Paper, books, wooden joints, tea whisks — Japanese culture has, for seemingly all of its long recorded history, greatly esteemed the making of objects. But no one object represents the Japanese dedication to craftsmanship, and within that the eternal pursuit of approachable but never quite attainable perfection, than the sword. You can see what it takes to make a katana, the traditional Japanese sword of the kind carried by the armed military class of the samurai between roughly the 8th and 19th centuries, in the 26-minute video above, which offers a close look at each stage of the swordmaking process: the Shinto blessing of the forge, the hammering of the red-hot metal, the tempering of the freshly shaped blade, the construction of the scabbard and hilt, the final assembly, and every painstaking step in between.
Originally produced for the United Kingdom's National Museum of Arms and Armour and Portland Art Museum's collaborative 2013 special exhibition "Samurai! Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection," the video's wordless but certainly not silent portrayal of this ancient and continuing practice has a kind of hypnotic quality.
But if you'd like a more verbal explanation to accompany your views of the making of a traditional Japanese sword, you'll get it in the 50-minute documentary above, The Secret World of the Japanese Swordsmith, a portrait of the highly respected Yoshindo Yoshihara, one of only thirty full-time swordsmiths currently practicing in Japan. If you then feel up to a Japanese swordsmithing triple-bill, give Samurai Sword: Making of a Legend a watch as well.
This 50-minute program tells the story of the katana itself, beginning with this breathless narration: "For over one thousand years, one weapon has dominated the battlefields of Japan, a weapon so fearsome that it can split a man from throat to groin — yet it spawned an an entirely new art form and spiritual way of life. A sword so technologically perfect in structure, so beautiful in creation, that it gave rise to an aristocratic warrior creed." It also gave rise to no small number of samurai movies, a tradition that many a cinephile among us can certainly appreciate. Though inextricably tied to a specific time and place in history, and an even more specific class that arose from the peculiar political circumstances of that time and place, the katana continues to fascinate — and in this digital, hands-free age, its makers draw a more intense kind of respect than ever.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.