A Vintage Short Film about the Samurai Sword, Narrated by George Takei (1969)

Long before it was a nation­al­ist ral­ly­ing cry in Japan dur­ing WWII, the term Yam­a­to-damashii referred to some­thing less like racial impe­ri­al­ism and more like chival­ry — the “Japan­ese Spir­it” or “Old Soul of Japan,” as Greek-Japan­ese writer Laf­ca­dio Hearn wrote. Per­haps sur­pris­ing­ly, the “Japan­ese Spir­it” was not based in the mar­tial arts of the samu­rai at first, but in the schol­ar­ship of Chi­na, as the ancient nov­el The Tale of Gen­ji explains when defin­ing Yam­a­to-damashii as “a good, sol­id fund of knowl­edge… a fund of Chi­nese learn­ing.” This would change when the code of Bushidō evolved, and the samu­rai, with his elab­o­rate armor and ele­gant swords, became a cen­tral fig­ure of hon­or in Japan­ese soci­ety.

In The Japan­ese Sword as the Soul of the Samu­rai, the near­ly half-hour doc­u­men­tary above by trav­el­ing Amer­i­can doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er Ken Wolf­gang, George Takei nar­rates the tale of the samu­rai’s sword. The film begins with the leg­endary char­ac­ter Yam­a­to Takeru (who one schol­ar spec­u­lates may share a com­mon ori­gin with King Arthur). This ur-samu­rai inher­it­ed the first sword from the tail of a eight-head­ed drag­on that was slain by a god.

The sword, nick­named “grass-mow­er,” Takei tells us, is enshrined near Nagoya, “the sec­ond of the three sacred sym­bols of Shin­to, the nation­al reli­gion of Japan.” When we turn from myth to his­to­ry, Takei says, we find that the “ear­li­est known swords are found in the… tombs of the ancient Yam­a­to peo­ple, who are believed to have inhab­it­ed Japan between the 2nd and 8th cen­turies AD,” and who are the ori­gin of Yam­a­to-damashii.

“As Japan devel­oped, so did the sword,” becom­ing ever more refined in the coun­try’s Mid­dle Ages, where the weapon reached its “peak of per­fec­tion.… Its qual­i­ty has nev­er been sur­passed to this day.” The sword became a soul — and we, as view­ers, are treat­ed to an insid­er’s view of the meth­ods of its forg­ing. The smithing of swords is no mere craft; it is a “reli­gious rit­u­al” that begins with prayers and offer­ings — fer­vent impre­ca­tions to the gods that the new sword may approach the per­fec­tion of a “grass-mow­er.” The forge is lit from the alter’s fire, and it can take months, or even years, to make just one sword. Don’t miss the rare oppor­tu­ni­ty to see the process in just over twen­ty min­utes in this short doc­u­men­tary film.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Origa­mi Samu­rai Made from a Sin­gle Sheet of Rice Paper, With­out Any Cut­ting

How to Be a Samu­rai: A 17th Cen­tu­ry Code for Life & War

The 17th Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Samu­rai Who Sailed to Europe, Met the Pope & Became a Roman Cit­i­zen

Splen­did Hand-Scroll Illus­tra­tions of The Tale of the Gen­jii, The First Nov­el Ever Writ­ten (Cir­ca 1120)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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