By: Alec Niccum
Kata competitions in Aikido can be puzzling to casual viewers. Two teams of two perform the exact same moves, in the exact same order. Then, when one duo has (somehow) won, both participants in a team get medals. How do you judge the winner? Why would you receive a medal for being beaten up?
In many ways, Kata are similar to choreographed dances. Pairs compete to execute the same routine with the greatest grace, accuracy, intensity, and, most importantly, the greatest efficacy. The challenge is that, just as in real dance, there is always a degree of improvisation. When your partner is excited, and their stride grows longer or when a sweaty hand slips, you must adapt. In a strange way competitors are constantly improvising to stay choreographed.
The uke is the ‘lead’ in the dance. The way they approach, attack, and react creates the windows of opportunity that birth each technique. For instance, if someone is leaning forward as they approach, then it’s a waste of energy to push them backward. It won’t work, and they are more susceptible to tipping forward. In that way, they ‘choose’ what technique is going to subdue them. As such, an uke with a predetermined set of techniques must have advanced technical knowledge, so their actions always provoke the proper technique.
Beyond that, the uke must protect their bodies. Broken arms, loose teeth, or being knocked unconscious all happen in competitions. An uke must know within a quarter of an inch where to place their foot so they can safety roll, flip, or fall to avoid injury. But they can’t escape preemptively even though they are intimately familiar with the pain that is to come. A judge will spot the disconnect immediately if they try to avoid the discomfort. Uke’s must also understand what cues the judges look for so they can emphasize the good and cover the bad. They do all of this while executing the most acrobatic and physically taxing half of the performance.
The actual ukemi, which is the name for rolling, falling, and just generally surviving techniques, is an art unto itself. Rolls are the default way to judge a skill when traveling to new dojos. In competition, the ukemi is the tiebreaker if both team’s throws are equal.
The tori, the person who throws the uke, must be subject matter experts in their techniques. They need ato djust for their current partner’s flexibility, height, pain response, skill, and physical quirks: learning on a double-jointed partner can end up maiming your next teammate if you can’t regulate your techniques. A good tori also has the experience to instantaneously, and imperceptibly, guide a failing technique back on track . More than anything, they must be controlled. A tori has to be brutal enough to steal a person’s body from them and controlled enough the give it back unharmed.
In the end, the judges will factor everything from the pace of the attacks, where an uke lands, and the balance of each participant after each technique. They look for total control of the uke, graceful ukemi, smooth transitions if throws were energy-efficient if posture ever sagged, and if competitors used regional nuances or if they followed the international style.
Through kata aikidoka develop the toolbox needed to solve a specific problem, new body types, and communicate what is happening. It also creates the depth of embodied understanding that leads aikidoka to build their signature combative style.
Tips for new viewers
- Watch the uke’s feet to see if they are on their toes or taking large strides to catch up to the tori. Those are indicators manipulated balance.
- Throws should be smooth from contact to throw, though some experts will subtly stretch important moments for emphasis.
- Rolls and flying falls that seem to pause mid-air are a sign of expertise on the uke’s part.
- Tori’s should maintain annoyingly perfect posture, especially while in motion. Many describe the body language of an advanced Aikidoka as seeming to be contemptuous or aloof.
- The beginning and ending stances of each throw should be nearly indistinguishable. In theory, the end of one technique is being prepared to explosively react to anything that comes in from three hundred and sixty degrees.
- When a tori completes a throw, there should be no stumbling or uneven weight distribution between the two legs.
- The tori will end up standing in, or having moved through the space their uke’s body once occupied.
- A skilled tori will respond at the last possible moment, with the fewest physical tells.
- Both partners’ movements will generally appear to be gliding and have little up and downward bobbing. However, the tori may occasionally raise their victim onto their toes and sink their body weight into the final throw.
- There should be intense eye contact and attention from the second a duo enters a matt to the moment they bow out. It is called Zanshin, and the competitors should seem like they expect their partners to break the routine and try to mug them.