Kata is one of the earliest forms of karate training. It is how karate passed from one generation to the next. Kata are the pre-arranged sets of movements in which the karateka defends against several imaginary attackers in different directions. Each movement of a kata represents a self-defense technique against a potential opponent. These self-defense "applications" are traditionally called bunkai (analysis). All kata have an embusen, or performance line. This is the path of the kata, or rather, its floor plan. The movements of a given kata must always be performed in the correct order, and the kata must always start and finish on the same spot (Shotokan).
Heian Nidan – “Peaceful Mind 2”
Heian Nidan, the second Heian kata, has 26 movements. Half of the kata is performed in kokutsu-dachi (back stance). Shuto-uke (knife-hand block) appears seven times, making it a very important technique for this kata. This is the first kata that teaches kicks and double-hand movements. Also, gyakuhanmi, reversing the torso's position, is first learned in Heian Nidan. Pay special attention to the uraken-uchi & yokogerikeage(back hand strike /side kick snap) combination, as it appears in several other kata.
Heian Godan – “Peaceful Mind 5”
Heian Godan is the last kata in the Heian series and has 23 counts. A combination of quick and slow movements, timing skill and fluidity of motion are essential for this kata. It is the first Shotokan kata containing a jump, a very exciting technique for beginner and intermediate karateka. Mikazuki-geri is also first seen in Heian Godan. The mizu-nagare-kamae at the beginning of the kata and the shuto-uchikomi/manji-uke combo at the end are extremely vital for proper kata performance. Bunkai for Heian Godan involve many throws, locks, and takedowns
Empi – “Flying Swallow”
Empi (formerly known as Wanshu, named after a Chinese diplomat) has 37 counts, making it the shortest of the Sentei kata. Empi translates as "Flying Swallow" or "Flight of the Swallow." It is a very dynamic kata, requiring speed and agility. It gets its name from the diving patterns of the swallow, a small bird known for its excellent swiftness and maneuverability. Hence, the kata is characterized by quick changes in direction, as well as many sinking and rising motions that mimic the swallow's flight. Just as the swallow catches flying insects in mid-flight, the bunkai of Empi focus on catching the opponent in mid-attack, unbalancing him and making him unable to make further attacks. Empi offers several new variations on previously learned techniques, usually by changing their angle. These techniques include gedan-zuki, age-zuki, tekubi-uchi (similar to soto-uke), teishooshiage-uke and teisho-osae-uke. Empi also allows for the practice of certain rare techniques that, although not unique, are not found in many other kata. These movements include dropping to one knee, the reverse lean, and an advanced form of footwork whereby the karateka switches the feet to counterattack. Empi is probably most noted for the spinning jump (kaiten-tobi) occurring at the end of the kata, making it attractive to younger karateka.
Bassai Dai – “To Penetrate a Fortress”
Bassai Dai (pronounced Patsai in Okinawan) is most often translated as "To Penetrate a Fortress," meaning that one must exhibit the power and spirit required to break through an enemy's castle. This is particularly evident in the kata's first movement, when the karateka launches forward. The word Dai means "big," describing the kata's larger movements, contrary to its counterpart BassaiSho. Bassai, Kanku, and Gojushiho are the three Shotokan kata that each have two versions, a Sho version (small) and a Dai version (big). Much of the bunkai focus on breaking the opponent's balance and defenses against grabbing attacks. Like many Shotokan kata, Bassai Dai is practiced in many styles of karate, having several variations.
Bassai Dai is usually the first Sentei kata to be learned and is the most popular choice as tokui kata by 1st kyu examinees for black belt. It is characterized by many switching arm blocking combinations, making effective use of the hanmi positions. Many techniques are seen for the first time in this kata.
Unsu – “Cloud Hands”
Unsu (or Unshu in Okinawan) is one of three Shotokan kata that can be traced back to Seisho Aragaki. Translations of the term Unsu include "Cloud Hands," "Hands in the Clouds," and even "Parting the Clouds." The name of the kata implies that your hands are like clouds, ever changing and capable of discharging lethal force in the blink of an eye. Unsu is another kata thought to have been derived from an Okinawan folkdance, perhaps paying homage to the gods Fujin (god of the wind) and Raijen (god of thunder and lightning). It has been said that the kata embodies a storm, with the kata's techniques symbolizing wind, lightning, tornadoes, etc. Another school of thought suggests that Unsu originated from one of the Shaolin forms based on the techniques of the dragon (one of kung fu's five animals). In this scenario, the karateka personifies the dragon in combat, using its claws, wings, and tail to attack in all directions, flying through the air, and even breathing fire.
Whatever the origin or philosophy behind the kata, Unsu is truly a magnificent and extremely advanced form, requiring great speed and agility, but above all, explosive power. Just as clouds perpetually change, Unsu undergoes many transitions, making it one of the most dynamic forms of Shotokan. Changes in timing are plentiful in this kata, and attacks are thrown to all three levels of the body: jodan, chudan, and gedan. Stances also vary from internal stances to outer tension stances.
As one of Shotokan's most versatile kata, Unsu offers many unprecedented techniques and concepts. At 48 movements, Unsu contains a treasure of advanced hand techniques..Unsu's leg techniques, however, are far more interesting. Every kick found in the kata is executed in an unconventional manner contrary to normal training practices. The two mawashi-geri are the only mawashi-geri found in any Shotokan kata, and they are made while lying down! Since the karateka must literally fall down to perform these roundhouse kicks, the student must also have a basic understanding of break falling. The two mae-geri are performed with a reverse pivot motion on the snap back in order to quickly change direction, certainly a difficult technique to perform smoothly, never seen before and never seen again in any other kata. Mae-kekomi is a front kick with a thrust instead of a snap, whereby the heel is used rather than the ball of the foot. Mae-kekomi is rarely if ever practiced in Shotokan, except in this kata. The mika-zuki-geri, although seen in several other kata, cannot be used to its full potential since it is performed completely in mid-air. During this movement, the focus is more on the jump than on the kicks. This 360 degree jump is Unsu's hallmark and it is also probably the single most difficult technique in all of Shotokan kata. When done properly, the spinning jump is simply breathtaking, making Unsu a very popular tournament kata.
GojushihoSho – “Fifty-Four Steps”
GojushihoSho, or Useishi as it is known in Okinawa, is another kata accredited to Sokon Matsumura. Gojushiho is translated simply as "Fifty-Four Steps," making reference to the number of steps or movements in the original kata. Both versions (Dai and Sho)are highly advanced and quite long. It has been rumored that the names were switched decades ago for certain political considerations
Both kata begin with an elegant posture demonstrating grace and resolve. Both kata rely heavily on the use of the fingers for jabbing strikes. In GojushihoSho, spear-hand is the attack of choice although sword-hand techniques are also predominant