Bunkai – Change the range

I made a bold boast a while back in my “Learn Bunkai” post about each of the topics I quoted being worthy of a post in themselves.

In reality this is probably not true as each of the subjects is so inter-related with the others that you can’t really split them out, but if you were to try and cover everything in one shot it would require a whole book to do it justice and there are better writers (and more experienced karate-ka) than me already offering that.

Having said that I’m going to take a stab at it anyway, just because I said I would.

“The first, easiest and most fundamental idea is “change the range”, genuine confrontation takes place at a far shorter range than conventional karate so don’t try and work applications from karate range with karate techniques.”

The problem of trying to get into kata bunkai work whilst sticking to the traditional karate ranges used in Gohon, Sanbon and Kihon Ippon kumites and the conventional explanations of what the meanings of the techniques are is that it very quickly becomes apparent that they make absolutely no sense (in a self-defence context) within a kata worked with a partner.

Just as a short example, a very commonly seen “classical” bunkai from kata will be the turning 180 degrees on the back foot to block a Mae geri with a gedan barai (as seen in move 3 in Heian Shodan, and many other places). It looks very nice in a choreographed demonstration but even the least critical mind would spot that if you just stood in place the kick you are blocking would in fact fall 4 to 5 feet short of the target (in fact, in a self-defence context you would actually be at far less risk by doing nothing at all)

So the first step is to do some research on to what is typically known as habitual acts of violence (or variations on the term), a quick google search will give you a short list of the most typical acts of violence that most of us (outside of law enforcement or the armed forces) are likely to encounter. If the list is much more than a dozen items long the chances are that you are entering the realms of the made up (and if it includes rear bear hugs then you definitely are).

I will insert one caveat here (as being as good a place as any) that I am talking about bunkai as a tool for self-defence against common attacks, I am not talking about the “just step outside” one on one duel in the carpark where two protagonists square off against each other to prove who’s best, or defend their honour (or any of the other B.S. reasons typically used for fighting).

Once you have an idea of the sort of attacks you are likely to face you can start to evaluate the ranges you and your partner will need to work at.

There will be a couple of long(ish) range attacks (e.g. a shove to the chest immediately followed by a punch to the head) but even these will not be at “karate range” as the attacker is already within touching distance and the range will close very quickly indeed from the initial contact. Most attacks will be initiated from medium to close range, they will not be single attacks and they will not be done to a count.

My experience has been that it’s very difficult to get karate-ka with many years of training to be comfortable with training at very close range (it’s very often easier with beginners who have no pre-conceptions) as they always want to leave themselves room to move, this seems to be true even with styles that train at a closer range than the Shotokan base I come from. You will need to get used to this.

Whilst there are situations in which you will need to open a space to make room for a technique to work or to make a strike or to make an escape (important idea to hold on to), most fundamental work on bunkai (at least using the approach I prefer) is to be close enough to control your opponents centre, balance and structure, if you can disrupt any or all of these (which are just aspects of the same thing) whilst keeping control of your own then you are in (some) control of the situation and will have options. You cannot typically do this at arm’s length where you are relying on muscle power over long levers. Again, this is a generalisation (there are always exceptions) but is predominantly true.

Once you start working at this range using the HOAV attacks you will find a lot of you uncertainties of the effectiveness of “bunkai style karate” will resolve themselves.

It may be unpopular amongst bunkai practitioners to say this but this is not “proof” that our way is right and everybody else’s way is wrong but just that this approach will work better for you IF self-defence against common attacks is the main aim of your karate training, not everybody’s is and there is nothing wrong with that (as long as they understand the difference).

Next time “Bunkai – Don’t be looking for technique”



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