In Japanese, Bunkai means disassembly, dismantling, or analysis. In mathematical terms it refers to factorization. When used in a martial arts context it usually refers to analysis, explanation, or justification for a movement or series of movements. In essence it means knowing why and ultimately the purpose for performing a sequence of actions. But the term involves much more than this simple explanation. Bunkai also involves knowing the resulting impact of an action. For example, if your training partner delivers an Oi Tsuki with the right hand, you might step to octagon angle 5 and block with a Hidari Chudan Uke followed by a Migi Tate Ken Tsuki to the opponent’s ribs. From a Bunkai perspective we have analyzed what we are doing and know, in the broadest sense, the purpose of the movement. But this simple exercise offers so much more to explore.
For instance, why was a strike with a Ken Tsuki used? Would a different form of Atemi be more effective? Is one location on the ribs a better place to strike than another in the current relative positions of yourself and your training partner? Why was the strike delivered to the ribs instead of the stomach or face? Why did the initial step occur in the direction of angle 5? What impact did the Chudan Uke have on your partner’s structure, centering, and elevation? Could a block in a slight upward, downward, or circular manner cause the strike to the ribs to be more effective? How did delivery of the block and subsequently the strike each affect your center, elevation, and muscular tension? At any point in the movement were you vulnerable to a shift in your opponent’s weight or a strike from another arm or leg or the returning elbow of their striking hand? Could any part of your initial movements have been used differently to further destabilize or disorient your training partner? These are but a mere sampling of the thousands of questions this simple exercise might generate. There is generally no correct answer to these questions. They are merely questions to help foster further understanding.
This then is the essence of Bunkai. You should begin to develop a sense of not only why something is being done, but what impact these movements have on yourself, your training partner, others nearby, your local environment, and even the mental state of yourself and your training partner. Oh, and did we neglect to mention how knowing about the full context of a current movement can help you predict and even control the future? It is all available to you via Bunkai.
One of the primary places where you will first encounter Bunkai is in the study of Kata. For example a Kata may define a movement sequence involving a left outward block (Hidari Ura Chudan Uke) followed by a right upward block (Migi Age Uke). Now the question becomes, what is the intent behind these two blocks? What is the opponent doing? What would using these two blocks allow me to do next?
In some martial arts systems there will be rather clear definitions for why those two blocks are employed. In Tensoku Ryu we do not make such definitions. We expect students to think about how the blocks might be used and then invent scenarios in which the blocks would have a meaningful purpose. We think there is tremendous benefit in students being able to devise ten or twenty different uses or situations where the blocks would be beneficial.
What is interesting is that you can usually tell exactly what a person is thinking about when they perform a sequence of movements. In our example if a person believes they are dealing with two different strikes from an opponent they will perform the blocks in one way. If they believe they are dealing with only a single strike they will do the blocks differently. If they think the first movement is a block but the second movement is, in reality, a forearm strike to the face then the movements will look different again. How you move depends very much upon how you are thinking. The same movement can be employed in many different ways simply by thinking about the movement in a different context.
So while practicing a Kata (not while you are initially learning it) you may wish to think about what you are doing and create different Bunkai that you can employ at different times. If you have several different ways to think about a specific sequence of movements in the Kata then you have several different ways in which you can perform that section of the form. If you have multiple Bunkai interpretations for every sequence in a Kata then you will have a vast number of different ways in which you can do that form. Nearly every time you practice the Kata it will be, in effect, a different Kata because of how you are thinking and subsequently moving. It helps keep the form interesting and allows you to continually explore new uses for familiar movements.
Bunkai is certainly not limited to the study of Kata movements. You can use it to explore nearly any sequence in the martial arts. If you are working on a self-defense strategy involving some form of a block (or perhaps an escape) followed by a countering movement of some kind, consider how your actions would need to change if the opponent had his or her opposite leg forward instead. How would your movements need to change if the opponent were shorter or taller than you currently envision? How would a heavy opponent react differently than a lighter opponent? These are all essential questions that you will want to begin to appreciate as early in your training as possible. There is an endless number of possibilities. It helps if you have thought of as many as reasonably possible.
So Bunkai is not only about what you are doing, but why you are doing it. Ultimately the “why” is probably more important than the “what.” What you are doing becomes a fundamental skill set over time. But why you are using that skill instead of some other skill is of more critical importance. With practice you will begin to appreciate how a particular movement is beneficial when applied at the most appropriate time.
There is never a perfect activity to use in a specific situation. There are usually numerous different ways that such a situation can be adequately addressed. But each method you might use is likely to have different outcomes or consequences. You will want to experiment to understand these outcomes so that you can eventually utilize these if you wish to have the opponent bend his or her front knee forward to benefit a subsequent action you have planned.
There is much to be said about experimenting with different Bunkai. Sometimes you will find your Bunkai and subsequent actions do not work out well. What you were thinking simply doesn’t provide you with reliable or beneficial results. But this is not a problem. You have learned something. Not all Bunkai needs to be successful to be instructional. It is good to find the many ways that something fails in addition to the few ways in which it succeeds. This will keep you from trying something unlikely to work in the middle of a conflict situation.
When you find a particular Bunkai that works break it down. Understand why it affects the opponent in the way that it does. Explore how the opponent will be positioned next so that you can define subsequent Bunkai to address that situation as well. Then explore slight variations in your assumptions. What if the opponent’s strike is a little lower? What if your center is oriented differently at the start of the sequence? What if the angle of attack is slightly more to the right or left? How do these changes affect your Bunkai?
But even if your assumptions don’t work out at all still spend time understanding why. You thought something might work and it ultimately failed. Why? What was not valid in your assumptions? Would a slight change in positions, angles, or intensity have resulted in a more successful outcome? These are vital questions to answer. They help you understand dynamic movement more fully. It is equally important to know why something didn’t work as it is to know why something else did.
Bunkai exploration is fun, interesting, and full of learning opportunities. Go forth. Experiment. Have fun. Learn.
I will leave you with one final thought about Bunkai. When you examine videos online you will find numerous people discussing Bunkai for various Kata or defense methods. It is always good to have an appreciation for how other people envision using a movement sequence. It can be quite enlightening and I encourage you to explore this form of Bunkai. There is a lot of good stuff out there.
But another form of Bunkai is not particularly beneficial. Sometimes you will find a person explaining uses for an inward/outward blocking combination found in a Kata. The next thing you know the person is kicking someone in the ankle, driving a knee into the groin, breaking an elbow, poking out an eye, pulverizing a kidney, and choking the training partner into unconsciousness. None of which is in the Kata anywhere. While there might be some interesting skills involved in such demonstrations, they aren’t Bunkai. There is an awful lot of “what”, but very little “why.” Effective Bunkai must involve both what and why.