Too much playing a bad thing? On kata and henka in the Takamatsuden

Discussion in 'Ninjutsu' started by Please reality, Jul 9, 2014.

  1. Please reality

    Please reality Back to basics

    As a follow up on a question that seems to be on people's mind on occasion, and something that was touched on in my original thread about Quality Control and the Bujinkan:

    I want to get people's feelings on the role of play in the Takamatsuden in particular(and for those who don't study it in other martial arts in general). The laissez faire way in which Hatsumi sensei has let those who obviously do not have a grounding in correct taijutsu(as witnessed by their poor demos and lack of knowledge about and inability to do the kata correctly), receive teacher status and pass on their lack of understanding of the Takamatsuden ryu is obviously an issue that everyone is aware of. Those with high dan rank(including the highest 15dan), are often the most obvious example of people who don't know the kata, cannot explain them, and instead of emphasizing the correct demonstration and application of them, drone on about henka, freedom, breaking the form, and other aspects of high level budo practice. Interestingly enough, none of these highly ranked individuals have any ranking in the actual ryu themselves, which makes sense as they clearly have not mastered the ryu material nor do they show a deeper understanding of the ryugi unlike the Japanese shihan who have the traditional licensing and a longer period of study and familiarity with the ryu(in general 40 years or more).

    We are all aware of the concept of learning the form, adhering to and protecting it, and later destroying the form, and moving away from convention as laid out in the concept of shu ha ri(守破離). Though this concept and process is important, it seems obvious to many both within and without the big three Kans, that too many people are going on about the latter stages of breaking and moving away from form before they have spent the time and years on mastering the form. Looking at Hatsumi sensei and his students, they spent a couple decades at least on mastering the form, and even now, they can demonstrate the correct form(both omote and ura) of the kata, describe why things are done the way they are, and the principles behind the kata. Sadly, many foreign uberdan or "shihan" if you will, cannot do so. They do not know the kata names or why they are named as they are, the correct choreography, or the principles behind the techniques. However, they do know all the buzzwords and talk about play, parroting the words and trying to mimic the movements of Hatsumi Soke, an 83 year old martial prodigy who has forgotten more martial arts than any handful of average proponents will ever learn.

    Clearly, his ability and understanding of martial arts are what allows him to use his creative genius to look at movement and conflict and come up with his own playful techniques that confound even seasoned martial artists. However, when he is serious and facing someone more skilled, one often sees him do things that are much more down to earth. In those instances, gone are the weird henka and stop and go motion that one often sees in demonstrations and when he is "teaching" to a room of hundreds, and we get back to the devastating and simple skills that these ryu embrace.

    Henka or Bekkei means another interpretation or variation of the original kata, and there are several official versions of all of the kata, in some cases the number of official versions can be quiet extensive. Sometimes the kata shown in the videos are actually henka that have become to be thought of as the original kata, and there are henka for the kiso and kihon as well. These official variations of the original kata also show how the principles of the kata can be used in different circumstances and so training in these henka or ura versions of the omote kata is an integral part of kata geiko and is nothing different from other martial arts(although the timing of when these kata are introduced or learned could be). Beyond this, the idea of change, or henka is also discussed very often in the Bujinkan at least. This is simply understood as doing something other as is written out in the densho or how has been taught by Hatsumi sensei, and can take on some very exotic and often comical interpretations. These explorations into movement are very seldom criticized or questioned as to their martial efficacy and many who teach these kinds of movements are often applauded and lauded for their "ability" in doing these spontaneous or not so spontaneous off the cuff demonstrations. Needless to say, in a real fight or physical encounter, you will end up moving in ways different from how you do in prearranged practice, and your ability to apply and demonstrate the same skill, relaxedness, élan, and spontaneity will come about as a result of your training or lack thereof, the situation, if you are aware, the environment and your familiarity with it, and a number of other factors.

    So what is the role of play in learning martial arts in general, and the Takamatsuden in particular? Is that just a reminder to keep an open mind and loose body, or should it mean to forget the form and kata and just make up any old thing that you like? If the latter, why did Hatsumi Sensei admonish people for so many years to do things correctly, without some personal accent or influence? Why did he drill the kata over and over with his original students, and why is there such a gap in ability between those who trained that way, and those who just play at BBT and who lack a foundation in the kata? What do you end up getting if you just do henka and play without learning and mastering the kata? Clearly not the technical fighting ability and correct movement, even if one can achieve a high dan rank and loyal following. Is there some point to playing at doing a traditional martial art while forsaking and forgetting the traditional practice and etiquette that go along with that practice, or is there something to be gained in the pursuit of play in a martial context regardless of whether or not one develops fighting ability and a strong and flexible body?

    For those who wish to discuss this, pleas put ego aside and speak from the heart. This thread should not devolve into another blame game or discussion about which Xkan is best or which teacher is better than the other. The difference is obvious and generally accepted by all, so let's look keep this a simple exploration of the training paradigms and see if we cannot get a better understanding into how our training choices can affect our own martial journey.

    Please stay on topic, which again is the importance of play vis a vis learning a ryu, and how much kata training one feels is vital as compared with the exploration of things outside of the kata. In our arts the kata and bunkai(application) are generally taught hand in hand, so more so than that, it is how does one get beyond the official choreography and deeper into the principles and nuts and bolts of leverage, proper body mechanics, timing, spacing, angling, speed and power, and application with another human being that the kata teach?
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2014
  2. Please reality

    Please reality Back to basics

    My personal belief is that play is an important aspect of the learning process, but that it should come after one has reached at least an intermediate level of skill and ability(somewhere around or after they have reached their godan). In my understanding of the learning progression, this should be after at least a long one on one immersion in the techniques by a master of the arts, so in the case of most people who study in the Bujinkan at least, this stage is nigh here impossible to reach by the average student, and they should be concentrating on learning the kata, the official henka of the kata, and wait to play until they reach an older age and after the decades of training that the Japanese masters have.

    This is different from the important stage of testing the material, which is less like play, and more like how a mechanic tears apart something to find out how it works, how it is best used, and where the weak points are. This would include sparring, pressure testing, randori, and trying things out with people outside your art. This stage is less play in my mind, and more like homework that should be done in between okeiko which should be practicing the kata under the supervision of a master.

    Through playing with different concepts, you can come to a deeper understanding of them. When playing with different amounts of pressure, you can develop differing amounts of sensitivity and ability to handle things that you might not be able to without such training. When keeping a playful attitude, you might help relax and be more responsive to things. However, with all these kinds of play, your intention is still serious as martial arts were originally about getting home safe or protecting others at whatever cost. So you play, but not without some amount of seriousness to it.

    In the average Bujinkan dojo setting in which you see a Japanese master who has gone through the stages of mastery that allows for such a playful exploration, teaching to a bunch of students who have not reached that stage, there seems to be a disconnect and misunderstanding of what the purpose of such play can entail. Perhaps though, this playtime is a way to protect the real ryugi from being exploited by those who have not dedicated themselves to learning it and who therefore cannot sully it with their own personal agendas.
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2014
  3. Dean Winchester

    Dean Winchester Valued Member

    Do you think that Hatsumi Sensei puts such an emphasis on it with some people because there is a concern about them taking up free practice such as sparring?

    Sparring can be such a valuable tool and can on many occasion can result in elements of kata being used freely and naturally.

    However without that tool present, for whatever reason, then another avenue needs to be sought.
  4. Smitfire

    Smitfire Cactus Schlong

    Would the idea of play not encompass the idea of "finding what in particular you like or find useful"?
    Is the idea in the booj to become equally proficient at all techniques or is it more about practicing all techniques in order to find the ones you really like (or find useful)?
    So you can discard, concentrate and refine? So you end up with techniques that are your "A-game", some "B-game" and other techniques that are only really for rainy days or certain situations?
  5. gregtca

    gregtca Valued Member

    Wasn't it said by soke , that play time was over back in the late 80's or 90's ? Such a long time ago , but if memory serve me , it was over an incident in which someone was " playing and injured the uke , and then soke , said , play time is over .

    Anyway seems to be two approaches , 1. old ryu ha training , and 2. Trying to play and modernize the first training ,

    Many gray sides this training has :)
  6. benkyoka

    benkyoka one million times

    Having been on both sides ('play' and 'formal') it is my opinion that Soke has people 'play' because he can't possibly spend quality time with the thousands of people who come to the dojo for only a week or two a year. There's not enough time to teach properly, no way for him to correct errors, and more or less it would be a crappy return on investment for him and his time.

    Even so, he wants people to experience budo and take away something good they can have in their lives. In that respect he's a very generous man. If by allowing people to play around with feeling they somehow are better off than they were before they showed up in Japan, that's a good thing, no?

    However, he is very serious about the ryuha that have been handed to him to continue and preserve and towards the right people he is very strict and you won't find much playing.

    I'll add to this that on many occasions people see Soke as playing freely in the dojo but in actuality he is moving in the framework of certain kata. It's just that the people observing him don't have the experience to see and recognise what is happening. As an example, several years ago in Ayase, Soke received a punch by grabbing it and jumping away surprising the uke and dragging him down onto his face. You could see observers laugh at this and a few even made comments about Soke being so free and playful and creative and blah, blah, blah. I pointed out to the partner I was training with at the time that this is actually a kata from Koto Ryu.

    People who focus on feeling will see Soke as playful. People who have been instructed strictly in kata will recognise it in Soke and his top students.

    The progression from form to freedom is there in Shu-Ha-Ri. But you'll never understand it properly if you jump in at Ha.
  7. Kframe

    Kframe Valued Member

    I can see how keeping to the kata strictly is good. Here is a good question though. What about simple changes or play? Such as keeping to the normal choreography of the kata but changing the distancing between tori and uke and changing the tempo and timing of the attacks from Uke?
  8. Bronze Statue

    Bronze Statue Valued Member

    I think it's safe to say that many differences in distancing and timing are determined by uke and not by tori, especially in cases wherein the kata is structured as a defense against an impending attack from uke. If you're tori and uke's launching punches at you, you have little say in the matter of what those punches' ranges are; "being in your enemy's punching range" can be very a different concept depending on whether your uke is 5'8" or 6'8", as can the distances that uke can cover in a single step.

    On a related note, regarding the OP's reference to the shu-ha-ri philosophy, I vaguely remember that a former Jinenkan shihan once mentioned that varying the basics is still within the realm of Shu ("protect"/holding to the forms of lessons taught). I'll have to see if I can find the source for that, though.
  9. Please reality

    Please reality Back to basics

    No, as I've never heard him say you shouldn't spar or do randori, the Japanese Shihan did, and there is nothing stopping people from doing so.

    I think the idea of training in all the kata of a ryu is to become more well rounded and understand the methods and principles the ryu uses. In reality, you would concentrate on certain things in your own usage for fighting. There is so much included in the ryu that comprise the Takamatsuden that it would take most people several lifetimes to even master a fraction of it. If you are teaching however, you need to be well versed in all of the schools, for fighting much less.

    Not sure if he was trying to modernize anything, but I do think that size and people's ability does come into play. He has said many things over the years, but still says "Play," as well.
  10. Please reality

    Please reality Back to basics

    The progression is one thing, the reality is that most who talk about freedom and henka don't have the basic foundation to be concerned about it in the first place.
  11. Please reality

    Please reality Back to basics

    Changes in distance is not play. If you take oni kudaki for example, you have the basic version from a grab. Then you have the basic version from a punch for far, mid, and close range. So already you have four distances to train it in(6 if you consider him pushing or pulling you when grabbing).

    Kata have a maai that they are performed within, but if you have a shorter or taller partner that will also change the distance and form subtlety. Same if you have a stiff or extremely flexible partner. So, in your years of practice, you should be getting these kinds of experiences and learning how to adapt your technique to different circumstances. In my mind, that is different from playing.
  12. benkyoka

    benkyoka one million times

    I'm going to do my best to reply to your points but it is really difficult the way you use the quote function (I've got three MAP windows open right now just to do it) .

    I don't think he caters to anybody. I think he does whatever he wants. It's not a matter of people getting in the way. The people he wanted to teach were all taught individually or in small groups years ago.

    By return on investment I mean why should he take the time and effort to train each class in proper correct form when he knows people won't keep that up once they leave the doors?

    Those people attending will get what they want out of Soke's class. By 'nice guy' I mean that he doesn't rob them of that experience and at least everyone leaves there happy.

    Generous as in he doesn't turn people away. They are free to learn something useful, not learn something useful but get a bit of exercise or even a boost in self-esteem, or do whatever they want with what they come away from the class with.

    It depends on the student and also the relationship they have with their teacher and also who their teacher is. Play for the majority of the Bujinkan is using 'the force', I mean the feeling, to do whatever they can in the moment to win their confrontation (Which judging by what you see in Hombu or Ayase just involves putting your foot behind your opponent's foot so he falls on his butt when you take his hand behind him).

    For the people who have received very specific training in the kihon and kiso, play is what you get to do when you step away from the kata. i.e. randori.

    Um.. That's what I've been saying.
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2014
  13. Big Will

    Big Will Ninpô Ikkan

    I think Benkyoka is spot on here.

    To add, I think that for those who are learning under someone within the chain of transmission of the nine ryūha, the line between what is "kata" and what is "henka" gets somewhat smudgy. From what I have understood, the "kata" are not strict patterns per se but rather frameworks for certain aspects, principles, ways of moving, etc. So in this way, yes Sōke is right in that there are no "kata" (as kata are seen in some ryū - not all, of course - where they are practiced in stiff, dead manners more to preserve a form than to find actual combat application). But it is impossible to reach this formlessness without following a form first. And this is why there are progressions within each kata and why they need to be practiced against various kinds of attacks, experimented with, done with various weapons, etc. But without a master whose image you can clearly follow while receiving transmission, this is impossible. One can talk all day about formlessness and henka, but without the proper training (which very, very few people in the world have) it matters very little...
  14. hatsie

    hatsie Active Member Supporter

    I think hatsumi sensei's eyes have been bleeding for so long watching them, he has tuned his eyes the way a husband tunes his ears to a nagging wife.
  15. Please reality

    Please reality Back to basics

    Okay, so you feel that play is something like randori? So basically what PASmith said? Finally, we're getting somewhere. So then people should be doing more of that kind of "playing" and less of the use the force kind of playing that many think of as the kind of practice that you see most foreigners engage in when they "train?"

    I would add that the kind of training that one can receive in the Shihan classes is often quite different from that one experiences in the bigger kinds of settings like Hombu or Daikomyosai or the old taikai that used to be held. So perhaps the issue for some people's development is that they tend to only attend the bigger classes where they get to "play" and not the more formal and structured classes of some Shihan in which they actually get to learn the structure of the ryu...

    Did you read the OP and my first reply to it? You haven't really said anything on topic more than what was already laid out in those first two posts and the second original reply by someone else to them…;) The discussion about soke is really not what this is thread is all about.
  16. gapjumper

    gapjumper Intentionally left blank

    Which kata?
  17. Kframe

    Kframe Valued Member

    Thanks for the reply. Since I didn't go far enough to learn many kata or names, I cant be of much help. So ill ask in a general sense. Take a Kata, were it features a succession of punch's for tori to defend and it starts from long range. Is it still with in the frame work if you intentionally close the distance between tori and uke, so that Tori has less time to actually deal with the attack? I only ask because on the street a lot of times assailants don't punch from way far out.

    Just a question for discussion.
  18. benkyoka

    benkyoka one million times

    No where in the written description of a kata does it state what kind of distance the attack comes from.
  19. David Harrison

    David Harrison MAPper without portfolio

    I think that play is important at all levels of learning.

    However, without the guidance of a good teacher and the judicious use of resistance, it can easily become a detrimental habit.

    A particular problem comes from observing the play of more advanced practitioners and attempting to mimic it.

    Play comes in different forms at different levels of study. To begin with, I would argue that play is instrumental in learning how to use your body and translate demonstrations and instruction into functional techniques. The intermediate level is more about testing the limits of techniques and applying the hard-won physical lessons of "form" as general principles of movement. Then higher levels come from mastering those things until you are afforded the luxury of being able to play with physical and psychological subtleties while someone is trying to rip your head off.

    So, the trouble is that when looking at more advanced practitioners, the observers are stuck in Flatland: as in, there are extra dimensions there that they are unable to see.

    Exploration and discovering things for yourself can be great learning methods, but you need people around you who are willing and able to kick your **** if your play has taken you into la-la land.
  20. benkyoka

    benkyoka one million times

    I hope I'm not coming across as combative when in fact I agree with your viewpoint when it comes to training. However, I disagree that this topic is not about Soke. He is the one who is responsible for what the Bujinkan has become for better or worse. Even if what the majority of practitioners view 'play' as henka and do-whatever-works-jutsu, that Soke hasn't bothered to correct them or stamp out that thinking means it is just as correct as people who view play as training kata or the principles contained therein in a more unscripted form.

    For me, form (kata) is where you learn how to do everything (properly).
    Play is where you get to try and do it. Both are important. Where you are on your journey dictates which one gets more priority at that particular time.
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2014

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