The fundamental point of the tsuba is to have a good base plate. To have a proper plate, choice of metal, tempering, appropriate shape, and surface finish must be suitable to its function as a tsuba.
The ability of the tsuba artist was great in the inherent value of the plate. In the finest masters can be seen the great feeling and depth of understanding in the media. This feeling goes far beyond the mere surface decoration. It is to be found deep in the metal itself; in the forging, hammering, and the ability of the artist as a smith.
It takes years of patient work and a close study of the basic iron plate to achieve a clear understanding of the fundamental art. The primary value of this art is what separates Japanese metal work, either in the blade, or in the tsuba, from that of any other in the world. It is also what elevates this media of expression to a fine art. The depth of understanding needed by the student to fathom this art to its fullest is greater than will be required for other branches of the fine arts. These fundamentals are to be found to some degree in all branches of Japanese art, but only a few of the others are as demanding of the studentís fullest attention and understanding.
An understanding may be gained, to some degree, if one examines the philosophy behind the forces which created these works of art. The Japanese arts unite conceptual beauty with social life and the taste of the individual artist. The artist must have a full comprehension of the simplicity, refinement, and infinite variety of his art. The attitude essential to the study of tsuba is first, to have the ability to discuss the artistic value; under the assumption that the tsuba is a utilitarian object. For that understanding one should prize the artistic value, and inquire into the innate art of the tsuba.
The first essential of the tsuba is its artistic character; the shape, taste of the metal (appearance developed by the quality of the web, forging, and coloring during the years since its creation), variation of the web, structure of seppa-dai, hitsu-ana, and mimi. The artistic character indicates the true meaning of tsuba art, namely, it contains the first artistic value. The area of the second artistic value encompasses the design, inlay, carving, openwork, and other decoration. Even though the first value predominates, the tsuba must have harmony, contrast, and aesthetic composition when the second value is introduced.
The important points which constitute the first value are the quality of the iron, forging, hammering, and artistic rendering of the plate. The next most important point is the shape of the tsuba. The primary shapes, mokko, nagamaru, aori, and nadekaku are the most tasteful, round shape is the most common and easiest to execute. The shape of the seppa-dai and the hitsu-ana must be of good form and harmonious to the design of the whole. The most pleasing rim styles are uchikaeshi and sukinokoshi. The most common style is kakumimi-koniku. The web of the plate should have variation of surface treatment showing the skill of the artist.
In sukashi (openwork) the design and execution are of primary importance. Thus we should realize that the first artistic value of the tsuba is to be found in its aesthetics. With this in mind one will recognize that the decoration is of second importance. It is necessary to define sukashi. It is a type of carving which is classified as secondary value, yet on the other hand it may occupy a large part of the web area. In this context it would correspond to the hammered, filed, polished or other irregularity on the web. The sukashi of the kinko-tsuba makers should be considered as pure decoration, not having the skill or meaning of the sukashi found in the work of the tsuba-ko.
Those tsuba of primary consideration are strong in the fundamental aesthetic value. Yet this type is often paid least attention from a lack of understanding of this first value. The work of the second value is given high accord but we must consider its aesthetic value too obvious for serious consideration. Not only the best works of most professional tsuba makers, such as, the schools of Higo province, the schools of Kyoto, the schools of Choshu and Bushu, but the work of the Tosho and Katchushi are conceived after the first value.
The peace of mind in the Edo age spread over the country, and its influence was strongly felt in the new schools of tsuba artists. The work of the kinko was welcomed for its pleasure in ever increasing orders. This success with the new society was to grow in succeeding years to vast proportions. In the final stages all understanding of the first value was forgotten. Decoration became the only value, and the tsuba lost its true meaning. Mentally eliminating the figures of relief, the carving, or inlay on kinko-tsuba, the tsuba-ka (one who appreciates tsuba) can then judge how poor such tsuba really are. We can find none of the first value in such pieces, because they are composed solely of the second value.
The problem one must understand is that the kinko comprehends the second value to be the first value. But the master kinko understands that even the showy relief or inlay should harmonize with the shape, iron quality, surface quality, rim, and web. He may think that the style of the professional tsuba maker does not enhance his beautiful inlay, and in the end, the simple shape, round rim, monotonous web, featureless seppa-dai, and conventional hitsu-ana are desirable for the kinko style, because this will leave the attention focused on the show of brilliant decoration. It is thought that this monotony is really very difficult to achieve, and that the service of the tsuba-ko is really unfinished; nothing could be farther from the truth. What seems so polished and sophisticated is really only conventional mass production without the true feeling of the artist of the ability of the individual tsuba maker showing his work. The domain of the kinko is in the field of decoration, and we must not appreciate these tsuba, though brilliant in technique, for other than this value.
Now I will clarify the first value and closely examine its true nature. If I examine the shape in the work of the kinko I find the majority of them to be round or oval, and the relationship of length to breadth in the oval shape, or its curve, shows little definition. In mokko, nadekaku, or aori shapes, the ability of the tsuba-ko may be seen in the masterful skill they used in forming these shapes. The student should compare each of these points for himself. When he has seen thousands of tsuba he will soon discover that what at first seemed to be so original and creative is but uninspired conventionality lacking in real feeling or ability.
One must remember that the first value is not limited to work in iron. We need to consider that the mirror makers, tachi-kanagushi, and such individual artists as Umetada Myoju, Hirata Hikozo, and the first Yasuchika, used colored metals, kawarigane or irogane, and yet were primarily concerned with the first value. Two instances of decorated iron tsuba made by the kinko that show great ability in the use of iron plate are the Ko-Nara and the first Yasuchika. A few other artists who, at first glance, would seem to be conventional kinko will, after close inspection of their work, be found to be artists of the first value. Two such artists, who are often overlooked, are Tsuneshige, of the Nara school and Mutosai Yasuyuki.
Next to be considered is the social and historical relation of the artistís period to his work. The social atmosphere had great influence upon the tsuba produced in a given period. We may better understand the work of an age if we also know why, and under what conditions, it was produced. The appearance of Kaneiye and Nobuiye, the tsuba decorated in brass inlay, the power of the Shoami, or the sudden appearance of Myoju, and the rise of the power of the kinko; all of these are a response to the social phenomena of their respective periods.
We must also trace each school style from its inception to its decay. The Tosho, Katchushi, and shinchu-zogan were produced for hundreds of years but notable changes took place as the centuries passed. The student must be cognizant of the development of these changes. Some schools went into decline at an early period, such as the Goto who, after the fifth generation, were decaying, or the Umetada who, after the second or third Shigeyoshi were in decline. But some schools held the level of their production for centuries, such as the schools of Choshu Province, although their work is only rarely of first value, we find through the whole history of their work a consistency in the level of their production. In the end their tsuba were to vie with the best of the late kinko. The last work of the tsuba smiths was strongly influenced by the demands of the time. Such artisans as Natsuo and Shomin were required to produce what their age demanded, for the taste of the period called for minute carving and delicate inlay.
In the early stages of the development of the tsuba it was the group forces which influenced the style of the schools. Owari, Kyo-sukashi, Onin, Ko-Shoami, and others, were not so much the work of individuals as they were the product of a style created under the school name. The individual worker rarely shows through the standard style of the school. It is not until the late Muromachi age or early Momoyama age that the individual artist appears, in many instances as almost the by-product of one of the great schools. These first individual artists in turn created group styles that were to be followed in some instances for the whole of the Edo age, i.e., Saga Kaneiye.
The first and second generations of the new school style will show creativity and great individual merit from its new approach to the old conventions of the group style. But by the third or fourth generation of the new school the crystallization of the new style begins and all feeling and originality is lost to the imitative following of the masters original theme. This is why in many instances only the first few generations of a family or school show the true spark of genius which the later generations managed to lose.
Sometimes a late genius will appear through the conventionality of the later generations. Tadashige, a gifted student of Tadatoki, the fourth generation of the Akasaka school, improved the artistic work of the rim, taxed his ingenuity in the design of his seppa-dai, and renovated the school design which made a turning point in the middle of the history of this school. Other schools had late geniuses who revived or brought glory to a declining school before its final eclipse.
Please permit me to re-emphasize my adherence to the first aesthetic value. This does not mean that I expel the kinko per se. The over-emphasis on the work of the kinko was born in the writings of the connoisseurs of the Edo age after the Genroku (1688-1704) era. Tanaka Ichigasai and Inaba Tsuryo, who first placed the emphasis on the work of the kinko, set the tone for the study of tsuba which was not broken until the time of the late master Akiyama Kyusaku. It is my hope to bring to full fruition the budding ideas first conceived by the late Akiyama. If the student will understand the aesthetic values I have attempted to develop he will understand the true meaning and real value of the tsuba. When this occurs I will see my tree in full bloom.