I’ve been wanting to mention for some time the film Jiro dreams of Sushi. I saw it last year when it had its run at the local art cinema, and found it a very truthful and clear depiction of the mindset of the Japanese shokunin. That’s a word which might be best translated into ‘craftsman’, however that fall a bit short, as in the Japanese sense it has a meaning which goes far beyond the performance of a craft, but relates to an all-encompassing way of life. I believe this film is available to watch on one of the many streaming film suppliers online, so if you get a chance, please do check it out.
If you’re a foodie like me, you might also be interested in the series narrated by Anthony Bourdain entitled The Mind of a Chef. This series follows around Korean-American chef David Chang, who runs the famous Momofuku restaurant in New York. Several of the episodes travel with him to Japan, where he spent several years studying as a chef, and there is some great commentary to be found in there where Japanese master chefs talk about the nature of tradition and how it is only kept alive by innovation and people continually pushing the envelope, continually driving themselves to learn new things, to explore new possibilities. True mastery, after all, is never attained by way of remaining complacent about the skill level you have, but through the striving to develop oneself further, to find new challenges and overcome them, to continually seek to deepen your knowledge.
In that vein, I’ve been spending time of late translating some 75 pages of material written by a certain Mr. Kunimoto, who has spent the last 25 years of his life pursuing plane blade sharpening to the ultimate level. All of this started with an encounter he had with the renowned blacksmith Usui Kengo in 1989, four years after having set out on the journey of craftsmanship in wood. Usui-san, since deceased, completely re-set his thinking on what it means to be a blacksmith, to be a craftsperson, a cluster of skills and expertise going far beyond the simplistic picture Kunimoto-san had previously formed in his head that a all blacksmith equaled was ‘clang! bang! clang!‘ and little more.
What impresses me a lot about Kunimoto’s writings, where he details the continual stumbling blocks and problems he overcame as he tried over and over again, through countless tests and experiments, successes and failures – a continuous drive to make his plane edges sharper and more durable – was his contention that only by making a plane function at its highest level do we really get a chance to glimpse the true genius of the blacksmith. That is the highest honor we can pay the maker of the tool – to make their tool ‘sing’. It’s a parable of sorts about human potential I guess, and the glory, the exhilaration, that can result when it is manifested at a high level.
Kunimoto always asks himself, “what can I do today to draw out even more performance from this plane?”. “Is there more to be found here?”
I figure he knows what he’s doing, not only from the tremendous detail in his writing, which can be a bear to translate, and not only by the results he has achieved, but by the fact that one of the top blacksmiths in Japan today, Funatsu-san, sends him planes for testing and evaluation.
It’s inspiring for me to follow this artisan’s journey, and I’m certainly learning a lot of new things about the bizarre world of edged tool performance at the micron-level. I admire Kunimoto’s dedication, fortitude, and mindset very much. To work away at a problem, to create thought experiments to explain a certain behavior and then to thoroughly test them. To be in the pit of despair and darkenss and suddenly have the light bulb come on – ‘aha! Now I get it!’. For me, that’s a great thing.
I happen have an Usui Kengo blade plane called Kenkon, the ‘Spirit of the Sword’ hanging on the wall. I acquired it a couple of months ago as a nearly-new tool, and am looking forward to putting it through its paces someday soon, to see how much of the blacksmith’s spirit I can draw out of the plane. Hopefully, in time at least, I will be able tune this plane to a degree to do justice to Usui’s work and maybe obtain a glimpse his mastery over metal. For the moment the plane sits, acclimatizing to my shop, along with 3 other planes I have picked up in recent weeks.