|The rear grab defense at the start of Sipjin, a kukki-taekwondo pattern, but found in General Choi's Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do.|
And yet, this view is pervasive throughout the karate world. Search for bunkai of any particular kata (Naihanchi for example) and you will find an abundance of interpretations, no two of which are alike! Exercising creativity to try to determine a kata's meaning is not a bad thing (more on that later), but many of these interpretations look nothing like Naihanchi. Karateka add footwork to make their applications work, or change the hand movements. Granted, Naihanchi has changed over time (Choki Motobu said so), so maybe looking for the original applications are futile. But to so grossly change a kata and say you are applying it is specious.
Another problem is that many of these applications don't work. A while back in the martial arts subreddit, someone posted a video of bunkai for the opening of Nijushiho (an advanced Shotokan kata) as snapping the opponent's head down and getting a guillotine choke. The youtube comments for the video all praised the karateka's creativity, but the grapplers on the subreddit tore into it. You can't simply pull down a resisting opponent's head, they said. It was something that "looked cool" but had no chance of working in a fight. There was the added problem that the technique didn't even follow the kata! The choke motion was added in. These two problems are prevalent among bunkai researchers who have never trained a live grappling art but are under the impression that you can change the kata and still come up with something useful.
The purpose of patterns (forms/kata/tul/poomsae/etc) is to pass down self-defense knowledge and tactics that have presumably already been tested. If you've never done much fighting yourself, what is the chance you will invent something useful?
As an example, let me use the pattern that inspired this entire blog to begin with: Joong-Gun. Through my research, I learned that Joong-Gun has an unusual structure where half the pattern is a counter to the other half of the pattern. Specifically, it teaches you four options after catching a front kick, as well as four counters in case your front kick is caught. Using this interpretation, I can go through the entire pattern and explain the purpose of every hand movement and stance. I do not need to change the pattern to make it work, and the techniques are not complicated.
But changing Joong-Gun ruins the meaning of the pattern. Even if you just rearrange the eight sets, the logical structure is lost. Joong-Gun has something specific to teach you. It is not meant to be infinitely modified to fit whatever applications the student imagines.
Freestyle bunkai vs contextual bunkai
You might think I'm criticizing all those karateka and taekwondoin who come up with clever applications to their patterns. Not exactly. It's perfectly fine to take a movement from a pattern and think about how you might use it. That's exactly how the taekwondo patterns were constructed from karate movements. And considering the original applications have been lost, creativity is needed for rediscovery.
But I propose we make a distinction between this freestyle application of movements and the historical analysis and critical thinking needed to actually understand a pattern. Maybe we'll call one freestyle bunkai and the other contextual bunkai. Or historical bunkai or holistic bunkai.
Why am I making a big deal out of this? I don't fully know myself; I just know that patterns are not random jumbles of movements. They are supposed to teach you something. It's lazy instruction to give a student a pattern and tell them it can be interpreted however they want.
I'll end by linking to two authors who can explain this concept much better than I can: Giles Hopkins and An Open Letter to Bunkai Researchers.