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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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'Unsu'

by Shaun Banfield

 

Anyone that follows The Shotokan Way with any regularity knows that the one ‘stock’ question that I ask all interviewee’s is ‘What is your favourite kata, and why?’ The reason for formulating a ‘stock’ question that prevails along all interviews was to try and establish a common theme and comparatives amongst all the interviews.

Take one second please, and answer this yourself. What is your favourite kata?

 

Interview Sample List of Favourite Kata

Masao Kagawa:                Bassai Dai

Teruyuki Okazaki:            Heian Shodan

Hirokazu Kanazawa:       Gankaku

Yutaka Yaguchi:                Bassai Sho

Yasunori Ogura:               Gojushiho Dai

Takayuki Mikami:            Kanku Sho

 

Here is a random sample of senior karateka taken from my interview page on TSW. As you can see, the responses vary, and reasons for such choices vary even further. Interestingly, ‘UNSU’ was not mentioned as often as you may expect, considering its popularity on the competitive circuit.

If the truth be told however, attend most competitions, and it will be most unlikely to find a kata category that doesn’t include at least one version of unsu. It has become a ‘winning’ kata if you like – the demonstrative kata that illuminates the athletic and energy levels of the competitor. But what has this ‘Obsession’ with unsu for competitions done to the kata itself, and its integrity?

As a young man, I attended Art college, and studied the work of many artists, but one that I had a sincere affinity with was Salvador Dali, a leading Surrealist painter. When I wanted to explore Surrealism whilst at University however, the lecturer told me ‘That’s more of an A-Level movement’ due to  its over-popularity of 17 and 18 year old painters in high school. Therefore, the credence and value of Surrealism as a movement was discredited due to it being over done.

Master Masatoshi Nakayama performing the opening movements of the kata UNSU

Sensei Nakayama once wrote ‘Unsu is very popular at the present time, but to avoid looking like a scarecrow trying to dance, the karateka must have first mastered the basic kata, particularly Heian, Kanku, Empi and Jion’. I attended a competition a little while ago, a ‘sporting’ karate event that I was going to write about on TSW. After what I was looking at however, I thought it best for the organisers that I did not complete the write up. There was a young lad, maybe 13 or 14, that must have had just a handful of years training, on the tatami performing ‘Unsu’. To give the child credit, he was giving it his all, but there was an obvious lack of understanding of the kata. Yes, some may suggest that I am being cynical here and say ‘Yes Shaun, but he is a child’, but that is my exact problem. That child must have been directed, by his coach, to do this big, magnificent kata to win, doing so by skimming the surface on what should be a highly complex and intellectual kata, full of kumite strategy and energy. This poor child’s performance however reduced the kata to a collection of ‘flashy’ movements. The kata therefore has become the kata of ‘flash’ without the ‘substance’. This couldn’t be further from the kata’s truth.  Therefore, as Nakayama Sensei once predicted, the kata become in this instance – due to a lack of understanding of the basic kata – an aesthetic performance, yet lacking with guts and soul. In writing that, I hit the purpose of this article on the head – Kata must have SOUL.

I must admit that my personal love affair with Unsu was based initially on its seemingly synonymous relationship with competition. I was a competitor and wanted to win, so I looked at some of the older competitors on the scene at the time – namely the likes of Yasmin Johnson (Wales). In fact I remember sitting at home, studying her rendition of Unsu, paying close attention her performance’s nuances. Furthermore, when I headed to a World Championships in Belgium, her coach – then National Welsh Coach Gabe Operanta – gave me personal further guidance on the kata’s execution, all of which took me to 3rd place. At that time, my fifteen year old body performed an aesthetic performance. It wasn’t until I studied the kata a year later under Sensei Dave Hazard that I gave the kata guts and soul. Looking back, he filled the holes that left my kata empty. Don’t misunderstand me, the kata was never ‘Hazard’ perfect, or ‘Yahara’ perfect, but it had a sense of validity that it didn’t once have.

Sensei Hirokazu Kanazawa performing the opening movements of the kata UNSU

 

So if I think Unsu shouldn’t be reduced to a sequence of athletic movements, I suppose you are wondering what the hell I think it should be?

For me, Unsu is one of the most intellectual and intelligent fighting kata of them all. It is jam packed with fighting strategy that if tapped into, can provide limitless food for thought for the fighting realm of close proximity fighting. Competition however has made the jump higher and higher, it has made the slow sequences slower and slower, and made the fast sequences faster and faster until they have no real intelligible function. I will give you a further examination of the way competition has distorted the integrity of this kata in particular, using real named Japanese Instructors for illustration, and competitor X in the present time. I have chosen not to name the karateka I am analysing as doing so would imply he/she is the only practitioner of what I will describe. I am using this one competitor however to give an example of where things have arrived:

Unsu Waza: -Opening movements – Ox Jaw

Description: From Heisoku-dachi, both arms travel up the centre line, then around Jodan level, the hands travel outward, delivering the Ox Jaw hands.

 

Masatoshi Nakayama

 

Hirokazu Kanazawa

 

Mikio Yahara

 

Competitor X

 

·         Hands travel close to the body up the central line. Upon reaching Jodan level, the elbows do out to the sides and the hands push directly outwards. Edges of the hands dominate and the hand is not flat.

 

·         Hands travel close to the body up the central line. Upon reaching Jodan level, the elbows do out to the sides and the hands push directly outwards. Edges of the hands dominate and the hand is not flat.

 

·         Hands travel close to the body up the central line. Upon reaching Jodan level, the elbows do out to the sides and the hands push directly outwards. Edges of the hands dominate and the hand is not flat.

 

 

·         The Hands meet out before the body, a good distance in front.  Upon reaching Jodan level, the hands travel out forward as long as the arms will reach before curving backward in a circular action to arrive back at their final destination.

5 seconds

9 Seconds

6 seconds

15 Seconds

 

Sensei Mikio Yahara performing the opening movements of the kata UNSU

 

This above illustrates the difference to the kata’s opening movement. Don’t get me wrong, the exact deliver of Nakayama, Kanazawa and Yahara all differ and vary ever so slightly, but the fundamental intent of the movement remains the same. The validity and credence of the movement remains in place. In comparison to competitor X however, the fundamental principles of the movement has been lost and replaced with ‘flash’. This technique, in its original form contains so much applicable content, valuable in so many settings. The modern interpretation however has lost all of that, has deformed the movement and re-presented it.

Important to note is that I haven’t presented this, as a way to discredit WKF karate. Trust me, I have seen the X’s performance demonstrated a hundred times in traditional competitions, so this problem isn’t solely inherent in WKF competitions. Nonetheless, it’s becoming a trend. Also important is the difference in ‘different interpretations’ of movements and ‘point blank taking a movement out of its original context and painting a brand new one’. Too many say ‘this is my interpretation’….but it’s not, they don’t like the original so they create a new design to the movement to make it more aesthetically appealing. There is a difference.

My love affair with Unsu has been going on for almost ten years now. I have studied this kata with many Western and Japanese instructors, and had countless sessions with Sensei Hazard on it. I once studied the kata two weekends on a row with Sensei Hazard, and made over 10 A4 pages of notes on each session (and I have small handwriting) and this doesn’t include the dozens of pages of notes I have made on it in previous sessions with him. This just goes to illustrate not only the seemingly limitless amount of knowledge Sensei has on the kata, but the level of depth and detail the kata contains. Therefore I think it such a shame that it be reduced to being a kata used solely for competition, and even worse – distorted for that very purpose.

Shaun Banfield competing with Unsu in Belgium in the Finals

 

For me, My Personal Study of Unsu follows the following basis:

·         The kata’s technical performance details (in line with Sensei Hazard’s teachings, and incorporating my own study and research)

·         A study of its classical, and realistic applications.

·         Retrieving and incorporating the fighting strategies it includes into my study of fighting.

 

The movements, its rhythm, its timing, its application, its attitude and ethos all tell a fascinating tale of conflict. On a more philosophical level, its highs, lows, difficulties, calms and explosions are reflective of the existence of all living creatures. Yahara on this issue once stated in interview ‘It starts quietly, and suddenly becomes very dynamic, and then it’s quiet again. In a way the kata is a reflection of life itself.’ And when asked ‘What is Unsu?’ he states ‘Unsu is my life’.

Therefore, to see a kata with such energy and value be rendered little more than a visual spectacle is both saddening and frustrating. Unsu is close to my heart, both because it is the kata I had most success with in competition, and more importantly because of the years of education it has and continues to give me. Therefore, turn off the flash, and turn on the light to illuminate the real treasures this kata possesses.

Shaun Banfield