People give so-called “soft arts” a bad wrap. They look at the practices of these martial artists and consistently say things like “that would never work in a fight”, and they are absolutely correct. If you look at every single Aikido kata as-is in a manual, you will be hard pressed to see something that immediately looks like you could pull it off against your street-level thug, or drunk 90 pound internet troll. I’d say the same for most kata from any martial art.
That’s because kata is not for fighting.
Look at the way an NFL defensive lineman trains. He will push sleds, lift weights, and do any number of agility and speed drills. Yet, nobody gives him grief because they see the highlight reel Monday morning and the results of his training are irrefutable (either good or bad).
Then examine the training of a profession MMA competitor. He or she will spend hours in the gym strength training, jumping rope, hitting stationary heavy bags, focus mitt drills, throws against slow-moving opponents, or even dummies. If you were to look at this training methodology without greater perspective, you would definitely call shenanigans.
The popular misconception among martial artists and lay people alike is that kata is anything more than developing muscle memory and good movement habits (well, almost), Historically, as early as 600 years ago Iizasa Ienao developed a method of training where swordsmen in Japan reduced the risk of fatal injury while training, wherein they practiced cutting and moving one step removed from the correct distance (maai) with the understanding that when they would be hitting an opponent’s sword in practice, it was to simulate slicing the neck, or limb of a fighter outside the dojo. This practice extended to unarmed training, where strikes would be made to forearms, the top of the head, or to the ribs where the human body can take a lot of punishment, instead of attacking softer, more vial targets like the neck, collarbones or kidneys respectively.
Throws and locks, by extension, are practiced from the same removed distance of one step to allow the person being thrown (uke) enough time and freedom of movement to preserve their body in order to continue training, and likewise prevent life-threatening injury. It makes perfect sense. If every single time you train, you risk concussion or a broken femur, you will eventually lose that wager. There are people who train that way, particularly those with the hubris of youth, or the head-trauma to not see the difference,
The way to resolve this confusion is to examine every single kata from that correct engagement distance and feel the inherent risk. One must practice every single technique from the correct position and circumstances it was intended to be practical from. You will quickly see that the application of movements practiced from a safe distance will lead to sometimes alarming results. However, if you do not make this examination under varying levels of resistance and speed, you are like a boxer heading into the ring who is only really good at jumping rope.
At a higher level of training, practicing kata also has the result of creating a bodily understanding of the almost infinite number of solutions to any given attack, be it strike, hold or throw. You cultivate a feel for finding the best, most effective application for the given relative body position, direction of force and level of aggressive intent in relationship to an aggressor (riai). This innate understanding is what makes truly great fighters make it look easy, and take opponents apart. The very best of the best have it, whether they understand it it or not.
So, yes. If you take the cart away from the horse, it’s not going anywhere. If you take kata out of context, you are in for a beating. But, if you drill your kata, and practice your application, and do your conditioning, you will be as formidable as any professional fighter regardless of what the world throws at you.