Decoding the Kusanku Ninja movement

This text was prompted by the discussion under Jesse Ennkamf's article ( In that article, he raises some good points and also illustrates the confusion that surrounds the titular technique - often by demonstrating that confusion himself. Nevertheless, it was his article that made me publish these notes; so I decided to borrow his term. It is silly, but having invented some silly names in my lifetime, I know they tend to stick.

'Ninja movement' is the movement of Kusanku kata where the karateka either jumps or drops - depending on the style and his age - to the floor in a low stance while rotating; finishing by squatting on one leg, supporting himself on his hands. This movement looks so strange that most people either give up looking for an explanation for it, or create some rather implausible 'bunkais' on top of it. In this article, I want to demonstrate what I believe is the real meaning of the movement.

First, let us research the history. There are two flavors of the ninja movement - let us call them Dai (big) and Sho(small).

Dai version:
Extend the left hand; right crescent kick to the left palm; rotate 180 degrees leftward and fall forward onto both hands and right leg, while extending the left leg behind you. (1:05)

Sho version:
Slam your right forearm vertically into your left palm; lift your right knee. Rotate 180 degrees leftward while holding the position; then rotate another 180 degrees left and fall onto both hands and the right bent leg, while extending the left leg behind you. (1:10)

[I am using a bit of poetic license with the Dai/Sho nomenclature here. Truly speaking, Dai version is found in the Kusanku of Kyan lineage; Sho version is first found in Itosu's Kushanku Sho. Itosu's Kushanku Dai uses a hybrid of the Dai and Sho movement. However, the above are two extremes; if you understand them, you will understand their mixes too.]

You can immediately notice that both sho and dai finish with the same action; yet, the entry is different. Also Dai version turns only 180 degrees; Sho version does a complete 360 degrees turn.
It is probable that the principle of the application is the same too,with some slight variation.

Some thoughts and unsuccessful attempts

What is the core of the ninja movement? The body rotates like a spindle, at the same time dropping to the ground. Theoretically, there are the following ways this energy can be used:
1) Anchoring the enemy to your upper body, then dragging him to the floor (similar to judo makikomi)
2) Taking a part of the enemy's body and using your weight to press it to the ground (similar to judo waki gatame)
3 )Using the rotating action of your torso to 'scissor' the enemy to the ground. (similar to judo kani hasami)
4) Using the thrusting action of the lower leg to sweep opponent's legs (similar to the low sweep from a video game!)

Upon those concepts, I derived a lot of different hypothetical applications of the ninja move. Yet, none of them was plausible enough; I cannot go through that process here (you can look at Jesse's article for some of the similar-but-implausible applications).  All of them had that sweet smell of BS; of something forced; something that 'looks a bit like' the ninja movement, but nobody sane would 'code' like that.

Application - if it is a TRUE application - must explain all the peculiarities(signs) of the kata movement. It must explain all the whys. True application must answer the question why the technique is done exactly this way, and not any other way - any other approach is intelectually dishonest and fundamentally flawed.

It is not that the application is inspired by the movement; but the other way around - the movement was inspired by the (original) application!


The result

Finally, I managed to find an application that satisfies my rather strict criteria for kata applications. Among others:

a) It explains the ninja movement in both dai and sho versions
b) It explain the sequence as a whole, not just isolated position; and it explain it completely, ie. explains all the signs of the sequence
c) It fits the 'mood' of Kusanku
d) It is an effective and clever trick

From the principles outlined above, it is based on both (2) and (3).

As the applications are quite dynamic, I chose videos to demonstrate them. I selected my lightest student to act as a demonstrator, as I wanted to show the flow of the technique, yet to avoid a possible injury. Still we could not go at full speed :-( The demonstrators are David (red) and Zbynžk (black). I want to thank both of them.


Application, Dai version (codename: Bomber)

1) The opponent is grabbing your chest with his left hand, or perhaps you are holding his left arm with your right hand; doesn't matter. We need that left arm though.
2) Grab opponents left lapel or shoulder with your left hand.
3) Pull opponent into you and kick upward with crescent kick(actually, a hook kick, but nevermind) into his lower ribs/pelvis region. You are trying to get him to bend over and off ballance forward; the more he bends, the less you have to jump in the following part.
4) JUMP and TURN, hooking your right knee over his left upperarm. Jump so that you will sit on the back of the opponent's left shoulder. As you rotate, his left arm gets twisted around your right leg (keep holding his left hand on your right hip).
5) Keep turning until you face the same direction as your opponent.
The turning movement will lock the opponent's arm behind his back, while the weight of your body on his left shoulder makes him fall forward; as his left arm is trapped, he will fall flat onto his face. His left arm is locked by your right leg.  The final position is as in the kata - the ninja position, with your right bent leg locking opponent's left arm.


Note that David makes it a lot easier on Zbynžk by not putting his full weight on his shoulder and instead stepping down on his back leg, staying upright and descending gradually. In reality, he should put his full weight on the front shin, leaning forward and driving Zbynžk's face into the ground, landing in the ninja position.

(Also instead of rising crescent kick,which he doesn't like, David uses a twistkick into opponent's thigh. Apologies.)


1)The finished technique (note the ninja position)


2)Detail of the trapped arm



Application, Sho Version (codename: Twister)

1) Again, you need that left arm of your opponent. This time, apply a rolling elbowlock using your right forearm; making the opponent bend over. At the same time, lift your right knee and turn 180 degrees to face the same direction.
2) Press your right knee on the back of his upper arm and press down, while spinning and stepping down(across your left leg); pressing the opponent circularly down. Again, his left arm folds around your right knee and his leg hand is pinned to your right hip.
3) Keep spinning another 180 degrees while dropping to the floor. The turning/screwing movement of your whole body will force the opponent circularly down onto his face while dislocating his left shoulder.


Again, David is going very easy on Zbynžk; by descending slowly and folding the arm tighly to his hip only at the last possible moment.


Note that both versions use the same principle of locking opponent's shoulder by coiling your right leg around his arm and taking him down by dropping down to a squat; however, the Dai version uses your own weight to take opponent down; while the Sho version takes him down more by the means of the twisting armlock. This is why Sho needs complete 360 degrees turn; while Dai needs just 180 degrees (and the jump). However, the principial movement is the same - the downward screwing motion of the whole body.

The technique(especially that Dai version) might look 'iffy' to a layman; because of its quasi-acrobatic component. However, if you try it out, you will find out it is actually very 'solid'. It is a far cry from 'jumping armbars' of modern jujutsu; here, the opponent is controlled during the whole flow of the technique. You do not drag him down; you lock and press him down.




The 'ninja movement' of Kusanku codes the classic 'large elbow wrap' type of arm locking technique(see for example Yang,Jwing-Ming: Analysis of Shaolin Chinna,p.86); however, instead of using your arm, you are wrapping opponent's elbow with your leg, making the technique much more powerful. (As I say sometimes, it is 'large elbow wrap on steroids').

Simply coil your leg around his arm, put your weight on his shoulder, and squat. It is quite easy to dislocate the shoulder like this. [That using your leg to dislocate opponent's shoulder is not so unusual tactic in Chinese (and derived) martial arts can be seen in this article, excursus I.]

The technique is an elegant and powerfull takedown and immobilization, and can be very easily used to incapacitate the opponent by dislocating his arm; so be carefull when training it. Sho and Dai versions present different flavors: Dai with the more athletic, flashy takedown; and Sho with the slower, more controlled dislocation.


So there you have it. I believe this is THE application for the ninja movement; the one that lead to its inclusion into Kusanku kata. It matches the logic of the kata - actually, both of them - perfectly.
Of course, you do not have to believe me; if you still want to interpret the movement as a tai-otoshi, be my guest.



Excursus 1 - Kushanku Dai

Itosu's Kushanku Dai (for those Shotokan players: Kanku Dai, more or less; at least for the purpose of this discussion) contains a hybrid of the Dai and Sho movements; you use the armlock to bend him over as in Sho, then drive him directly down as in Dai.

I can see why Mr. Itosu would use this maneuver for his major (Dai) Kushanku: It combines the controlled bending of the opponent by the means of armlock(Sho) with the quicker takedown in the second part(Dai). I guess for the less mobile people, this version is better.

(This is, in fact, just a botched take of the Sho version; but it more or less matches the Itosu Kusanku application. To finish, David should just place opponent's hand on his right hip and lean forward into the ninja position. He couldn't, as Zbynžk was already tapping at that point. )


Excursus 2 - Finishes

The Sho version finishes by dislocating the shoulder with the 360 degrees spin; the Dai version actually moves into another finish. I purposefully omitted this finish, for the sake of brevity; as it is beyong the scope of 'ninja movement'.




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