A legendary Japanese swordsmith from the 14th century. The swords he and his son Sadamune crafted are considered works of art rather than weapons, and are quite priceless.

The method he used to create his swords involved taking four masame bars, stack them on top of each other, and weld and double weld them 5 times over, producing 4,194,304 layers.
(32,768 * 4 = 131,072 * 2^5 = 4,194,304)

There is a legend behind Masamune's swords. One man took a Masamune sword, and another sword by rival swordsmith, Muramasa, and placed them in a river. All the dead leaves that floated down the stream towards the Muramasa sword were sliced cleanly in two, while all the leaves that went past Masamune's sword floated around both sides, never touching the blade.

Swords named "Masamune" and "Muramasa" both appear in various games of the Final Fantasy series by Squaresoft. The Masamune is always among the three or four most powerful weapons that can be acquired. In the original NES Final Fantasy the Masamune could be wielded by any character, even the magic-user classes, which were generally restricted from using sword-type weapons.

Masamune is also the name of the most powerful two-handed sword in Chrono Trigger. (Not a katana, strangely. The strongest katana is the Rainbow.) In the game, Frog is the only one capable of wielding it.

Created from the same stone used in the Mammon Machine, the Dreamstone, by Melchior in 10000 BC, Masamune was only a knife until used to destroy the Mammon Machine, when it turned into full sword glory. It is unknown whether it was broken right there or somewhere between 10000 BC and 600 AD: What is known is that the blade and the hilt were separated by the time Crono and his party got to it.

The sword houses two wind spirits, called Masa and Mune. (...) They defend the blade, waiting for those that are worthy to take it and try to fix it. However, only one being can use the Masamune to its fullest glory: the holder of the Hero Medal.

Little is known about Masamune's life. He apparently lived in Sagami province, near present-day Kamakura and was probably trained by swordsmiths from Bizen and Yamashiro provinces, present-day Okayama prefecture and Kyoto respectively. It is likely that he was trained specifically by Kunimitsu and Kunitsuna, two of the most respected swordsmiths of the day. Masamune also trained a number of important swordsmiths, including his son Sadamune. Approximately 50 swords by Masamune are believed to still exist, though not all that are attributed to him are actually signed by him.

In addition to the folding technique that jeremyf mentions above, these swordsmiths employed at least one other method of boosting quality. Iron with different levels of carbon content were forged together--higher carbon content for the sharp cutting edge, lower carbon for resilience and flexibility. This particular technique reached its peak during Masamune's time.

While these techniques led to a high quality sword, they are not exactly why Masamune and his school are today considered artists. Samurai of the time period wanted a weapon to be both functional and beautiful, so swordsmiths attempted to add beauty to the sword itself. Masamune and his school did this in two ways. The first method was carving. The carvings appear more often on the shorter swords and are typically derived from the rules and prescriptions of Esoteric Buddhism.

The other technique is known as hamon. Hamon, or temper patterns, are possibly the most beautiful aspect of Masamune's work, and the one that he employed more skillfully than his teachers or students. Basically the heated blade was coated with different thicknesses of clay, applied in patterns, then plunged into cold water. The varying times of cooling achieved thusly created contrasts in the color of the metal, leaving swirling, subtle patterns of light gray on darker gray on the blade. These are often compared to clouds, and indeed while you look at them, they appear to move. While the hamon of Masamune's teachers are fairly simple (except those of Yukimitsu), Masamune's hamon exhibit great depth and complexity, and most of his students seem to have followed this example.

Sources: Liddell, C.B., "Master at the Cutting Edge of Art", The Japan Times, May 29, 2002.

Masamune: A Genius Swordsmith and His Lineage, Catalog of the special exhibition: compiled and published by Sano Art Museum, Suiboku Museum, Tokugawa Art Museum, and Nezu Institute of Fine Arts; 2002. Curated by Takeo Watanabe. (nb: I saw the exhibit at the Nezu Institute in Tokyo on June 8, 2002.)

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