Sengo Muramasa Yari

Sengo Muramasa

periodMuromachi Koto (ca. 1500)
designationNBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon
nakagoubu, two mekugiana (both original)
nagasa12.2 cm

Muramasa is one of the most famous names in the world of Nihonto, second only to Soshu Masamune. Legends have been handed down over the years, saying that Muramasa blades will cry out for blood in the night, or that once unsheathed a Muramasa will cut flesh before it is put away. There is also the story of the Masamune and Muramasa swords dipped into a flowing stream... leaves that moved by the swords would gently alter course to flow around the Masamune while the Muramasa drew them in and cut them in half as they passed.

These legends have their basis in some unfortunate incidents that befell the Tokugawa house at the edge of several Muramasa blades.

In 1535 Kiyoyasu, grandfather of the first Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, was struck down by his retainer Abe Masatoyo. Kiyoyasu was said to have been cut in two by the Muramasa blade used by his attacker. In 1545, Matsudaira Hirotada (Ieyasu's father) was attacked and killed by Iwamatsu Hachiya, a retainer of his wielding a Muramasa sword. Ieyasu as well wounded himself badly with his own wakizashi bearing Muramasa's signature. When Nobuyasu, the son of Ieyasu, was ordered to commit seppuku by Oda Nobunaga in 1579, the blade that was used by his second to sever his neck was a Muramasa katana. The last event was after one of the generals of Ieyasu (Oda Kawachi no Kami) put his yari through the severed head of an opposing general after the defeat of Ishida and Konishi in Keicho 5. Ieyasu asked to inspect this very sharp yari, and cut himself on the blade. One can almost imagine the sigh, as he pronounced that this yari must have been made by Muramasa. It was, and that yari sealed the fate of Muramasa blades as far as Ieyasu was concerned.

Given these events and what would seem to be a curse on the house of Tokugawa by the way of Muramasa blades, Tokugawa Ieyasu banned the ownership of them.

The response was probably predictable. Some were probably destroyed, but many of the blades were hidden away, and some had their signatures removed or altered in order to allow the owner to continue using them. Others were hoarded by those who bore the Shogunate ill will... and in some cases these people were found out and sentenced to death.

Because of this unique and interesting history in the world of nihonto, Muramasa and his blades became a fixture in stories, and in theater. And these are the source of the legends that are still well known today, 500 years since the hammer started falling in the forge of Muramasa.

In particular, those who resisted the rule of the Tokugawa sought out Muramasa blades. Fukushima Masanori (a general of the Toyotomi) wore a Muramasa katana and carried a Muramasa yari. A Muramasa tachi was worn by his fellow general Sanada Yukimura. This was fairly common in the Toyotomi forces, implying that the story was already out about the fate of the father and grandfather of Ieyasu.

Ieyasu took his ban seriously, though there have been reports that he may have even harbored a few of these blades in private. In 1634 Takanak Ume no Suke Shigeyoshi, the Magistrate of Nagasaki, was ordered to commit seppuku as he was discovered to have hoarded 24 Muramasa blades.

In later years, when the opposition to the Tokugawa would eventually topple the Shogunate, many of the resistance figures and eventually Meiji government figures would carry his blades. Albert Yamanaka relates a story from this period:

A story is told of an incident in Edo Castle. On Bunsei 6th (1823), Matsudaira Geki is said to have killed three men against whom he long held [a] grudge and the sword Geki used was a Muramasa. Geki was working with 5 others in the library of Nishimaru, he suddenly got up and without a word swung his sword, at which the head of Honda Iori is supposed to have flown off at the shoulders. Toda Hikonoshin got up to run but Geki cut him down diagonally in one strke across the shoulder. Numata Sakyo was slashed across the wasit and the second stroke down at the shoulders. The three were cut down in 4 strokes. The others, Kami Goro and Mabe Genjuro tried to run but also were cut down the back and across the buttons, though the last two did not loose their lives. This will indicate the capabilities of the Muramasa blade in the hand of a fairly good swordsman.

Mirror Hamon

Much like his unique reputation, Muramasa is known for some fairly unique features in his work. The first particular characteristic of his is the frequent use of a mirror image hamon. Turning the blade over, the viewer is confronted with a nearly perfect copy of the hamon from the opposite side. In this, Muramasa was particularly skilled because a smith differs from a painter with a brush, in that the smith has to guide the hamon in the way that a tugboat would guide a freighter. The hamon is responding to other forces other than the explicit instructions of the smith, whereas a painter has full control of his tool which is making the image on a canvas.

The hamon of Muramasa is usually midareba with very shallow valleys (almost touching the ha) between a cluster of gunome shapes. He is working in Ise province in the early 1500s, and it is thought that his kitae and hamon take on similar features to Nosada and Kanemoto of Mino province. Given the proximity and similarities in style, it is thought he had some interchange of techniques with one or both of the great smiths. Muramasa's hamon also shows the influence of the Soshu den, and his overall style is thought to be a mix of Soshu and Mino.

Nakago Style

Horimono do appear in this smith's work that show a relation to Heianjo Nagayoshi, who is considered to be the teacher of the first generation Muramasa.

The other easily identifiable feature one will see on Muramasa blades is the fish-belly (tanagobara) shape of the nakago. In my opinion, only the swords of Hankei have a nakago which are so individually styled that they are instantly recognizable as works by the particular creator's hand.

It is not clear how many generations of Muramasa there were, I have read different theories with between one to four smiths. While it is the general consensus that there were at least three Muramasa, with the Nidai being the most skilled and famous, Fujishiro writes in favor of the first of the line and the second of the line to be one generation working over the course of 50 years.

Fujishiro names him as Uemonnojo with a Buddhist name of Myodai, and gives a rating of Sai-jo saku for the highest quality of workmanship. His style of work tends to be cold and hard, with more emphasis on cutting ability than outright beauty. His mei is also cut most often in two characters, and one can get a particular forceful feeling out of the presentation of his name.

Muramasa Makura Yari

The Yari being shown here has been granted a high rating of Tokubetsu Hozon by the NBTHK. It is very difficult for yari to rate higher than this, though there are a small number of Juyo examples.

It has been made with a small size, and bears the signature associated with the second generation Muramasa. It also is accompanied by its pole and cover of a small size that would be suitable for indoor fighting. These are known as makura-yari, and were often kept by the bedside at night. Given the maker of the yari, and its build as a weapon of last defense in the household, it would seem straight forward to infer it being kept and handed down through a household opposed to the rule of the Tokugawa. Perhaps it was thought that a Muramasa would provide both the best spiritual and physical defense should the agents of the Shogun come for the owner in the night.

Sengo Muramasa Yari Koshirae

In terms of construction, this yari gleams with vibrant ko nie, and is made with the trademark gunome midare with ashi and valleys in between that reach down to the ha. Liberally strewn throughout are sunagashi with hakikake at the boshi, and the kitae is a tight ko-itame. The nakago is entirely original, and bears two mekugiana which are both used in its housing into the koshirae.

It is an excellent and complete relic, which in particular because of its intended use and its fine quality, verifies the legend of Muramasa in all ways.

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