Do you remember the intense glint of steel and the crazy swish of the blade in the hands of Uma Thurman in "Kill Bill"? Or the incessant clang of the reckless rapier in the hands of Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai"? And do you remember the moment when your palms gripped the seats of your chair in the Cinema Hall, forgetting for a moment that it was not you who held the might of the silver sheen that blinded in its fury?
The art of swordsmanship has been in vogue for as far back as the papyrus scrolls can tell, and throughout the world the art had evolved in different forms; none, however, can match the grandeur and the myths associated with the supreme sword - the Sword of the Samurai. And the first of such myths is obviously the one associated with its origin.
Legend has it that the first Samurai Sword, or katana, (the original Japanese name) was brought to this earth by Ninigi-no Mikoto, the grandson of the Sun Goddess Amaterasa Omikami. The first sword was created by Izanagi to kill (yes, kill) his son Inzanagi, the God of Fire, for causing excessive pain to his mother during birth, and on accomplishment of the task, was handed over to Omikami.
According to other historians, the Samurai Sword found its origin in the continuous, lengthy battles between the two elite clans of the Taira and Minamoto families. During the latter half of the 12th Century, these two factions continually engaged in battle to establish their supremacy; finally, around the late 1100's, Yoritomo of the Minamoto family led his clan to victory over the Taira family, and thus began the Kamakura period and with it, the Bushido (meaning "way of the warrior") or the Samurai code of loyalty and service. Yoritomo established the shogunate form of government, sowing the first seeds of feudal Japan. The era saw the rise of the warrior caste, more so because of the frequent Mongol raids. The Japanese weapons were no match for the Mongols', and the legend says that had it not been for a sudden typhoon that sunk the Mongol ships, the Kamakura warriors would surely have been laid asunder. The sudden halt to the war gave the Kamakura forces some breathing space, and it was at this time that they concentrated their efforts towards the development of better weapons and techniques. It is said that some of the best specimens of sword craftsmanship belong to this period.
The infighting amongst the ruling classes continued during this period, with Emperor Godaigo overthrowing the shogunate. The change of power was short lived, however; in the first half of the 14th Century (the Muromachi Period) the shogunate regained the throne, only to be cast into a civil war that lasted for nearly a hundred years. The war saw the development of superior fighting techniques, with the samurai stepping down from the role of a horseback rider to that of a foot soldier; the traditional bow and arrow also made way for the sword.
The Samurai usually wore two swords, one long and the other short. The long sword (katana) boasted of a blade length of over 24 inches; the shorter sword (wakizashi) had a blade length of anywhere between 12 to 24 inches. The oldest swords were straight and long, but were soon replaced by the sharper, tougher curved blades. The sword had its beginning as iron combined with carbon. To fashion a blade like this out of the then available materials (iron and carbon), the Japanese sword craftsmen perfected a laborious but very effective technique. They hammered together several layers of the metal of varying hardness, and then welded them together. It was then reheated and hammered thin. The process was repeated several times, and the final product was then covered with an adhesive with only the edge (the Ha) remaining uncovered was then reheated and hammered out thin again. The edge was now reheated and beaten to fine thinness, and the instrument was then soaked in water; thereby cooling the edge instantly, thereby making it hard and sharp, while the rest of the blade was cooled comparatively slowly to retain the softness. The blade so forged was then polished and tested on the bodies of corpses and condemned criminals.
The warring families of Japan continued through to the 16th century, and some of the more illustrious Samurai knights rose to eminence during this period. It was during this time that the martial art technique of Iaijutsu was developed. There is an interesting tale behind the origin of the Iaijitsu form of martial art. It is said that Hayashizaki Shigenobu, a samurai, enrolled in a local Shinto shrine to avenge his father's murder. After a hundred days of practice, Hayashizaki perfected the art of drawing, cutting and replacing the sword in a single motion.
The Samurai treasured their swords as they treasured their code of conduct - the sword was less of a weapon and more of an extension of the soul itself. It was quite common for the feudal lords to present swords as a prize, and it was not uncommon for a warrior to lay down his life to save the honor of his sword.
While the Samurai sword is now rarely used for bloodshed, it still retains its glory as a weapon of choice for martial art practitioners. The more combative, Iaijitsu form of the art has also now been replaced by the more graceful, fluid style of Iaido, where the focus is on understanding the spirit through a weapon that is purportedly of the physique.