Kata as Lethal Poetry

My sensei often refers to kata as "lethal poetry". The longer I train, the more I see the resemblance and appreciate the accuracy of the metaphor.

If you think of karate movement as a language and kumite most closely resembles a conversation, then kata most closely resembles poetry. Kata, like poetry, is an aesthetic form of structured, one-way communication, with its meaning intentionally left open to interpretation for those who study it.

Kata is Aesthetic

There is an obvious aesthetic quality to kata. It can be pleasing to watch even to the casual observer.  It is even more pleasing if you understand what to look for. Even the most outwardly simple looking kata has depth and beauty to those who understand it. It is an art form in and of itself. Those who synthesized the movements of kata from martial techniques and principles would have needed to possess artistic minds to do so.

Kata is Structured

The fact that it is structured is obvious. The movements are performed in a specific sequences with a specific rhythm. Like stanzas in a poem, there are often sections throughout kata that consist of series of repeated movements. This is useful for several reasons. For one, it aids in the development of muscle memory for the student. Also, by parceling the kata, it eases the burden on both the sensei, in the transmission of the kata to other students, and the student himself when learning the kata for the first time. In theory, the structure of the kata should not change as it passes from one generation to the next. 

Kata is Communication

Kata is a form of one-way communication, flowing from its progenitor, down through a lineage. It is a robust method of transmitting complex information across several generations. Assuming that both the sensei and the student are equally dedicated to accurately transmitting and receiving the kata, respectively, the information contained within it is highly fault-tolerant through the passing of generations.

Kata is Open for Interpretation

Like poetry, the interpretation of kata is left up to the individual and their own unique perspective. For every movement in kata there is more than just one possible application. It is up to us, as students, to find the applications that best suit us personally. We may take the kata and create something useful of our own from it. It is also just as important to those who pass on the kata to realize that it can have broad interpretations. Teachers must avoid stifling their students' creativity. In my opinion, teachers should pass on the kata as it was passed on to them and allow for the creative interpretations of their students. In this way, the kata fulfills its ultimate purpose and both the student and teacher are able to learn.

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Luke Pecor