It’s just one guy

I posted before about the study of generations in attributions. In the past it’s been considered that there were two generations (or more) of various smiths and I took out examples like Kanemitsu and Motoshige. These smiths lived long and prosperous lives and as a result saw a lot of style changes due to the times changing under them.

Think about the clothes you were wearing 30 years ago and what you’re wearing now. Well maybe that’s not a great example because some of us (ahem) kind of get stuck in time and don’t move too much. But if you go back far enough you will find photos of yourself that look out of place with today’s fashion. If you go back even further you may see clothes that repeated fashions from previous times.

The genius of the Ko-Bizen smiths seems to be that they experimented and tried out many different styles. There are some with hamon that look like good Soshu den, there are some that completely predict the Ichimonji styles of the Kamakura period. In general though the work of Ko-Bizen can be said to have a natural feeling and construction compared to a more forcible infliction of the smith’s will on the blade as we see happening with middle to later period Ichimonji work.

What is important to realize is that there was a general move toward choji style in the middle Kamakura that extended past the Ichimonji smiths of Bizen. It embraced Osafune, Rai, Hatakeda and early Ukai schools probably among others.

Before this middle Kamakura explosion we have more sedate styles in Ko-Bizen and Ko-Ichimonji, and as a result there are two smiths in particular that got chopped up into generations and in fact different smiths and probably it shouldn’t have happened. It happened again after the middle Kamakura choji experiment was finished as well.

I went over Nagamitsu before in examples of smiths who saw a change in style. He starts his work making vibrant choji midare like his father Mitsutada and then goes on to making more calm suguba based works. The style change was enough that it was believed for a long time to be the result of two generations (as usual).

Whenever you think about it though, it makes very little sense that a second generation is responsible for a drastic change in style. The reason for that is simple: he makes swords as his teacher taught him to make them. So his initial style should always resemble or be close to that of his teacher. Any style change is something that a smith will be responsible for on his own, as an evolution.

I covered a lot of the examples before, but I didn’t touch on the earlier works of Bizen Kamakura.

Two smiths in particular are very famous, Osafune Mitsutada and Ichimonji Yoshifusa as having flamboyant choji based work. 

Yoshifusa has been split into as many as three generations, the earliest thought to be one Gotoba’s teachers, and then possibly two followup but maybe unrelated generations. 

Some of the earliest work has in the past been classified as Ko-Bizen or Ko-Aoe, but recently the conclusion is that this is just the inherited style of Yoshifusa and the vivid choji midare he develops is part of his path as an artist. So rather than two or three generations, currently the best conclusion is that it is just one. All the same guy, with early period and late period work. There is some style change with the signature as well over time, and maybe I’ll get into that later on when I can go over some oshigata, but the changing style of signature parallels the work and is just the evolution of one artist.

What may be a bit more surprising is Mitsutada.

In Juyo 18, 22, and 28 three blades passed Juyo as Ko-Bizen Mitsutada. One of these blades (the one in 18) was owned by the Tokugawa Shoguns. You can bet they understood it as Osafune Mitsutada. 

These are the three:

The last one is signed Mitsutada Zo with one character rubbed out and the NBTHK said DEN Ko-Bizen Mitsutada on it. The Zo (造) makes it uniquely signed among all Mitsutada works (Ko-Bizen or Osafune) and brings to mind Hatakeda Moriie who worked at the same time, in similar styles, and often signed with Zo at the end of the mei.

All three of these are based in suguba which is interesting. 

The thinking now (at least coming from Tanobe sensei) is that this is simply the early work of Osafune Mitstada and like Yoshifusa his training and style matches those of the early Kamakura period. 

The latest blade to pass Juyo is almost entirely in suguba and is simply stated as Mitsutada. In the setsumei there is discussion about Ko-Bizen Mitsutada and Osafune Mitsutada and talking about the early work of Mitsutada, so in this blade the NBTHK starts walking out into making a conclusion on the fact that these are the same swordsmith.

When this sword passed Tokubetsu Juyo, all doubts were moved and in the setsumei the blade is directly stated to be Bizen no Kuni Osafune Mitsutada and that it is middle Kamakura period. 

It’s very interesting for the study of Mitsutada as it shows that Ko-Bizen style is the origin of the long line of Osafune smiths that would follow Mitsutada. 

It’s good also for students to keep this example in mind, as the Ko-Bizen Mitsutada attribution should be thought of as a dead end line of thinking, along with some other things like Nidai Norishige.  Also it bears in mind very importantly when thinking about Yoshifusa, as the question of “Which generation is it?” no longer applies in these cases. Mitsutada, they are all the same guy. Yoshifusa, they are all the same guy. 

This chart illustrates the evolution of Mitsutada’s signature.

The very last panel shows Nagamitsu’s mei and those from the end of Mitsutada’s tenure show an identical mitsu character. So it would appear that Nagamitsu was signing for his father at the end. 

Ideas to take home

We have to remember that the idea of Juyo and publishing important works for study has been an educational experiment, and as more works are found they rewrite the book and correct past thinking. We always need to be able to keep our minds nimble and to adjust to new information as it is found.

In spite of this, in the case of Rai Kunitoshi and Niji Kunitoshi, the tradition is maintained and the labels serve as descriptions of the style (which is rather radically different). So when you read these attributions you need to always understand that they both mean Rai Kunitoshi, they are all the same guy, but one means the first half of his career with corresponding style (and also signature if present) while the second means the second half (and corresponding signature). It is an error to refer to Niji Kunitoshi as Rai Kunitoshi without making it clear that you understand what you’re doing. If I am going to sell a Niji Kunitoshi for instance, I am going to talk about the Rai school and Rai Kunitoshi a lot, because “that’s who he is,” but when I refer to the blade I am going to call it Niji Kunitoshi. 

I made some hard points about this recently when talking about the difference between Masayuki and Kiyomaro. It’s not proper to call a Masayuki blade “Kiyomaro” because it’s not. It is Masayuki. It’s signed Masayuki and this was the name of the swordsmith at the time he made it. Those works he signed Kiyomaro should be called Kiyomaro. Conflating the two is an error, the same as calling a Niji Kunitoshi work “Rai Kunitoshi” because in practice they are not interchangeable stylistically nor are they interchangeable in the marketplace. Using the correct nomenclature when referring to the blade leaves no room for doubt or confusion. 

Going back to Mitsutada and Yoshifusa we can possibly address the earliest work as Ko-Bizen style Mitsutada or Ko-Bizen style Yoshifusa when speaking about it. 

In the case of the old papers to Mitsutada where they specify Ko-Bizen there is now onus on the person selling them and the person buying them to study and know the difference.

Of course not so many people keep up with developments and when a Ko-Bizen style Mitsutada sells with the older papers as they are, it will very likely sell into the market with a major discount. This happened at the last Dai Token Ichi. I am told the buyer did his homework though and understood what he was buying. If the seller knew or not, I don’t know, but depending on what they both knew and chose not to argue about there would be a huge difference in the price. 

As such these Ko-Bizen style works shouldn’t sell as any kind of discount but are particularly rare and important because they show us where the smith came from as a young man. If you want to do it right you should probably just go and buy one each of Ko-Bizen and Ichimonji-style choji works of both smiths just to be careful. Then you’ll have to sell your house but houses are overrated.