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June 5-7 in 2020

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What makes a good Tsuba?

What makes a good Tsuba?

It’s a title that might be asking for trouble but bear with me a while. At Samurai Art Expo, in the exhibition and on the commercial tables, visitors will have an opportunity to see tsuba and other fittings of high quality and great beauty. When viewing all these important pieces, I thought it might be worth pausing to consider what characteristics make one tsuba better than others.

With swords it is easier. It is generally accepted that much of the intrinsic beauty within a blade is a consequence of the smith trying to improve its functionality. It is a classic example of form following function. Thus the shape, the hardened edge and the welded pattern all contribute to its efficiency as a cutting weapon. With a tsuba the function is simple; it prevents the user’s hand sliding on to the blade when they are using it. This being the case, a simple iron disc would suffice. Clearly the design of tsuba goes well beyond functionality. It effectively becomes a work of art where the composition plays a major role in the overall quality of the piece.

Two of the key elements to consider in assessing fittings are material and composition.

Material- As with swords, a good tsuba requires good raw material. If the material used is sub-standard it is impossible to achieve the desired patination and finish, which contributes so much to the finished piece. If the raw material is bad, the resultant tsuba will be as well. Taking this to the next stage, the patination and finish of the piece is equally important: the richness of colour and lustre achieved contribute enormously to the beauty of the end product.

Composition- While good material is essential, it is far from being the whole picture. There are many examples of fittings being made from top quality material that still fail to inspire the observer. Unlike swords, tsuba are far more about art than functionality. Assuming the materials to be of high quality, it is the composition that differentiates the great from the ordinary. This is of course very subjective and we all have our own ideas as to what constitutes a good composition. This is why there is such diverse range within tsuba manufacturing. However, there are some basic pointers to consider:

  1. Would it make a good painting? If the answer is yes, it suggests the balance of the component parts is aesthetically pleasing and works for the observer.
  2. There are two areas, in which Japanese artisans excel in regards to composition. The first is in taking a large subject and fitting it into a limited space. Whether this is a towering willow on a sukashi tsuba or a horse on a kodzuka, they manage to fit a vast subject into a very limited space without making the end result look crowded. The second key factor is the use of negative composition. They are not afraid to leave empty space within a composition. At first, this seems to contradict the first point, but in fact it compliments it. Some of the best examples of the art take a single object, reproduce it beautifully, then surround it with space. This approach creates a considerable impression of depth and magnitude.
  3. The final thing to consider in composition is the use of a partial subject. Recently described to me by a friend as the difference between starting with a tsuba and making a design to fit it or starting with the design and placing the tsuba within it. As with the points above, seeing part of a composition rather than the complete picture can greatly enhance the feeling of space and depth. It is a technique often successfully used in painting and one which adds greatly to the aesthetic of a tsuba.

To summarise the above: the creation of tsuba goes far beyond their functionality. In many ways they are more of a work of art rather than a purely practical way to prevent losing your fingers.

As an artwork there are two key things to consider. Material (quality, colour and finish) and then composition. As with all art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so what I like you might not and vice versa, but the basic rules on composition hold true regardless of subject. When looking at the very many fittings at the event, consider these factors and see if you agree.