Four Shades of Black is a feast for the eyes. Stark black pages with brilliant white text and lush monochrome photography worthy of any coffee table "art" volume aren't exactly what you'd expect to find in an ordinary martial arts book, but then again this tome is no commonplace karate book either. It illuminates the traditional path to becoming a complete fighter in a unique and very exciting way.
British Combat Association Hall of Fame member Gavin Mulholland does a fantastic job of showing how karate was developed as a complete and comprehensive fighting system, with kata (formal exercises) as the map and gradings as the compass to develop real-life fighting skills in a logical progression that builds from kata to kata throughout the curriculum. He ties seemingly disparate kihon (fundamental basics), bunkai (fighting applications), conditioning exercises, padwork, and partner drills together to demonstrate a complete package that helps practitioners ingrain the essential teachings of four Goju Ryu karate kata.
Goju Ryu is an Okinawan empty-hand fighting style that blends both hard and soft techniques. The key to learning this system is understanding its kata, four of which are explained in the book: gekisai dai ichi, gekisai dai ni, saifa, and seiyunchin. Gekisai dai ichi roughly translates as "attack and smash number one." It is generally the first form taught to new practitioners, hence utilizes a straightforward blitzing-style approach. Gekisai dai ni is the second kata of this series, showing more refined, non-linear movements and advanced open-hand techniques. While gekisai is a fairly modern kata, saifa is an ancient form that essentially means "smash and tear." Seiyunchin can be translated as "trapping battle," a grappling/close-quarter fighting form.
Each of these four kata is examined thematically, showing the principle, mindset, and applicable area of combat stressed by the form. Fascinating vignettes at the beginning of these sections give readers a real-life image of their utility as well. This approach breathes life into the text, helping readers visualize all the essential elements in a way that makes it easier to turn-around and practice them on the dojo (training hall) floor.
Although some of the examples used to demonstrate the bunkai are not necessarily the optimum applications for use in a street fight, they do serve to highlight the themes and principles of the kata they represent. Since the goal of the book is not so much deciphering fighting applications from kata, but rather demonstrating the holistic fighting system and logical progression of the art, this is easily forgiven.
Mulholland is an extraordinarily skillful practitioner, a guy with more than 30 years of training under his belt who has honed his fighting prowess working the doors of pubs and clubs throughout the United Kingdom. Readers can truly feel this experience in his writing. The book transcends the training hall bringing modern utility to the ancient art of karate. It is a well-written, unique, and interesting tome that should appeal to most any karateka, but especially Goju Ryu practitioners.
Author of Blinded by the Night, among other titles