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One of the most difficult concepts for people unfamiliar with nihonto, is the idea of generations of the same name. As westerners, we often think of great artists by one individual. ( ie DeVinci, Picasso, Michaelangelo.) When we look at Japanese sword smith schools, we can get easily confused. Imagine a group of artists who all signed their paintings as Picasso. Imagine four generations of Picasso, all using a similar style, using the same materials, even the same studio! Perhaps one generation displays the hand of a master, perhaps two? Maybe the best work of one generation is better than the worst work of another? I have read that many of the records in Ise province regarding the Muramasa school were destroyed during bombing attacks during World War II. In any case, most sources indicate multiple generations of Muramasa.
An interesting discussion on the NMB addressed the generations of the Muramasa school. Darcy Brockbank, an English-speaking Nihonto Expert, shared his opinion there: (used with permission of the author)
~~There is a lack of clarity around a lot of koto smiths. The reflex should indeed be to take the word Muramasa and then go to the so-called second generation. The problem is not so much with him, there is some clarity around him as he seems to tower over the rest, but there are some problems in the grey area that surrounds him. The first generation isn't mentioned by Fujishiro. The third generation he mentions and says that his work is extremely few. Various people classify something like 8 different signature types in different ways trying to draw the line around the second generation. Is it one, two, three or eight guys? It is not super clear, we know from the dates that there is enough time for several generations but there is some glossing together that goes on. Traditions were passed on from father to son and teacher to pupil, and since they are largely the same with very little differences, I will present them all together. This indicates not only that the style is shared, but it indicates that there is some lack of clarity in examining the work to determine who it might be amongst these teachers pupils fathers and sons. And where the first generation comes in as the so-called second generation is not his son is not entirely clear.
Masashige follows this too, they are about the same but a little more boring. More on him later though. About this lack of clarity, this situation is met several times with other smiths: Yamato Shizu, Yukimitsu, Naotsuna is a good one. The NBTHK glosses them a bit and mixes them together under one grouping and doesn't break them out to follow in generations. You don't see Shodai Tadayoshi blades mixed in with the second and third generations. They come after each other in chronological order. The clarity level on Tadayoshi is much higher than Muramasa which is a bit higher than Naotsuna and older smiths. Individual blades they may say this is second or third gen but sometimes no, sometimes they make it clear they are talking about the shodai. But overall they have kind of grouped them into one virtual guy about whom they are not prepared to make huge distinctions. Shizu is another and I made a point on a recent one I had up of saying that you need to go and read the commentary to be sure you know what they are talking about when they make one of these attributions.
They made one temporary departure on Norishige as well, there is one tanto among the Juyo token that is attributed to "Nidai Norishige." We do not now go out of our way to refer to Norishige as a group of smiths or as a shodai or nidai. But this departure from past and current practice, is classified within the block of "shodai" Norishige works. If there was clarity that yes there is a second generation, we know who he was, we know his history and we have his signatures documented, then they would place this one tanto in a section that follows the block of Norishige ("shodai") work. What they did do was place it last among the tanto though it should come before the shumei tanto. So it is in this kind of strange zone, embedded in the middle before the "shodai" mumei daito and mumei tanto but after the "shodai" signed tanto and shumei tanto.
The takeway from this is that sometimes there is not a lot of useful discussion that can be had about these things, and the practice of attribution sometimes is more about what is acceptable to the listener. Sato Kanzan writes about it at some point when he says that "Norishige, Yukimitsu, Masamune, these all mean the same thing." His listener is a bit confused, and he goes into depth saying that it means that the work is top grade Soshu but sometimes it is not so clear as to who has made this. They are aware that that level of certainty is not satisfactory to anyone so that they will find something from there to go on and lean one way or the other, but in practice the meanings are a lot closer than people would otherwise take home. In this there is not a huge amount of useful discussion that can be had about other generations. Fujishiro could not have useful discussion, he limited his comments to one sentence on the third generation and didn't even discuss the first, unless he believed the second to be the first and hasn't addressed the second then. Now all of that depth is just to set up that the NBTHK has glossed over the generational differences in Muramasa and placed the work together. This treatment is similar to Naotsuna and different from Tadayoshi. The lines are blurry and attempts to distinguish one from another with clarity are not easy. So it is falling into the department of there being a distinction but not a clear distinction. This is why I'm going to say "he" when talking about Muramasa. It is not related to my point about the work not looking correct for what was being done in Ise. Masashige though is clearly broken out and I can tell you that the majority of his works are mirror image. Masasane doesn't have a good representative sampling and it's suguba based. So neither here nor there. He is the fourth generation of Muramasa and so you are expecting then that his work is somehow going to look like the second but not the first and third. So it is maybe passing over odd generations like red hair.
~~More on the clarity of Muramasa... the Nihonto Koza cannot shed much light, glossing them together as mentioned and giving this gem: "Thus, I wonder what was the actual period of the founder of MURAMASA Kei?" ... Here's what I counted in the Juyo zufu. 52 items, 14 katana, 14 wakizashi, 18 tanto and surprisingly 7 yari. Yari are never mirror images for anyone and I am going to discount them as this is not a yari. My yari also did not have mirror hamon but I thought it was just an outlier at the time, so I learned something about Muramasa yari here. From the comments and signature what I could figure for sure went to the Shodai had 4 mirror hamon, and 1 without mirror hamon. 1 other blade looked like it was meant to be a mirror but tempering was not perfectly balanced. Close enough to small notare that I couldn't judge it either way. There seemed only to be one that was directly stated to the third generation. It was mirror image. Masashige had three that mirrored for half, it looks like it's intended but not coming together, three clear no (one of which is hitatsura), five clear yes, one undetermined because they added the koshirae and didn't show the alternate hamon due to space concerns. Just over 50%. Masazane has one mirror but suguba over half of it, then the same bit of quasi-notare on the lower (goes up and stays up for a while, goes down and stays down). One more suguba but starts with a dip on both sides in the upper so counts. One hitatsura is a mirror. One slowly undulating suguba ashi fails the test. So 3 out of 4 again. In all this I think defends what I said.
On the Muramasa signed blades there is no departure from nidai to shodai to sandai in frequency of mirror image showing up. Sandai can't really be assessed with only one grouped in there. Masashige, majority mirror and Masazane 3 out of 4. So it evidence agrees with the Nihonto koza that there is faithful reproduction of style over the Muramasa name, and is pretty much what I said. I think if someone wants to make flat denials of the Nihonto Koza and of the Juyo zufu examples then the onus is on them to provide evidence for the opinion or just hold it as a contrary opinion with no basis.
Credit: Darcy Brockbank (as posted on NMB)