an important part of karate training is the practice of kata, or 'forms', the series of prescribed moves that the karateka performs alone. kata are formal exercises. sometimes thought of as representing a battle against an unspecified number of imaginary opponents, and containing within them a huge amount of knowledge, kata are in integral part of karate training.
the origin and development of each kata are the subject of much study, and there are many kata that are used across different styles and martial arts that undoubtedly evolved from a common ancestor. within shotokan, there are twenty-six 'recognised' kata, listed below, though many clubs practice others as well as weapons kata. the performance of kata was, initially, the sum total of karate training, with kumite drills and freestyle fighting becoming popular with the development of karate as a sport. there are many who dislike kata, dismissing it as unrealistic or simply outdated, whereas others argue that kata represent a repository of knowledge that forms the very core of the art.
kata are taught in succession, with a general progression from the heian kata up to more advanced forms as the karateka gains experience (and rank; it is common for each grading to require performance of a new kata). at higher grades, a student will often be required to demonstrate the application of the kata or certain moves from it, thus showing an understanding of the move. this practice, called bunkai, is a vital aspect of kata training though can be considered separate from kata performance (refer to point eighteen of the niju kun: "Perform kata exactly; actual combat is another matter"). having a knowledge of bunkai helps when considering stylistic differences between the same kata in different styles or even between clubs; while there may be many variations on the same kata, there may be several applications that come out of a particular move and to be constrained to thinking only of one is a limiting factor in development.
eight men in turn
it is common to see kata demonstrated as an exercise in which the exponent defends against as many as eight attackers. each of these attackers appears to wait until their specified time, and attacks only along the points of the compass. this clearly does not represent a 'real' situation, and often such demonstrations are criticised as being choreographed and, by implication, ineffective. along similar lines, it is hoped that no student ever learns a kata and feels confident thereafter that they would be able to defend themselves against a multitude of attackers. certainly demonstrations are choreographed if the defendant is limited to prescribed moves, and it is just as valid to practice kata with the view of a single, skilled opponent, evading each counterattack before striking again.
in practice, kata should be regarded as a repository of techniques that guide training, rather than a sequence of moves to be learned and deployed as rote. the key to studying kata is the ability to take each single move and understand the duality of the technique being applied as itself, a single committed move, and the way that each and every technique can be meshed with every other to form an essentially limitless number of combinations. even the simplest kata can, with a small amount of insight, be easily modified to become more challenging; obvious examples of this are to perform the kata in reverse, in mirror image (or both), or to add in or change techniques however seems fit. in short, kata are rigidly taught but are flexible in use.
gradings and competition
peformance of kata in formal settings are generally divided into shitei and tokui, the latter being a 'speciality' kata chosen by the performer (usually from a shortlist assigned to their rank) and the former being 'mandatory' kata chosen by the jduge/examiner and which the performer is expected to know. in gradings, karateka are usually called upon to perform their tokui kata, and may be required to perform any or all of previously studied kata. in competitions, it is common to have the heian kata as mandatory kata for preliminary rounds, with tokui kata being reserved for final rounds. it is also known for some competitions - generally open-style competitions - to allow performance of kata that have been created by the competitor themselves, even to a musical accompaniment; this highlights the recent drift of competition kata towards theatrical performance, which is often criticised by those who feel this in contrary to martial spirit.
origins of kata
the precise origins of the individual kata practised in shotokan and in other martial arts is generally unknown; what is certain is that most have been developed and changed from whatever 'original' form they may have had, as the forms were passed on from person to person. with the creation and development of different formal 'styles', there has been a move towards the opinion that kata are absolute and that there are 'correct' and 'incorrect' ways of doing them; this seems to be a peculiarly modern stance, and is ironic in that this does not reflect the attitudes of those who created the kata in the first place.
list of recognised shotokan kata