Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kata and Randori

It is very important to make the distinction that ulterior motive of the martial exchange is victory; else the exchange may be classified as education or dance, but it cannot be called martial. It is also important to note that victory does not necessarily equate to destruction or even domination — it simply means that one party's intention is brought to fruition despite an opposing party's resolve, and may even appear submissive, manifesting as escape or evasion, provided it works for future advantage. To fulfill this objective, the martial arts are often studied in dichotomy: On the one hand, they are explicated through the orderly rehearsal of systematic technique, and on the other, they are implemented through the chaotic progression of contest. Both approaches fuel each other like a pair of churning gears, and without either a martial system may be classified as a discipline or skill, but it cannot be labeled as art.

In the Japanese martial arts, ordered practice is called kata, which literally means "form." It's Chinese equivalent is taolu, and it's Korean equivalent is poomsae. Essentially, form is the manipulation of a body in order to achieve a specific goal. These manipulations define the manner in which the martial art may move, transition, and generate power, and are often practiced solo in martial arts like karate, tae kwon do and tai chi chuan, or practiced with a partner in martial arts like judo and jujutsu

Kata emphasizes perfection and principle and adheres to strict guidelines that should not be blurred. It is designed to simulate a martial exchange between two or more individuals, and to provide examples of solutions to common martial problems — such as a response to a strike, grab, or some other potential threat. Buried within these solutions is the essence of the martial art. Though dedicated study and familiarization of form, the martial artist learns to function within the framework established by the kata. The goal, then, is not to accumulate a mass of specific solutions to ply against specific attacks, but pursue victory within the boundaries described by the form. In other words, it is about techniquenot, about techniques.

On the reciprocal, free practice in the Japanese martial arts is called randori, which literally means "chaos taking." Randori emphasizes spontaneous change and development, the solution of puzzles on the fly, and the complication of an opposing party disputing every move. In English we would call it sparring, but I think randori is a better word because of the meaning it semantically implies. During randori, it is the martial artist's objective to perpetuate chaos upon the opposition in order to perplex, deceive, overcome or overwhelm, so that victory may be taken decisively. 

But paradoxically, victory cannot be taken decisively during randori without an understanding of technique, and technique cannot be understood without the interaction of randori. Thus over time, these apparently opposite studies begin to meld together and lose their distinction as opposites. During an exchange, victory may manifest as a legitimate technique not because the martial artist intended to do that technique, but rather because the martial artist moved, transitioned, or generated power in a manner prescribed by the form. So even though kata and randori approach of the martial arts from opposite angles, they study components that exist in unison during the actual exchange. The martial artist whose randori looks like kata and whose kata looks like randori has truly realized this distinction: That the heart of the exchange in the martial arts is the maintenance of order in the self — via the framework of kata — and the instillation of chaos in the opposition — via the interaction of randori.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Kuzushi — Off-Balancing and Upsetting

Sun Tsu wrote, "The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy's not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable." There is certainty in the fact that it is complicated and risky to besiege an opponent who is poised and prepared for conflict. In such a case, a direct attack would ultimately lead to a struggle of speed and strength, and that is only efficient when one's own martial faculties substantially outclass the rival's. Thus it stands that in order to mount an intelligent offensive against a coordinated adversary, one must fist aggravate the opposing position in order to generate a vulnerability. 

This general strategy may be factored down from large-scale military operations to one-on-one contests and adapted to dojo settings for study. In an open area uncluttered by environmental elements or other structural impediments, we can further simplify the strategy by referring to one's position as one's posture. 

In the martial arts, a formidable posture is one that is relaxed, mobile, and adaptable to capricious circumstance. It's fundamental prerequisite is that the body's center of balance is maintained and focally coordinated by the hips and waist.  

In the Japanese martial arts, affecting the opponent's posture is known as kuzushi — literally, it is upsetting or disturbing balance. A skillful implementation of kuzushi is the gateway to clean and successful technique, especially in grappling and throwing martial arts like judo, jujutsu and aikido. The idea is to displace the opponent's physical center away from the hips and waist to instigate a moment of postural discordance that frustrates the opponent's ability to competently respond. It is within this interval of weakness that the martial artist may effectually attack.

The interval is usually small, and a skillful opponent will reorganize swiftly. For this reason, countless opportunities presented by kuzushi are lost in practice, especially when both parties are intent on maintaing proper form. An intricate exchange in judo or jujutsu randori may even seem dull to onlookers when neither contestant is attempting to submit or throw — but this is because the adroit martial artist knows that a burst of effort without the advantage of kuzushi will likely result in energy spent on failure. But when kuzushi is fully realized and plied, a match can end abruptly in an exciting moment of decision.  

So kuzushi is often a ploy used to lure the opponent to his own demise. It is called hando no kuzushi when engineered as a consequence of an overreaction or a miscalculated response. A typical grappling example would be if I push, then pull suddenly to upset my opponent as he pushes back. In striking martial arts like karate, tae kwon do, and boxing, hando no kuzushi tends to manifest as a feint — ie, I sham a powerful blow to entice the opponent to block, then pull the attack before contact. The opponent, expecting considerable impact, overreacts and stumbles into an interval of vulnerability. 

One final and important note is that kuzushi is not strictly confined to the physical domain. The most devious and potent application of off-balancing occurs within the opponent's mind. To truly disorient, baffle, or mislead the opposition is the shortest route to victory. Sun Tzu also writes, "All warfare is based on deception."