kata is not a photo opportunity

at competitions, you see them. not the eager parents in the stands, snap-happy and proud, or the teammates doing a favour with unfamiliar cameras, but the photographers that have been here before. and it isn't their equipment that gives them away, its where they stand, quietly but insistently moving into position to catch that shot they know will be coming. because they do know what's coming; they've seen all the kata before, they know the ones that come up again and again in finals, they know the single-leg stances of gankaku, and the jump in unsu, and the slow stretches of fudo-dachi in gojushiho sho and sochin. they've been here before, and they know how the kata goes.

next time you're watching a kata final, listen for the cameras. there is a distinction between those pictures taken in response to a striking pose - usually with slower-processor point-and-click cameras, and those that were ready and waiting. waiting for those photo opportunities.

performance of kata lends itself to dramatic photography; the image of the solitary figure carving out calmness and conflict is iconic in martial arts, and with no opponent to respond to the exponent of the kata is free to exercise their own style, adding emphasis, expression, and exaggeration as they see fit. and while many (including myself to a degree) lament the metamorphosis of kata from martial into performance art, that is how competitions are won these days.

in teaching kata, there are general principles that stem from basic training, and there are specific considerations which go along with this idea of kata in the context of competition. bunkai is another matter, and certainly there is an argument that a kata informed by bunkai is more practical than one informed by the desire to take a good photo, but since performance and application are conceptually separated within the niju kun of all places, it makes sense to strive to perform kata with drama in mind.

i urge my students to look up videos of kata, shotokan and otherwise, and in doing so hope they will discover for themselves how easy it is to tell a good kata exponent from a bad one. as in robert pirsig's zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, the presence of 'quality' in performance need not be defined on order to be obvious. if one wishes to become excellent at kata, though, the factors that influence this 'quality' need to be identified before they can be pursued.

and here is the flip. those people who supply the most dramatic photos are often the best at (this performance-orientated view of) kata, but it is precisely the things that are not caught on camera that are the things to take note of. yes, being technically precise in a stance on landing is a good thing, and punching on target is important, but these are the things that happen just before the photo opportunity. the important fact to remember about kata is that each move is interpreted as accomplishing something. standing still does not do this. the actual kata is the part of the time that the exponent is moving, not standing still. the karate is happening when the karateka is doing something; it is the process, not the finishing point, that matters.

consider the following photographs of me performing kata, and decide which is the better photograph to look at. then decide which is the better representation of karate. i would vote firstly the (posed) photo, and then the other (competition) photo. the first is clearer, better framed, and more dramatic. it shows a stopping point. the second, however, is a little blurred, the movement of my gi fabric looks weird, and i have a dumb expression. i am never going to put this picture on a website except to show that it is not a great photo. on the other hand, it shows a move, and thus shows actual karate. the blurred hand is moving in a defined way to achieve an aim. one of these pictures can be faked; the other cannot.

when i teach kata, i explain that when you are moving, you should be moving very fast, and when you are still, you should be very still (slow moves notwithstanding). if you can move faster, and stay more still, then your kata will improve (though these are not necessarily aims in themselves). i also teach that you are free to pause as long as you wish, maintaining a (hopefully good) stance before beginning the next move, as long as when the next move begins, it is dynamic and explosive. move fast, stop dead. and when you stop, have the confidence and drama in the stance such that everyone wants to take a picture. but when you move, when you are actually engaged in the business of the kata, move fast enough that any picture would be ruined.

-neil jerome, 2011


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