other versions too:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HobC6dj8jA
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avNORi3Z8vo
    As you said “All you need to watch is his first technique”

  15. Ray Grimm

    August 21, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    Wow..!! Such a nice post. I like the way you write. Keep posted…

    Regards,
    Ray Grimm

  16. Rachael Murikami (shotokan karate union)

    August 28, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    An interesting article and as the musical analogy has been used throughout, kata can be performed like a piece of music. the basic chords and notes are there as the structure but if one plays them in a style of jazz or classical or blues or soul the outcome is different whilst one is still able to recognise the underlying tune. Kata is the same, alter the rythmn, timing and intent makes the performance different whilst one can still see what the kata is and from where it came.

    This can be a fun training tool and to learn those different rythmns and timings makes one aware of the presence of those elements in kata performance, which can only be a good thing.

    but why choose one over the other ? why condem the other rythmn ? why not use various rythmns and timings, you choose to suit the required occassion, jazz for tournament and classical for gradings.

    regards
    Rachael Murikami
    (Shotokan Karate Union)

  17. Rachael Murikami (shotokan karate union)

    August 28, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    in support

    “Once a version of the Kata has been chosen for study, and a specific theme or concept has been accepted and allocated to it, I practice it not to display that concept as the primary goal. I do however, perform it initially to achieve technical excellence in the delivery of the techniques themselves and then my secondary aim is of performing the Kata to express the elegance of the systems techniques and to execute them with Martial intent. I tell my students that my experience and enjoyment of Kata is that, Kata is part of the physical culture of Traditional Karate therefore my practice and performance is one of a personal growth experience, to me it’s a form of Moving Zen, a Martial routine, something that allows me to gain a focused state where for the duration of the performance I am able block out the everyday worries of life and channel my concentration elsewhere in a positive manner. And if I do it well and the people who view the performance understand the broader message/concept that I am trying to purvey and they also appreciate the effort, time and levels of hard work that has gone into delivering that one performance, then that in itself is a bonus for me, but I perform Kata with the initial intent of me being the main beneficiary.”

    http://www.dklsltd.com/shotokankarateunion_sku_news/shotokankarateunionpage1.html

    regards
    Rachael Murikami
    (Shotokan Karate Union)

  18. Sam Nunes

    September 6, 2012 at 2:18 am

    Is it possible that at some point in your journey/understanding of a specific kata that both rhythms can merge.

    When i was performing in tournaments i initially learnt the kata with the view of learning the bunkai because i wanted to UNDERSTAND what the movements meant and what my intentions where. After this i would then proceed to perform the kata for the purpose of winning a medal.

    Both rhythms have their place. Purely for self defence reasons and that if i ever needed to defend myself outside the dojo it is paramount to understand the fight rhythm. My argument against this is that if kata’s are a set of pre-determined self defense moves it is extremely presumptuous to recite each movement as if this is the way the fight would occur. In other words..leaving too much to fate. In that case i believe that whilst kata as its purpose in terms of teaching principles (when following bunkai) its main function is to prepare the body to flow from one move to the next with as much power and heart as possible nothing more. The real fight is in kumite. This for me is the purpose of kata, preparation.

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