A Hypnotic Look at How Japanese Samurai Swords Are Made

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Japan­ese Crafts­man Spends His Life Try­ing to Recre­ate a Thou­sand-Year-Old Sword

Female Samu­rai War­riors Immor­tal­ized in 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Pho­tos

Mes­mer­iz­ing GIFs Illus­trate the Art of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Wood Join­ery — All Done With­out Screws, Nails, or Glue

Watch Japan­ese Wood­work­ing Mas­ters Cre­ate Ele­gant & Elab­o­rate Geo­met­ric Pat­terns with Wood

How Japan­ese Things Are Made in 309 Videos: Bam­boo Tea Whisks, Hina Dolls, Steel Balls & More

The Mak­ing of Japan­ese Hand­made Paper: A Short Film Doc­u­ments an 800-Year-Old Tra­di­tion

Watch a Japan­ese Crafts­man Lov­ing­ly Bring a Tat­tered Old Book Back to Near Mint Con­di­tion

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.

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  • Robert Gigs says:

    It’s clear that the Japan­ese are bet­ter mar­keters than the Chi­nese…
    Hard­ly ever is the Chi­nese jian — the straight, dubbel edged sword — sub­ject of these kinds of videos. Although in my opin­ion this sword is supe­ri­or to the katana.
    Look at this video: here a guy tests his jian and in the third cut makes an upward move­ment with the back side of his sword and cuts the mat.
    That’s the pow­er of a dou­ble edged sword.
    Espe­cial­ly with the beau­ti­full, sub­tle tech­nique of a tai chi mas­ter like Chen Man Ching you can see the beau­ty and pow­er of these swords.

  • Jamea says:

    Fol­low­ing on from the pre­vi­ous com­ment, it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that the Japan­ese learnt sword forg­ing tech­niques from the Chi­nese. It was only due to the unique cir­cum­stances present in Japan, both in avail­able steel and fight­ing tech­niques that the Katana dif­fered from Chi­nese efforts.
    Blade­sPro have a great arti­cle on the rise of the Japan­ese Katana forg­ing process https://www.bladespro.co.uk/blogs/news/authentic-samurai-swords-laid-bare.

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