Western culture has long used swords, and the smithing thereof, as a signifier of Japanese culture. It evokes revered tradition, perfectionistic craftsmanship, and a capacity for violence equally impulsive and formalized, all of which carry aspects of cliché and stereotype to which Eastward-looking Western artists often fall victim. I think of books like Jay McInerney’s Ransom (“he took up his katana in its polished lacquer scabbard, the weapon made by the great swordsmith Yasukuni of the Soshu Branch of the Sagami School,” etc.), although more seriously unserious creators like Quentin Tarantino, equipping the heroine of Kill Bill with a blade forged by a master named Hattori Hanzō, know how to have fun with it.
Tarantino, true to schlock-cinephile form, named the character in honor of one played by early martial-arts movie star Sonny Chiba, a 16th-century samurai and genuine historical figure. Though he got a lot of use out of his sword (his achievements include helping the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu rise to rule over a united Japan), the real Hanzō didn’t make them. Still, we need not look back into the mists of history to find a master swordsmith, for they live and forge still today. Take, for example, Korehira Watanabe, subject of the four-minute documentary above, one of Etsy’s Handmade Portraits series.
“Today, there are only 30 people, including me, who are making a living as a sword maker,” says the Hokkaido-based Watanabe. “When I was younger I was making swords just because I loved it, but as I got older I started to think that I need to pass along the aesthetics and soul of the Japanese people through my swords.” This he seems to have accomplished against long odds, and in defiance of his practical-minded family’s wishes. “There are basically no instructions left to make Koto,” swords from the Heian and Kamakura periods which lasted from the year 794 to 1333. “It’s impossible to recreate the sword. However, that’s the kind that attracts me, and I’ve been trying to recreate it for 40 years.”
But as many a master craftsman of any nationality knows, striving to come as close as possible to the impossible holds a certain appeal. It also produces results: “I’ve finally succeeded in making a few similar to Koto,” proclaims Watanabe, but only within the past five years. A good deal of his attention also looks to go not just into shaping swords, but shaping his successor. “I want my disciple to surpass me as a sword maker,” a future for his student, and a future for the craft of swordsmithing itself, that he considers it his duty to ensure. With just a fraction of his dedication to swords — or just a fraction of Tarantino’s dedication to movies — just imagine the kinds of near-impossible we could all achieve.
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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.
Surely, by definition, this task is impossible. You can make a replica of a thousand year old sword but that’s as far as it goes.