Thursday, 12 March 2015

Form Versus Function

copyright © 2012 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

I want to share with all our readers an email that one of my students sent to me after class one night. I have asked Derek (the author) whether he would mind if I reprinted it here for all of my readers to enjoy and he said he would be honoured. So I have to give him a big thank you for allowing me to do this.

As a little bit of background information, at class that night, some of the students were getting a bit rambunctious. We were practicing Katori Shinto Ryu sword katas, which are 2-person katas; in essence, you and a partner. Well, as so often happens in 2-person katas, the practitioners sometimes start to diverge from the kata. They get excited and pretty soon, they are trying to best each other. They are trying to “get each other”. They have a good laugh afterwards, in most cases.

When intensity turns to aggression, the purpose of Kata breaks down

Of course, as the teacher, you’d rather them stick assiduously to the dictates of the kata. To perfect the art form. It is an art, after all. Getting too excited and too aggressive sends you down a different path and the (art) form goes out the window eventually. Form breaks down. The art is forgotten in the blood lust. Function is all they care about now. Is the technique functional? Will it allow me to “get him”?

Some students have ulterior motives when practicing kata. For some, it is the chance to show their dominance or superiority, what I term the “Alpha male” syndrome. For some others, it is their chance to fight, albeit in a controlled circumstance. They could care less about the form. Still others, when they see that their opponent (I wouldn’t call them partners at this stage) is getting the better of them, they get similarly wound up and do not want to lose face, so they will try to “get” their opponent back. Of course, the opponent is thinking the same thing (“he is not going to get the better of me…”) and so it becomes a vicious circle.

Kata is not a framework for "I got You" or the gratification of personal ego

This is exactly what happened. Form had broken down. The blood was pulsing through their veins and they had lost all sense of what they were doing and why they were doing it. And the teacher, me, had to give them a lecture about getting back to the form, back to the art side of it. Well, that started a deep discussion about the relative merits of form (the artistic) and function (the application). Some students argued that art was more important, others that function was paramount. This email is the result of that evening’s discussions.

So the basic question that was debated that evening was, in a nutshell:

Which is more important: the artistic (the idealized, and often stylistic, expression of the art) or the functional (what works best/ what is most efficient/ most practical)?

Because in some koryu, like Katori Shinto Ryu for instance, you could approach it from an artistic/ stylistic viewpoint (form) or from a purely pragmatic standpoint (function).

-----Original Message-----

From: Derek

Sent: Sunday, December 18, 2011 1:53 PM

To: Douglas Tong

Subject: quick follow-up about bauhaus


Because today’s topic was quite interesting, I wanted to follow up on what I was trying to put forth. Here's an excerpt from Wikipedia:

"The design innovations commonly associated with Gropius and the Bauhaus—the radically simplified forms, the rationality and functionality, and the idea that mass-production was reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit—were already partly developed in Germany before the Bauhaus was founded."

So to rephrase the philosophy of Bauhaus as an artistic movement: Art during the late 1800s to the early 1900s underwent a shift from ornamental and often individually made crafts, to mass produced pieces whose aesthetics were harmonious with its function. To an extent, it can be argued that the Bauhaus school often rejected any ornamentation that did not lend itself to the function of the object: that though the form of the piece was harmonious with its use, any aesthetic aspect came utterly secondary to the use of the piece.

In relation to our discussion about budo, where one practices a martial form and/or function, we can see how different schools as well as different personalities vary in philosophy. Where some people approach budo as an art, others approach it in terms of application. If we try to detach form from function, or function from form, we often become blinded to the fact that form and function are two sides of the same coin.

Form is important

In my view, our group (students of Katori Shinto Ryu as well as of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu) walk a line between both philosophies of form and function. In practice, alone or paired, we strive towards idealized movement during a pre-defined choreography of cause and effect, attack and counter. As we study and learn, we often slow down, break down, and disassemble the movements to examine it compartmentally, only to reassemble it again to be practiced as a whole. This inevitably leads to questions that arise as to 'why' we do things when 'this would be quicker' or 'doesn't this leave you open'. It's at this point that the answers usually boil down to context, as well as trial and error. This is the classic argument of what is form and what is function.

If you take an excerpt from Musashi's "The Book of Five Rings", he states that the ninth principal of budo is "do nothing that is useless". This is often misinterpreted as 'disregard things that look fancy'. If we filter down the movements to what is quick, we often lose the lessons in between. It is only through thoughtful and careful examination with your teacher and partners that one can come to the answers.

With any kata that involve paired partners, we generally strive to work together to achieve the shared goal of mastering a set of movements. There will be occasion when personal ego comes into play and people can fall in to the trap of 'I got you" or "you got me". During practice, one can often see an opening or a place where a technique (sometimes incorrectly executed and other times executed correctly, but in a different fashion) might present an opening for attack. It's at this moment that the dynamic of personalities come into play. If the pair works well together and can explore the avenues of possibility, then the practitioners can grow from the experience. If the practitioners simply want to 'get' the other person, then there is no growth as the pair is not working in tandem to achieve the shared goal of mastery of movement. Instead, the practitioner is stuck in their own mind, lost in their own self doubt or self-adulation. They've lost the whole point of paired practice.

This can all be illustrated by the excerpt from "The Sword and The Mind":

"When you have exhausted all the various forms and piled up accomplishments through training and practice, movements come to exist in your arms, legs, and body, not in your mind; and whatever you do you do freely, in disregard of the forms, but not in violating them. When you reach that point, you do not know where your mind is... ...The forms exist for reaching that state. When you have acquired them, they cease to exist."

In practicing by yourself and with your training partners, and furthermore keeping an open mind to any and all possibilities, form and function no longer matter as they are eventually harmonized into one.

Form versus function or form and function?

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

Thank you Tong sensei for sharing these insights on Kata with us. Well written, from the heart, and based on solid experience, all of Tong sensei's articles have been well received by readers. I look forward to seeing more contributions from Tong sensei in the future!

I strongly encourage martial artists in this country, or internationally, to contact Tong sensei if you would like to experience one of his seminars. His contact information is posted below.
Douglas Tong began his studies of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu with the late Mutou Sensei (Kajitsuka sensei’s teacher) in Zushi in 1992. Mr. Tong can be contacted via email at: or at

He can also be reached at 519-942-6381

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