Before I ever stepped bare foot onto the mat, I watched my son train in karate for almost a whole year. Because I sat in the balcony of the gym while I watched, I got to see patterns of the katas the class worked on from a very unique perspective. Since I was also a graduate student with a ton of reading to do at the time, one of my eyes was always in a textbook - but when I finally did take Sensei up on his offer to give the class a try, I knew mostly all of the first form. It's amazing how much can actually be retained by watching something being done over and over again.
The first seven forms in our style have the same basic foot pattern - just different stances and/or hand positions - so once you learn the first, the next six come in short order. Although the bunkai was explained to me as I learned them, I think I was pretty much just going through the movements and placing my hands and feet where I was told they were supposed to be so I could get through this kata and onto learning the next. Then I saw one of my training partners present Geki-Sai dai Ichi and everything changed. As she moved through the stance and block changes, I could almost see her adversary - and I got it: Sensei F's adage about kata being "motion plus emotion" rang in my ear. The fluidity was fascinating! I didn't know how to make my body do that, but I knew I wanted to learn. Back to the beginning to tighten and refine.
Lately, kata work has been highly specialized. Of course the bunkai is emphasized, but so much more attention is paid to the seemingly subtle things like hand placement, staying "in the dance" and especially breathing timed with the movements. I'm finding that where I used to be thinking about the next move, I'm now thinking about how effective and efficient the move needs to be and what I need to do with my arms, my hands, my legs, my feet and my torso to make it happen. Once more, I'm finding a new need to take them all apart, refine, tighten and clean them up again. It sometimes seems like an impossibly large undertaking, but very necessary. There is always something new to learn for sure.
Each day, it seems that the adage about kata being the art of the martial arts makes more sense to me - and like any artistic endeavor, it takes time, energy and work to make it shine. A musician friend of mine refers to the honing of the skills for his craft as "shedding" - as in taking it apart, doing it and doing it again and learning how to do it better, all in the woodshed behind the house, which is how it used to be done back in the day.
Heading to the shed!