Kata, or forms, lie at the heart of the martial art. They are set pieces in which the practitioner, alone or in a group, parries attacks and moves through the stances and postures of a fight. Kata are specified in immense detail and there are no superfluous postures or gestures. There is no precise analogue of the kata in Western culture, for it combines elements of theatre, of martial tradition, and of Zen and Shingon meditation. Kata are memorised by repetition, and it is thought that about three hundred repetitions of a form will allow one to perform at least the sequence of it without being slowed down by thought. After the first three hundred or so, the practitioner can settle down into the form, and work on adapting the body to the details of expression, breath and focus that each technique requires. It is a feat of memory that takes place outside of memory, and it has often been my experience that, in teaching kata, I can perform the movements fluently, but am unable to remember them and lose my place as soon as I have to use words to explain. I may then have to retrace my steps, or even perform the entire kata from scratch. There, the form waits to receive me, and for the duration, it performs me.
Kata live longer than people. The year of Lesley’s diary was the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the gekki saidai kata, invented in 1905 by Chojun Miyagi, the founder of the Okinawan Goju Ryu School of karate. This year is its hundredth anniversary, and in the past century, it has spread around the world. Some Goju kata are of course much older: the meditation kata Sanchin and Tensho are centuries old.
Kata occupy a special place in culture. Practitioners regard them as an art-form, with all the requirements of expression and aesthetics of, say, theatre or opera. They are the text of their own transmission and need no ancillary words – free-floating pieces of memory, they do not carry the double meaning of the pharmakon: unlike Socrates’ texts, they are not orphans, for each expression is owned and inhabited, alive and present for all to see.
Sensei Jack Matthews taught me karate for seven years. One day, sensei Jack asked each of the black belts to demonstrate a particular kata. While the kata was performed, the others watched, and after the performance, each offered criticism in turn.
When it came to the turn of Riki, the young star pupil, no one, not even those graded higher than she was, could find anything wrong, and I must say that her kata looked pretty good to me. After they had each shuffled and shaken their heads, a painful procedure as she had been training for less time than they had, there was a long pause. Then sensei Jack said: ‘It was a junk kata. Junk.’ Another long pause while Riki looked down. ‘You know why it was junk? Because you were just trying to look like me. It was not your own kata.’
Sensei Jack Matthews, our image of the perfection of human power against all contingencies, died of a heart attack before he turned forty, and we became orphans, bereft of the parent who would defend us. We did not find out that he was a graded shihan or Master until his teacher, Grand Master Hanshi Denis St. John-Thompson, revealed the fact and honoured his body with a pair of Japanese swords at the funeral. We just called him Sensei Jack. His style has continued, passed down from body to body, beyond thought or words, wherever his students, and theirs in turn, practice the art.
People come and go, but the forms endure, at least for a while.