Forging Imperfection

Is there a perfect blade? A perfect cut?

If there is, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one, or at least, I’ve never recognized it as such. That may say more about my powers of observation than anything else, but while I’ve been astonished at the beauty of some blades, and some cuts, it wasn’t perfection I was seeing. Any piece of steel forged by hand will have irregularities in it. Connoisseurs of Japanese blades seek out irregularities and celebrate them. Smiths strive to produce just the right irregularities in just the right places, to elevate the steel, to display its natural character or to create a specific effect in the viewer.

A beautiful blade is not perfect. My sword, pictured here, is hardly perfect. The afore-mentioned connoisseurs will probably point out that it’s not particularly beautiful, either, but never mind them. But I do love my sword, and I have grown to appreciate the beauty it has more and more over the years.

When I watch Sugino Sensei perform the kata of Katori Shinto Ryu, I don’t see perfection. I couldn’t possibly imagine how it could be improved, but I can see that his version of the kata is different from his father’s. It’s different from Ishida Sensei’s, or Iwata Sensei’s. It’s of course different from Otake Sensei’s as well. All the great masters that I have had the privilege of observing have performed the kata differently.

Those differences appear to me now like the grain in the steel of my sword. Subtle (or not so subtle) variations, all of which work together to make the steel strong and beautiful. If the steel had no grain or flow to it, it would be mechanical and lifeless, but Katori flows through its students, moving onwards from one to the next, and nobody does it ‘perfectly’. Everybody’s version is irregular somehow.

Through practice, those irregularities can be constrained, or directed, but if they can be eradicated, well, it doesn’t seem to be happening in my case. But just as a great swordsmith brings out the natural, inherent character of the steel when forging a sword, perhaps steady practice in Katori can do something with my own natural, inherent character.