Kano Natsuo MenukiKano Natsuo

periodEdo (1858)
designationNBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Tosogu
meiNatsuo (kao)

Before I begin, Markus Sesko's Kano Natsuo: His Life, His Art, and His Sketchbooks is the main source for my research on Natsuo. This is a really excellent and in depth book on Natsuo, and with the space available here I am basically paraphrasing what Markus has written. I highly recommend buying this book if you are a collector of sword fittings.

Kano Natsuo is along with Goto Ichijo one of the top two craftsmen of the end of the Edo period and is likely at the head of the list. He is the last of the great artists of sword fittings and some would say the greatest. By the time he died he had accumulated many followers and craftsmen working under him (over 60), was appointed to be Imperial Craftsman, made custom orders for Emperor Meiji, took on a professorship at the Tokyo National University, and sealed his place in history. Today his work is third overall on the list of Juyo Kodogu with 56 works, and he ranks in first place of all kodogu makers with seven Tokubetsu Juyo ranked masterpieces.

The last famous master of sword fittings was Natsuo who had transmitted this art from the old to the new Japan and saved it from Europeanization. Shinkichi Hara

Fushimi Jisaburo was born in Bunsei eleven (1828) in Kyoto to Fushimi Jisuke, a rice dealer. He was adopted at seven years old by the sword dealer Kano Jisuke and took his last name. Four years later, Kano Jisuke died and at twelve years old Jisaburo started an apprenticeship with the kinko artist Okumura Shohachi (奥村庄八) who was a kinko artist from the Goto school. With this training Jisaburo learned about the traditional materials, methods and themes that were common in Goto Iebori (house carving).

Kano Natsuo

Carp by Natsuo

When Jisaburo was fourteen years old, he also studied under Ikeda Takatoshi (池田孝寿) from the Otsuki school who were very advanced artisans in machibori (town carving) which had been developing the art in non-traditional forms, themes and materials. At the age of fifteen he took on the the art name Toshiaki (寿朗) being granted one character from his teacher's name.

At the same time, he learned classical Chinese under Tanimori Shigematsu (谷森重松) and painting from Nakajima Raishō (中島来章, 1796-1871) from the Maruyama-Shijō school (円山四条). His training as a painter (an art in which he also excelled) and in classical art would have great influence in his design of his themes and subject matter.

At eighteen years old Natsuo (still signing as Toshiaki) became an independent artist and opened his own shop. He took inspiration in this time period from Ichimoniya Nagatsune, Otsuki Mitsuoki, the early Goto craftsmen, Somin, Yasuchika and Nara Toshinaga by making utsushi (reproductions) of their works. In this way he studied their style and craftsmanship and continued to develop his own skill and style. From this point on he would continue to study and develop on his own without any master.

In 1849 at the age of 22 he changed his name to Natsuo.

When I was twenty-two or twenty-three I experienced a first sense of maturity when carving kozuka with the motif of a tiger carrying his cubs over the river (two of them are extant today) and fuchigashira showing hares and waves, as these pieces were so much praised by everyone who saw them. Kano Natsuo

Edo Career

At the age of 25, Natsuo moved to Edo where he lived a humble existence and continued to develop his craft. Shortly after this in 1855 the Great Ansei Earthquake destroyed his house and forced him to rebuild. By 1864 Natsuo was married, had a child, and had several craftsmen working for him in his shop and had to move into a larger abode.

Kano Natsuo

Kano Natsuo

The Suiryuken

In 1869 his profile had risen to the point where he was asked to make items for the new Emperor Meiji who had taken power from the Tokugawa Shoguns. In 1872 in particular Natsuo received a commission from Emperor Meiji to make mounts for the meibutsu Ryusuiken sword, at the time 1,200 years old and thought to be the property of Emperor Shomu. The sword was taken out of the Shosoin repository and Natsuo made its koshirae. After this the name of the sword was changed to Suiryuken due to the fantastic mounts with dragons and waves he made for the blade. The blade is now Juyo Bunkazai.

As well the Imperial Mint asked him to design the new coinage that replaced the Tokugawa era coins. At the age of 51 in 1877, Natsuo received a court rank and now had 22 people working under him in his workshop.

By 1890 he now had 64 craftsmen working under him and the workshop had expanded again. He was now producing other fine art objects not associated with sword fittings. In 1890 he became professor at the Tōkyo School of Fine Arts. Early the very same year Natsuo was appointed to the rank of teishitsu-gigei´in (帝室技芸員, Imperial Craftsman), the forerunner of the later ningen-kokuho (Living National Treasure). In 1891 he was one of the first judges who was used to survey Japan and begin classifying important art objects, which was the origin of items becoming classed as Kokuho (National Treasure), Juyo Bijutsuhin (Important Art Object), and Juyo Bunkazai (Important Cultural Object).

Natsuo died in Meiji 31 (1898) at the age of 71 after having his court ranking elevated to sixth grade and his grave is at the Yanaka Cemetery in Tokyo.

His contemporaries described him as not really well-built and of average size and weight but having a very kindly expression upon his face and a Kyoto dialect. It is also said that his appearance became steadily more elegant and graceful as he grew older. Friends said that he was very polite and always stood up and interrupted his work to welcome a visitor personally instead of ordering a student to do so unlike many other masters. Regarding his thoroughness, it is said that when he was going to make a silver vase with a pine motif in katakiribori, he spent almost a whole year on the sketch, and when it was time to start the work, he again discarded the final sketch and started from new. So he ended up with a whole box full of sketches just for this one vase. He also usually made two or three test signings before he actually chiselled the Mei onto the finished work, and we know from people who knew him that even then it took him sometimes three such approaches until he was satisfied with the signature. Well, he executed the character for “Natsu” (夏) right from the beginning of his career in the cursive manner (夏) and it remained rather unchanged throughout his entire career, but he constantly “experimented” with the character for “o” (雄), and so it is assumed that his frequent use of hiragana and/or katakana syllables like in (なツを) or (なつを) for “Natsuo” goes back to this dissatisfaction with the harmony of the two characters on the finished work. Markus Sesko, Natsuo

Kano Natsuo Tsuba Sketches

During his life, Natsuo maintained sketchbooks as mentioned above, and thankfully copies were preserved and are available now. This allows a rare opportunity to see how his sketches evolved into finished designs.

Kano Natsuo Kano Natsuo
Kano Natsuo Menuki TaikanKano Natsuo Menuki Sketchbook CompositeKano Natsuo Menuki TokuhoKano Natsuo Menuki Mei

Kano Natsuo Menuki

These beautiful menuki are solid gold and were made in 1858 when Natsuo was 30 years old, and was the kind of piece that he made before taking on many students and craftsmen. These works of this time were the ones that created his fame.

These menuki are published and documented in the Natsuo Taikan, an important reference book on his life's work. Anyone buying these menuki should purchase a copy. The pages are too large to fit on one standard scanner, so I've reconstructed the page and shown it to the left. He sketched this design several times and copies exist in his sketchbooks on pages 25 and 37 in the sword related sketchbook, and on pages 98 and 100 in his general sketchbook. The entry from the Taikan is translated below.

No. 110 – hatō no zu (波濤図) – Breaking Waves, mei “Natsuo” (夏雄), made in Ansei five (1858), gold, katachibori

Natsuo’s sword-related sketchbooks depict several sketches for wave motifs. These menuki are small but the waves are expressed vividly and with strength and intensity. Natsuo also made tsuba and kozuka with wave motifs, showing them in a realistic manner and in various forms, e.g. from gentle waves on the sea to wildly crashing surges. Here the waves are magnificently captured right at the moment they break. Natsuo Taikan

When I saw these menuki in Japan I immediately fell in love. There are two major components to true greatness in art: vision, and execution. Both of these emerge through intense and thorough training, lack of satisfaction with the status quo, and exploration. Kano Natsuo's great success was in bringing traditional art forms into what was then a modern age and adapting them without sacrificing them. He was able to see outside the bounds of the current static limits of the status quo and find a path in which he could evolve the art. And, he has the physical talent, training and mastery of the craft to execute the vision he had. When I saw these menuki what I could feel immediately was the vibrancy of something alive and new in what could often be a static and moribund art form. These are more than menuki, but they are small sculptures by one of the greatest metal craftsmen of the ages. And they tell us a lot about what he could see and wanted to achieve and in the end, was capable of achieving. They feel appropriate to be used on the highest grade of traditional sword and yet they also feel so modern as to have been the product of a 21st century artist's brush.

The dynamic feeling of these waves is complimented by the material, as the reflections of the light make them look alive and moving as you view them from different angles. The lighting used to take these photos is different in the box shot below, vs. the others and the studio shot for the Natsuo Taikan. Each time the waves take on a slightly different look as the depth of the carving reflects light differently. Overall it is a brilliant design.

One note is to go back and check the images above of the tsuka for Emperor Meiji's commissioned tachi koshirae. You will see that Natsuo reused the breaking waves theme in this very important koshirae, but in silver.

Markus Sesko wrote in his book that many collectors that have a chance to own a work by Natsuo place it at the top of their collection and hold it as a high privilege. For me I feel the same way, this wonderful pair of menuki represents a chance for a collector to own truly visionary work by one of the all time greats. That the design is recorded in his sketchbook and in the Natsuo Taikan is also a rare opportunity for someone to own such a fully documented work of the master. They were owned for a long time in a Japanese collection and were not submitted to Juyo as many Japanese collectors prefer to keep a low profile with their items.

Kano Natsuo Menuki Box

These menuki are signed with a split mei on the bottom, so that when mounted the mei is visible. They come with a custom box as pictured above. I can imagine these in an at-home exhibit, behind glass with a copy of his sketchbook opened to the sketch and a copy of the Natsuo Taikan opened to the entry, with these in the center. It would be a beautiful display of a fine artwork from the end of the Edo period.

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