Read the Interview with the writer of Karate Do.
Secrets of Karate - An interview with the producer of the Movie Karate Do.
Interviewer: We are here today to talk with Dan Niebauer writer, producer and actor of the movie Karate Do. Hello. Dan: Hello. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
Interviewer: So why did you make this movie? Dan: I wanted to show how Karate evolved and where it came from and what it really is, at least from my perspective.
Interviewer: How so? Dan: I started doing Karate on my own in high school in the late sixties. I studied books by Bruce Tegner. In college I started taking Shotokan classes at the local YMCA under Tony DeSardi in Wisconsin. I was really interested in learning something new. I didn’t know anything about the organizations or belt systems. We would practice twice a week and I think after a three or four months Mr. Sugiyama from Chicago would come up and give belt exams.
Interviewer. So how did you do? Dan: I progressed the same as about anyone else. But after a few months of fall, winter sets in and there is not much to do in Central Wisconsin. So I spent a lot of time just practicing Karate. I think at one point we were doing it three or four hours a day. We would travel to Chicago and practice in Sugiyama Sensei's Dojo and also travel to Minneapolis and practice with Bob Fusaro. Nishiyama Sensei was our main instructor. Later on I studied with Ohshima in the SKA and Goju under Chinen.
Interviewer: What did you take in college? Dan: Physical Education, Coaching and Health Sciences. This led me to become more interested in the mechanics and principles of Karate. I later went on and got a Masters in Education and an MBA. I worked in the computer field for about forty years designing systems and contracts. It’s where I really become interested in the design of kata.
Interviewer: And? Dan: I think the katas represent a data base of moves. I think most people would agree. But when look a little deeper as least to me each kata is a theme and each set of katas such as the Heian katas also are built on a broader theme.
Interviewer: You present a different view of Karate in the movie. Dan: I try to present what I see as an unbiased objective viewpoint. Karate was called China Hand before it was changed by the Japanese to Empty Hand. It came from China to Okinawa. For some reason I can’t understand why people think that somehow it was magically transformed into what we see as modern day Karate. It wasn’t.
Interviewer: How so? Dan: Karate is a combination of Five Animal Kung Fu, Five Ancestors Kung and Fujian White Crane Kung Fu plus addition of moves and techniques from all around the Asian rim. These martial arts were influenced by other martial arts throughout Asia. Five Ancestors Kung Fu was a combination of a number of martial arts of China, some which had their roots in and influences in Five Animal Kung Fu. Before that it was brought to China from India where it was developed for man to fight wild animals. It is a combination of many martial arts just as Kung Fu was. I am saddened to see the state of Karate today.
Interviewer: Why Dan: On one hand I like seeing the freedom the Karate Ka’s have not being under the control of the Japanese system. Yet on the other hand, I think the Japanese system brought to art the dignity respect and discipline lacking in today’s martial arts. You have to understand that the Japanese nor the Okinawans did not invent Karate. It is Chinese Kung Fu that you are doing whether you believe it or not. It is an Okinawan and Japanese interpretation of Kung Fu that you are learning. And to be honest. Not a very good one in some aspects.
Interviewer: Are you saying that we are doing Kung Fu. Dan: Yes that is what I am saying. And I don’t think most people have any idea of what they are practicing.
Interviewer: But a lot of Karate people feel Kung Fu is I don’t know some kind of unruly art, hard to figure out. Too many styles. Too fake and it looks different from Karate. Dan: I know. Do you know Tai Chi was invented by a Kung Fu master because he couldn't make sense of Kung Fu. There are certain physical principles in any art. You can call them by different names. You can see them or not see them meaning understand them. If you don’t understand them or see them it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They still exist. Also, certain physics and muscles are involved say like in a dance step like stepping forward. That step may be called something different in square dancing than in Hip Hop. But it is still a step forward. If you look at some versions of Five Ancestors Kung Fu you can clearly see the moves of Karate as well as the fundamental techniques and indeed many are nearly identical. Even the timing is similar. But this timing aspect is different in other forms of Kung Fu. This is where I think people get confused when looking at how Karate came from Kung Fu.
Interviewer: So how does that help Karate people. Dan: When you understand the principles of Tai Chi which was originally the study of the principles of Kung Fu. It tells you that there are only five steps. There are only eight directions. That there are three levels. From these come the possible combinations of moves. By the way, the five steps and eight directions equal the number thirteen. This is an important concept in Tai Chi these five steps and eight directions. It is used to layout the basic principles and geometry of Kung Fu. It is also the number for Hangetsu which is a variation of the Kata Seisan. This Kata is a Goju Ryu kata that the stance Sam Chien or Three Battles comes from directly from Five Ancestors Kung Fu.
Interpreter - this all sound pretty theoretical. Dan: Karate today has never in my mind advanced beyond the basic techniques for most people. They are still practicing the same moves with the same misguided interpretations. Partly I believe because these Shotokan katas in my view for the most part are a complete mess lacking purpose and definition. One has to look past the changes in the Kata that are rigidity imposed by Shotokan practitioners to try to tease the meaning of these katas apart.
Interpreter Really? Dan: I started Karate class in 1974 I was admitted as Shodan to the JKA in 1976. I trained under Sensei Nishiyama, Sugiyama, Oshima, Chinen, Fusaro our chief instructor was Nakayama Sensei. It was well understood and spoken about that no one knew the meaning of the moves of the katas with the exception of a few obvious movements. I myself was the first to perform Unsu in tournament which helped me win Nationals. But it is meaningless because I didn’t know the purpose and intent of the kata much less the application of the moves. And believe neither did any Japanese Instructor. Almost every move was converted to a block and punch. I don’t know if it was done on purpose in order to hide the real meaning or it was just a result of a lack of knowledge. So in that sense we were and are all still learning. Now a days you see in tournament the moves still done as blocks and punches with made up extensions of flying kicks, radical throws. None of this is part of the original kata. Much less fitting to the theme or purpose of the kata. In my view point it is entertaining but it does nothing to advance the student beyond beginner or intermediate level, including up to the top level teachers.
Interviewer: So then what? Dan: I dropped out of organized sport Karate. I decided to study the origins of Karate.
Interviewer: Why Dan: Because Karate as I participated in then was in a terrible state. Organizationally the JKA just broke up. The teaching was great except nobody could and agree and what anything beyond the basic moves meant. That’s crazy. How can you teach a sport or art and not agree on what anything means. For example what does the second stand up cross your arm movement mean in Unsu. Nobody knows. How do I know? I was there in the 70s training under under the best there was and believe they didn’t know. How do I know? I asked them. There answer was, “I don’t know” So most of everything you see in Karate is made up. Most of it on the spot by students as well as teachers. And now you have the second and third generation of Karate repeating this stuff like it is the gospel and the correct way to do it. Believe me… it’s not.
Interviewer: But I have seen it performed in kata competition tournaments with great moves. Dan: It’s fake. It is a rehearsed dance for the most part. You know and I know if you put three or four attackers against the performer and don’t tell them what the attacks are the kata performer will for the most part fail. I think it is fine for demonstration purposes but not for contest. It is a theatrical show and has no place in Karate competition at the upper levels. I think it is fine for lower belts to show how the have developed their techniques.
Interviewer: So what do you propose. Dan. First eliminate free sparring competition. Most of it is terrible. I think Funakoshi or Nakayama called it chicken fighting and was against it. I agree. Could you imagine a Japanese warrior with a sword hopping back and forth for three minutes looking for an opening. He would be cut down from behind in an instant. It’s embarrassing for the participant and the sport. It would be better to combine kata and kumite. Where you are assigned a kata to perform and multiple attackers are given two or three techniques including throws, clinches, punches, simple weapons, grabs, chokes, strikes and punches to perform against you and you have to defend against them.
Interpreter. That would be hard. Dan: Yes, but that’s the point of Karate and yes at first it would be hard. But you can build up your skill after a few years continually progressing. The current level of skill is very low in this manner. There is not one person alive that knows the real meaning of the Shotokan version of the kata Sochin - so figure it out or change it to something more practical that people can use. For that matter. Almost all of the kata exist with no real meaning. I look at some of these bunkai interpretations on the internet and kata performances and I think good Lord what are these people doing. I mean it is great they are trying. But this should not be some free form dance contest or acrobatic performance. I don’t care if the kata performance is fast and sharp with hip movement. I did that, it is meaningless at least at black belt level and above. As well I see high level Olympic Karate kata of people doing these weird moves. What is that? Show me that it works without pre-determination of the attacker. Most of it won’t work and I think most people agree with me that it doesn’t work. So fix it. Change the katas. Keep the current one’s as reference points for historical purposes if you need to, but fix it moving forward. Have standards and test the skill level of these people against multiple attackers without them knowing what the attack is going to be.
Interviewer: How can you say that? Dan: Look at Chin Na, Shuai Jiao, Wing Chun, Five Animal Kung, Five Animal Kung Fu and Fujian White Crane. For me after fifty years of searching and practicing I don’t see Karate any more I see moves from Chin Na or Aikido, Shuai Jiao or Judo, Kendo, etc.
Interviewer: Then what? Dan: Then how do you make sense of it all? I think the Heian katas do that for you. I think that these katas have their roots in the very basic techniques of Five Animal Kung Fu. Not the versions you see on the internet but the principles of stepping, directions, twisting and coiling that are explained in Tai Chi. Thi Chi principles used to explain long and short fighting, locking and escaping, close in fighting and throwing. These broke out or as they say now broke bad into their own sports. But the Karate doesn't combine them it... It lets see… it recycles the same move into multiple purposes. I think Itosu figured that out when he created the Heian katas that one move can have many different meanings.
Interviewer: Explain? Dan: Look after fifty years of doing something over and over you start to see the patterns. This is the secret of Karate - each and every move has five different meanings. If you step forward and thrust your hand out it can be a strike which is long fighting, stay in place and punch it is short fighting, stand up and do the same move it is an arm bar, step back into cat stance and reverse the arm positions open the fingers and one hand is an open hand block and the other is a fingertip thrust or short fighting. Step forward and behind the opponent and it becomes a throw where you end up in Kiba Dache stance. By the way the lunge punch Oi-Zuki is called “chasing punch” in China. I think that gives a better description of its purpose.
Interviewer: How does that fit with the Heian katas? Dan: this will sound crazy to most people. But the five Heian katas are the same kata and almost the same exact moves done with five different applications. Further the Heian katas are arranged by distance. Karate moves are organized by distance. Heian shodan is based on long fighting. Each Heian kata moves the opponent closer and closer to you.
Interviewer: How’s that? Dan; Stand and punch to the middle. You have the basis for Heian Nidan or short fighting - which is really Heian Shodan in the old days. Now step and do the same. You have the basis for Heian Shodan or long fighting. Now do the same movement but stand up feet together you know have done an escape from grab and arm bar or escape and locks, reverse the position of the arms and assume cat stance you now have the basis for the close in fighting or Heian Yondan. Do the same move in Kiba Dachi stance and you have a hip throw or the basis for all the moves in Heian Godan. These moves are done at the upper lower and middle section and four directions of the kata. One move done with five different stances at three different levels with five different applications one for each kata create a complete self defense system. By the way, if you do that as a first set …. Take the first move of each kata and do them after one another you just created the kata Tekki Shodan. However, these Tekki katas which came from China are about five hundred years old and were developed before the Heian katas. This means these Heian kata moves are a subset of the Tekki or Naihanchi forms which is actually one long kata. Combine the three Tekki katas and you can extract the same moves in the Heian katas, just rearranged. The Tekki katas organized the moves by levels of middle, upper and lower. The Heian katas take the same moves and organizes them by distance and type of application. It’s genius by the creators.
Interviewer: They are exactly the same? Dan: No not as done by most. But if you look at how they are done in Kung Fu and other styles of Karate you will see that the Shotokan practice of these moves are robotic and the timing and application is a lot of instances is misdone. So you do have to have a certain amount of give in the interpretation. I will give you an example. I took violin lessons. The basic notes are practice. By the way I was terrible. Anyway the basic notes are practiced. These are like the individual moves in Karate. The kata are like scales in music. Pre-arranged moves that are repeated in order to improve one’s response and skill. But then there compositions based around a theme. As the player advances in skills the compositions advance in complexity typically. This requires changes in the basic techniques. A note may bend or slide or they may run together. But this is the point. The player or musician doesn’t not spend a lifetime practicing basic techniques and then making a contest of the form of doing the basic technique. This is odd that we do in Karate. It comes Japanese culture similar to the methods of the Japanese Tea Ceremony or Zen Archery and it is not necessarily a bad thing, especially at the lower levels. But I wonder if it is holding Karate back from it’s true destiny it’s true purpose.
Interviewer: So backing up how does that relate to Five Animal Kung Fu and is it in the movie. Dan: For that you have to watch the movie and yes it is in the movie.
Interviewer: But clearly a lot of these kata moves come from Kunku Dai. Dan: Yes, that’s right. A Chinese White Crane form. That will be explained more in the follow up movie that will focus on the Five Ancestors origins. But basically it is using the same moves in a crane or close in fighting scheme. The first movie focuses on the Five Animal Kung Fu influences. By the way these extreme long stances and over tensing and extreme power is not part of original Karate much less Kung Fu. It is a modern extrapolation of Karate and in my estimation useless. It is part of the theatrical dance presentation of Karate and is much too slow compared to standing up more such as you see when Funakoshi is doing Karate. It actually slows you down. It just physics a stance half as long as a very long one will get you there in half the time. I believe that the speed of techniques must be increased today. Too much power will decrease the speed. While we are on it. To be effective the block and counter should in most cases be done as part of one movement. This blocking waiting and then attacking is a beginners training method. In order to do this properly the arms must move in a more circular fashion. When your opponent attacks your counter should end when their attack ends or should have ended if you won't not have stopped or blocked it. This to me looks okay in demonstrations but looks out of place in Karate competition. Statistically you have lost your advantage. If you look at Kung Fu application the idea is to interrupt the flow of the attack and to continue or take over the movement and to finish your attack before he can start another one. You should move almost at the same time, not in between his attacks, or else it becomes a game of tag. Of course I understand this can’t always be done. But the training objective should be there.
Interviewer: It sounds like you don’t like the Japanese system of Karate? Dan: I love it. I just wish it was better. Standardize the applications. Remove free sparring or change it to multiple application one step sparring. An advance blackbelt in Karate should know basic Judo or Shuai Jiao, Aikido or Chin Na, Kendo, and Muay Thai or basic elbow and knee fighting and understand how they interrelate to each other. Put in kata application training and contests against multiple opponents with no prior knowledge of the attack. That is the only way to raise the skill level and create a respectable organization. I can understand why Karate is not permanently in the Olympics. It needs stable consistent standards.
Interviewer: What about the Olympics? Dan: I hear again it was denied, again. I think it may be the best thing for Karate. Karate needs to clean up it’s organizations, it’s rules, training and purpose. Look at Judo. Each and every move has a defined purpose. The rules are pretty much constant from contest to contest. There is a measurable goal. When you the opponent attempts a move people understand what the move is attempting to do. But not in Karate. Over ninety eight percent of our moves are not even in free sparring. That’s bad. And I saw something similar in Judo. Two advance competitors trying to win the bout by tripping each other. Should not be allowed. Competitors in kata competition do katas and most of the judges have no idea what these moves mean. Yet they are judging the contestants. How is that even remotely credible. Karate as is stands is imaginary fighting against imaginary opponents judged by judges that are governed by imaginary rules. No wonder most people outside of Karate don’t understand it. How could they. We in Karate don’t even understand it.
Interviewer: What is the movie about? Dan: About a girl that was abandoned by her father and goes lives with mother. The mother didn’t want her either, so she dropped her off back at the fathers. The girl Nicki has a drinking problem. She finds out the Dad knows Karate and she wants to learn. However, it doesn’t want to teach her because of his past. But finally when he does. He teaches her mind Karate instead of her body. The idea is the opposite way that I learned.
Interpretor: So what else? Dan: I found that the further away you get from Fujian China the more the more the original art changes. Which is natural.
Interviewer: Are you saying that the Chinese System is better? Dan: No that’s not at all what I am saying. China had many systems and I think the Okinawins did a fantastic job of preserving the art that was presented to them. But like any student that wanders from their master or teacher or left to their own devices you will get variations and adaptations some good and some not so good. There is no way to know at this point due to time passing as well as the practice of secrecy in Karate training back then. In the end Japanese Karate from my perspective is Japanese Karate learning Okinawan Karate and Okinawan Karate is Okinawan Karate trying to learn Kung Fu. You see the pattern here and Americans are learning from the Japanese. If you are really interested in a closer interpretation of Japanese Karate doing Kung Fu look at Shoranji Kempo. Also, back in the seventies the JKA was considered the gold standard of Karate. As least by those in it. But many many many people did not like it. I think the tight control and strong discipline in the classes turned many people off. Kung Fu due to movies and a easier teaching style become an attractive alternative to many students as did Taekwondo and other martial arts at the time. With the exception of the large cities in America most towns only had one maybe two at the most martial arts schools to pick from. So that is what you ended up doing. Today with the large number of schools and the internet students can see and learn much more in a shorter time frame. I think that is good.
Interviewer: How do you want to leave it? Dan: Watch the movie. I am not saying my way is the correct interpretation it is just my perspective based on my experiences. but I hope it gives people something to think about. The first movie deals with Karate and the influences and interpretations of Five Animal Kung Fu and how it relates to Karate The second if we do it will deal with Karate and the influences of Five Ancestors Kung Fu. I wanted to show in this movie that the Heian katas are a complete self defense system. And that by learning the first kata you are really learning five katas as for me now the katas are all the same moves using different stances. Each stance represents a different application. Also I think some of the katas upon closer examination had the ends of the kata switched around on purpose. Only after a long time of study did this appear to me. For example, to me the end of Heian Shodan knife hand block section belongs on Heian Nidan and vice versa. Once you do that you see that Heian Shodan is all long fighting techniques from Northern China called Chanqquan. Heian Nidan becomes the short fighting techniques of Southern China made up of styles like Five Animal and Hung Gar. Heian Sandan are the same techniques and even the same arm movements but the theme of this kata is that the application changes to Chin Na applications. Each and every move in the kata is an escape and counter trap. The stance is stepping together in natural stance or standing up. Heian Yondon and I know that many students and teacher will recoil at these comments but if you look at the different styles doing the Heian katas you will see many different stances and some variations in the kata. So you can't assume the way you learned the kata is the correct and only way. Heian Yondan are the same moves done with the elbows, knees and open hands. You are doing White Crane Kung Fu and the purpose of this kata is to teach you close in fighting. Meaning a person that is standing in your face. Long techniques will not work here because of distance. Heian Godan takes the same techniques and shows you how to use them as throws. But you say I know that is a punch in the kata. Really? How do you know that? Well my teacher told me or it looks like it. Remember nobody knows the meanings of these katas. Even me. The student must figure it out. This interpretation gives each kata a purpose and allows for each move to have multiple interpretations in an organized systematic approach to self defense in all directions at three different levels or gates. When you are done learning the Heian katas a student should know how from heian shodan to defend against long attacks at the middle, upper and lower levels in three directions and from behind, from Heian Nidan short attacks at the middle, upper and lower levels in three directions and from behind, from Heian Sandan escapes from locks and grabs as well as apply counters to them at the middle, upper and lower levels in three directions and from behind. From Heian Yondan to defend against extreme close in attacks of grabbing, attacks of the elbows and knees at the middle, upper and lower levels in three directions and from behind. Look at other styles they use a cat stance where we have a back stance. The entire Heian Yondan kata can be done in a shortened cat stance or crane standing type stance for close in fighting. Heian Godan will protect against throws and body grabs at the middle, upper and lower levels in three directions and from behind. Yes, I am saying that every move in Heian Godan is a throw. That is the point of Heian Godan. Currently most Karate Ka can grasp a few techniques from the Heians and apply them or if they do more applications they have no constant approach. But once the mind is trained to understand that the arms are the same movement and stance changes the application you have a complete interchangeable system of self defense based on distance. That is Karate practice. I am also aware that Funkakosi told Nakayama Sensei that the purpose of the Heian katas was self defense from weapons. Who knows if Itosu told the truth and even if Itosu thought so. It does not change the fundamental nature of the moves which came from China as Kung Fu. Itosu did not invent the moves he reorganized them. It is up to us to understand. Perhaps he knew or didn’t know the implications of what he was doing. But I think he did. And I think that he realized that if you studied long enough like he did that you too will realize the same. This is why I believe that explanations were never passed on. Eventually you will get it, you will understand it and you will do it.
Interviewer: Thank you. And I will watch the movie. Dan: Thanks