Archetype

I toss this word around every now and then. This I think is a key element to understand, both when learning at the beginning of your studies and if you are able to acquire high quality pieces of any school or maker. These do not necessarily have to be Juyo or higher blades, the concept of archetypes apply everywhere. 

Dictionary

archetype

  • n.
    An original model or type after which other similar things are patterned; a prototype: “‘Frankenstein’ . . . ‘Dracula’ . . . ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ . . . the archetypes that have influenced all subsequent horror stories” (New York Times).
  • n.
    An ideal example of a type; quintessence: an archetype of the successful entrepreneur.
  • n.
    In Jungian psychology, an inherited pattern of thought or symbolic imagery derived from the past collective experience and present in the individual unconscious

All three apply when I talk about archetypes in swords. The first meaning is associated with something being the original of its kind, everything else coming after being some kind of copy or derivative.

The second meaning is the most important one, this is where the archetype invokes the idealized or perfect example of what something should be.

The last meaning is also important, as it plays with a collective idea of what something should be.

The second meaning

The best example of this to me is middle Kamakura period work. The ideal of a middle Kamakura blade is a wide body with an ikubi kissaki and a powerfully imposing masculine figure to the blade. These are usually highly active in the hamon as the typical schools associated with this are peak Ichimonji and then Rai, in particular Rai Kuniyuki and Niji Kunitoshi. All of these make work in choji midare and many are extremely flamboyant. 

Sanchomo (Yamatorige), Middle Kamakura Ichimonji

The reality of the middle Kamakura blade is that the sugata may be more gentle than the archetype, and ikubi kissaki is not so common to find, and as well due to polish all of the above can be altered and ground down and so lose their stature.

Where this becomes confusing to a beginning student is that the books are written with archetypes as the examples. We talk about the ideals more often than the practical reality. So a beginner, having read this middle Kamakura description, may fail to recognize one when he sees it because it did not check off all the elements of the archetype. 

When we talk about the features of the Gokaden of Yamato, Yamashiro, Soshu, Bizen and Mino we also fall into the talk of archetypes. When you read the summary you find out that Yamato blades show masame and Bizen show utsuri with nioi deki and Soshu is nie deki and so on. Then when you go to classify a blade you scratch your head because about 90% of blades are itame and nie deki is actually found in every tradition. So the practical reality ends up being a bit harder to sort out than just simple comparison against a list of features.

The same way sugata is not a perfect measure of the time of manufacture. Shorter katana were made in the Kamakura period, though books (my own included) state that they come about in the Muromachi period. They were just not made as often as tachi or preserved as often, but good examples do exist of Kamakura period katana.

Nakigitsuke (the Crying Fox) by Awataguchi Kuniyoshi

This katana is middle Kamakura period and does not fit the archetype whatsoever. It is 54 cm, and by modern measurement is a wakizashi, but at the time it would likely be a koshigatana, worn in the same way that katana and daisho would be worn in the Muromachi period. 

What it does is lay down the groundwork for Nanbokucho period ko-wakizashi that share its form and general shape but are generally shorter. As such they are more likely related to blades like this middle Kamakura sword than to be extended Kamakura period tanto that they are often written as being. 

So it remains important to know that even when a blade does not fit the archetype, it can be a common or a rare example of its time period. These sometimes are unfair to use for kantei because kantei is built around teaching and explaining the archetypes. But they are good to put under someone’s nose to see what they say and to make sure they’re aware of the fact that exceptions do exist.

I was given three blades once by a dealer in Tokyo to do kantei on and I put them to Ichimonji, Osafune Kagemitsu and his son Osafune Kanemitsu. This answer was considered mostly correct, but wrong. The answers were Kanemitsu, Kanemitsu and Kanemitsu. The first being an example of him copying the style of Ichimonji and the second being very early work of his where he did not yet establish his own style but was simply working in the style his father taught him. A good learning experience, but you could answer correctly by saying Kanemitsu on one of these but having your intent be wrong so your answer after all would be wrong as it wasn’t motivated by good information. Just getting to the right answer by accident does not count. 

That is, to say Kagemitsu on a sword that looks very much like Kagemitsu is probably a better answer than saying Kanemitsu flat out because you would be communicating what you see: a Kagemitsu style blade. If you do have ultra scholar powers though, and could see right to the truth of it, the best answer would be Kanemitsu, working in the style of his father, rather than say a rookie who knew only one Bizen smith and spitting out the name.

In this you would be recognizing the archetype of Kagemitsu and that this blade was corresponding to the archetype. That is the key point to recognize. 

Other Examples

Chogi who is often mentioned in the same breath as Kanemitsu also has an archetype. This type of blade is wide and long, with a big kissaki and flamboyant hamon. Such a blade closely fitting an archetype of a major smith like this becomes easy to kantei and if the condition is good it will rise to Tokubetsu Juyo rather easily, similarly with middle Kamakura blades that fit the archetype.

Chogi Archetype, Tokubetsu Juyo

A blade that is more beautiful and better condition but lacks some of the signature elements of the archetype may actually be harder to pass Tokubetsu Juyo for that self same reason.

As an additional example, the archetype of Go Yoshihiro has an ichimai boshi. 

Go Yoshihiro Archetype, meito Okubo Go, Juyo Token

However, not all Go Yoshihiro have this feature. Not even the majority of Go Yoshihiro have this feature, but it is part of the archetype description of Go. Thus, if you see this feature you should be thinking about Go. But, if you don’t see it, it does not mean the blade should be ruled out as Go. This second aspect is what gives the beginners some problems because they fail to see the rule as inclusive rather than exclusive. 

To have a blade correspond to an archetype is a very good thing, but it can also be a very rare thing, this is important to recognize.

When a blade stands away from the archetype, sometimes it is in its shadow. What is similar to the archetype makes that blade very strong, but what is dissimilar keeps it from being top-elite. A fantastic Soshu blade in the style of Masamune but not exactly on may be masterwork of Shizu. Or it may just be a lesser work of Masamune compared to what we desire out of the archetype.

Sometimes a blade is a reflection on past works, sometimes deliberately an utsushi or copy of past works, or else the style of the times just throws back to days of yore. 

This Umetada Myoju work which is Juyo Bunkazai consciously recalls the Soshu structure and shape of the Nanbokucho period without explicitly copying another blade. He’s made it at the size of a suriage blade that would be comfortable to use in his time in the Momoyama period. If this happens enough, though those shapes are reflections of archetypes past, the style can end up being an archetype in the blade’s own time period as well.

Umetada Myoju, Juyo Bunkazai

When it comes to shinto smiths like the 2nd generation Tadatsuna, they become famous for some stylistic element or feature in their work. Tadatsuna is famous for his horimono, thus the archetype of a Tadatsuna has such horimono.

Ikkanshi Tadatsuna, Tokubetsu Juyo

It’s important in this case that the smith in question has made this horimono, and in fact he’s signed the sword saying hori-do-saku or that he himself made this carving. 

Sometimes people have added horimono to a blade like this and in later years a dealer sells it with a statement that “While it is not clear who made this horimono, it is certainly excellent work.” I can tell you that if it is not clear who made the horimono on a Tadatsuna sword, then it is clear who did not make it and that person who did not make it is Tadatsuna.

However, you can see in this that the call of the archetype is strong. Much of his work does not have these horimono on them, but people will dummy them up so that they have this feature to make it correspond with his archetype and so become more valuable. 

Even if a blade does not fit the archetype properly, it can still rise to top levels. It does so against the grain of the archetype, which can imply then that the work is just so excessively good, it doesn’t matter anymore about the departure from the idea of what the perfect shape or style should be for it. Two of the three Kokuho Soshu Sadamune tanto are essentially straight tanto that look more like earlier Soshu work than the form he’s famous for.

Though the Kokuho Terazawa Sadamune has all of his forging features, and is surely by his hand, the shape is outside of what would fill the archetype. The Tokuju Zentoku-in Sadamune though fits the archetype perfectly. The curvature and bonji just complete the picture of what we hope for in the ideal Sadamune, though the Terazawa Sadamune is better made and is much higher ranked at Kokuho.

Zentoku-in Sadamune
Terazawa Sadamune

 


An archetype serves as a tent pole that holds up the tent. Anything that fits into the tent is going to work as an answer for kantei or for attribution. But the closer to the pole you get, the closer to the soul of the smith you are and if you get right on the pole itself then you have a pretty rare ideal example of what we hope for in the smith. 

Practical implications

There are of course two practical implications of this which also move a bit in lockstep, and they are of course the papers a blade may get and the price it may ask in the market.

The tentpole type ideal examples are usually candidates for Juyo and Tokuju if the smith is a high ranking smith. The closer you are, and all the other conditions apply as well to making a blade important, the more likely you are to succeed.

Similarly a blade in absolutely typical style with all the bells and whistles associated with the smith will come along with a step up in the price it will get in the market. These pieces are generally more desirable. 

I once had a request for a blade, where the potential buyer asked me for a middle Kamakura sword and it should be by an important school or maker. It should have ikubi kissaki and a masculine strong hamon with a wide mihaba and in good health with a lot of activity in the hamon. He told me then, “Don’t worry about it being Juyo.” My response made him angry, which was that I thought he didn’t have to worry about such a blade being Juyo, he had to worry about it being Kokuho. 

So this potential buyer was clued in enough to understand that these were all important elements to have in a middle Kamakura piece but he got the paper cart before the sword horse, in thinking that by not worrying about it being Juyo he could cut the cost by 50% or 75%. The reality of the blade that he described is that it will pass Juyo any day of the week and the red carpet would be rolled out for it. Such a blade would sell on all its obvious merits regardless of the level of the paper, and it is the kind of blade that I would say it’s already Juyo, it’s just waiting. This gets into the past discussions about papers and misreading what is the leader for valuation (sword) and what is the follower (paper). Papers underwrite the value and establish a bottom support line for valuation but say nothing about the top. It’s not possible to outsmart the market and pick up a mint condition middle Kamakura Ichimonji with all the bells and whistles for  nothing unless the seller is not aware of what the blade is. So, if it’s rusty and you’re buying at a flea market, you have a chance but you better understand what you’re looking at. 

Multiple archetypes

A smith like the 2nd generation Izumi no Kami Kanesada (Nosada) was very talented and able to work in multiple traditions. This smith is probably the best of the pure Mino smiths and in overall talent in the Mino tradition he ranks probably second, only to Shizu Kaneuji. In the middle to late Muromachi there is only Yosozaemon Sukesada who I think had similar levels of talent (Yosozaemon is a bit higher). Both of these smiths were able to work in multiple styles, and Nosada in particular specialized in making Rai copies. Why he did this is not clear, but he was quite successful at it. 

Nosada, pure Mino archetype
Nosada, Rai archetype

 

For a smith like him or like some of the Shinshinto smiths who worked in multiple Koto traditions, their own work then has several archetypes. For Nosada it would be Mino with a tadpole type of hamon and then this Rai style. So for a collector, works that exhibit all of the interesting aspects of one of those archetypes exist independently of the others. That is, there are two or more poles in that tent holding it up, and though you may be far from one pole you may be close to another.

Antipoles

Murasame Sukehiro, Tokubetsu Juyo

Every now and then one of these smiths made a one-off type of blade. They are not at all in a typical style for the smith, they are unusual and because they are unusual, the fact that they depart far from the smith’s normal style is what makes them extremely interesting. This Sukehiro has the name Murasame and sold for around 65 million yen at the Dai Token Ichi in 2017. It is not like any other work of Sukehiro, though an expert would be able to deduce it from the smaller details of the construction, the shape and style doesn’t correspond to anything else he ever did. As such, it is obviously very interesting, intriguing and valuable. 

This following wakizashi is an example of Nosada who I was just talking about above. When I got this wakizashi I was a beginner. From what I could see it was legitimate, but the hamon is in the style of Kanemoto and not Nosada at all. As a result, all my friends and the internet said it can’t be legit because it does not correspond to the archetype. Not in those words, but this was what they were doing… going to the books, looking up the summaries, and stating what they saw. 

What they overlooked was the masterwork in the forging and the excellence in the hamon. This sword had no problem papering to Tokubetsu Hozon, the signature is legitimately signed with the Nosada-style signature Kanesada switched to in the last half of his life. It is written in old books that he had a very close relationship with Kanemoto, and that they were sworn brothers. 

So what we are looking at is very likely evidence of this relationship, in this blade. Though that information was in all the books, the internet glossed over that fact and simply descended on the list of features associated with the archetype. That as mentioned above is thin ice to be standing on.

To my knowledge this blade is the only Nosada that exists with a sanbonsugi hamon. This makes it an antipole and very interesting work to have for any collector interested in the Mino tradition and it certainly stands out as the best Muromachi Mino work I’ve ever seen.

Conclusion

So like a lot of these things, it ends up that there is something useful to take out of both sides… that is, archetypes are very important and serve as the guidelines for kantei and attribution. As such they represent the center zone of a smith’s work style and works that fit that archetype are particularly precious.

But also, working to the archetype slavishly, without thinking, and just looking up features in books then sliding your finger over and seeing if that’s what you observe in a blade doesn’t give you the whole picture. And because a blade is a bit outside the archetype won’t stop it from going Kokuho, or being precious and interesting, particularly if it is an interesting departure from what is normal for the smith.