Omori Eishu

period Edo (ca. 1760)
designation NBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Tosogu
mei Omori Eishu (kao) – 大森英秀 (花押)
measurements Fuchi 37.5 x 22mm, Kashira 34.5 x 16.25mm
price $8,500

The Omori school is famous for its carving and particular for deeply carved wave patterns. Its roots are with a swordsman: Omori Shirobei from Sagami (Soshu). He began making fittings around 1700 but it is his son Omori Shigemitsu who is recognized as founder of the school so he is likely to be the first who received high level training as he studied under Masayoshi Ichirobei and Yasuchika of the Nara school. He died in 1726, and his work is all in Nara style. His son Terumasa (Omori Eisho) studied under Yokoya Somin and Yanagawa Naomasa but his work is not as highly regarded.

The nephew, and later adopted son of Terumasa was Omori Eishu. He would rise to eminent levels and be considered the greatest of the Omori masters. Eishu was born in 1730 with the civilian name Kisoji (喜惣次), and his art name is often casually transliterated in English as Omori Teruhide. However, Japanese habit is to use the Chinese style pronunciation of his name (英秀) so Eishu is probably better to use than Teruhide.

He is considered a member of the Yokoya school, who's styles he faithfully interpreted, and as well is the second mainline master of the Omori school and its finest artisan. Twelve of his works have passed Juyo, and two of those went on to pass Tokubetsu Juyo.

His enhancement to the wave pattern style began by Terumasa was to make extremely deep carvings and undercuts, which had to take a considerably longer time due to the amount of material which had to be cut away to produce the dramatic three dimensional sculpture. These wave pattern items usually feature some kind of sea creatures and can be quite stunning.

One of his famous techniques is makie-zogan which involves hammering gold into the existing shibuichi ground and afterwards polished to a high gloss.

He continued the style of his father [... enhancing it with ...] a so-called "nashiji-zōgan" (梨子象嵌) or "makie-zōgan" (蒔絵象嵌) technique where fragments of gold foil are hammered on the prepared surface. The latter is polished and so a magnificent effect is created which reminds us of the makie lacquer technique and some style elements from paintings. Markus Sesko, Kinko Kodogu

One of the styles we see in the Omori school aside from the famous Omori-nami waves patterns is the traditional pairing of botan (peony) with shi-shi (also referred to simply as lions, fu-dogs, or lion-dogs). These symbols are quite ancient, with the shi-shi having originated in India, passing through China and arriving in Japan in the Nara period (roughly a 1300 years ago). They are Buddhist designs invoking Monju the Bodhisattva of wisdom, which are symbols of protection and power. The botan is considered the Queen of Flowers and thus associates well with the shi-shi, or King of Animals. We also see the shi-shi in front of temples and shrines, where they serve to scare off demons (with an open mouth) and keep in good spirits (with a closed mouth).

Omori Eishu died in 1798 at the age of 69, and passed the master position to Eiman (英満, also read as Terumitsu, and sometimes called Hidemitsu). He was the 5th son of Eishu and worked in the late 1700s. The NBTHK Token Bijutsu English edition states that he was just as talented as his father. For some reason when Terumitsu died he never appointed a successor, so the Omori mainline officially ends with him. Omori Mitsutoki however was in turn his primary student and probably would have been the candidate for becoming the 4th master of the school. Mitsutoki's skill certainly speaks to this opinion.

Eishu as well had a samurai as a student, Chizuoka Hisanori (遅塚久則), who was a retainer of the Mito Daimyo. He gained a high level of skill studying under Eishu and 10 of his works are Juyo to date. His student Hidetomo (秀知) was also of formidable skill and has produced at the Juyo level and is mentioned in the Edo-Kinko Meikan as the top student of Eishu.

The legacy of the Omori school threw a large shadow of influence and the waves pattern work that Eishu made famous was copied by many artists who came after him. Many of these copies had no signature or had signatures removed, and both types were targets for adding fake Eishu signatures. These fakes are quite common and in spite of the bad signatures they are often passed along as "Omori school" works or even demand a fair amount of money just because the style is so popular. Though Eishu made the waves style famous, his work in the other typical Omori styles seems to be at least or even more common than waves style.

Omori Eishu Fuchigashira

This is a mixed work of waves and the the Emperor Liu Bei (known in Japan as Gentoku from his courtesy name 玄徳 Xuande) on the horse Dilu (的盧, Tokiro) passing over the Dankei (檀溪) river. This is a scene drawn from the 14th century Chinese novel The Tale of the Three Kingdoms, which is set in Han Dynasty China, from around 200 AD. It is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature.

The particular story here is Liu Bei's Horse Leaps across the Tan Stream and has been portrayed in various arts. This scene is often repeated on works by Konkan and other great tosogu artists of Eishu's time, as well as in Japanese woodblock prints and other media due to the popularity of the novel throughout history. The Tan stream is alternately referred to as the Sandalwood Valley or the Dankei/Tanxi River and the jump is said to have been about 30 feet.

Though the mei cannot be seen, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has another example of Omori Eishu depicting this scene. The waves in this example of the MFA though look more like the typical reproductions of Eishu found in the Meiji period and without seeing the mei I can't comment on the legitimacy of the piece.

Liu Bei is held as an example of a benevolent leader with a great deal of integrity, who ran a good government and cared for his people. As such it can be understood why he would be used as a symbol on tosogu such as this.

Eishu must have enjoyed the subject as it allowed him to implement the waves technique that he made famous and is now synonymous with the school he lead to great renown. These waves are much copied by other makers, and in the late Edo to Meiji period a great number of fakes of Omori Eishu were made. Nobody could ever quite replicate the natural ease of the true techniques of the Omori school masters like Eishu, Eiman and Hidetomo however. These later period fakes are usually poorly signed gimei of Eishu's signature, and feature rather mechanical reproductions of the waves that when held up against the real thing, simply illustrate that the Omori techniques were either difficult to execute, or involved some secret handed down from teacher to student. There are as many fakes as one finds of great swordsmiths like Kotetsu and Shinkai, many moreso than exist original works of Eishu or his students in this style.

This work is made in shibuichi, gold and shakudo, and Eishu and his students seemed to enjoy mixing their materials as I have seen these waves made in different metals and different hues with various interesting effects as a result. Some of the chisel strokes on this kashira are about 1-2mm on my screen even when blown up by a factor of 10 and are not visible as anything other than fine texture to the naked eye. He's fit 16 of them into a half a centimeter space. How he did this kind of thing by hand, is beyond my understanding. Please understand when you click on these blowups they are the equivalent to looking at this piece through a microscope.

In spite of extensively searching for them, I encounter maybe one legitimate example per year of searching. So, I think this is a good opportunity for a tosogu collector to get a hold of one of the famous and true examples of Omori master craftsmanship.

This fuchigashira is ranked Tokubetsu Hozon by the NBTHK, and is signed by the master Omori Eishu, with his kao (monogram) which should be on every legitimate piece he made. It comes in a custom made box. As a side note, the shitodome are solid gold.

Gentoku's Leap

Gentoku was a descendant of the fourth generation of the Emperor Keitei of the Eastern Hung dynasty. Although of Royal blood, he began life in the humble position of a shoemaker, and amongst the neighbours was well known for his affection for and attention towards his widowed mother. His great strength, and his extraordinary height — for he is said to have been seven feet six inches tall, with arms that, as he stood upright, reached below his knees — soon, however, marked him out for success in what was, at the end of the 2nd century, a.d. in China, practically the only road to success, i.e., the profession of a soldier ; and when he was instrumental in bringing about the defeat of the uprising of the " Yellow ribbon rebels " — so called from their use of yellow ribbons as a badge — he was rewarded with the title and office of Governor of Yoshu.

But on his defeat by Soso in a.d 207 he was driven out of Yoshu, and being homeless took refuge with an old relative named Riu Hio, by whom he was welcomed, and who assigned him quarters in a neighbouring castle, where Gentoku accordingly took up his abode.

But, unfortunately, this arrangement did not at all suit Hio's wife and her brother (who was a commander in the army) who both regarded the giant Gentoku as a sort of wild beast, whom it would be best to kill while he was safely caged up. With this end in view, they prepared a great banquet, to which they intended to invite the beast in question, and then put him to death. Gentoku, unsuspecting, accepted the invitation and at the appointed time rather disconcerted his would- be-murderers by turning up with an armed escort of some three hundred fighting men under the command of the brave general Choun. On his arrival he was secretly informed, by Hio's staff officer Iseki, that the banquet was really a pitfall, his destruction being intended, and that an army of about 9,000 men in three divisions was posted on three sides of Hio's castle to prevent his escape, while the fourth side was the river Dankei, which being of great width, and with a very strong and rapid current, effectually, as it was believed, closed his escape towards the west.

As soon as he realized his position, Gentoku, without a moment's delay, decided to attempt to escape across the river, and without waiting to inform his escort, he threw himself on to his favourite horse Tekiro and bolted towards the water. As soon as it became obvious that the bird was flown, a picked body of horsemen was detached in pursuit, but Gentoku, although he knew the apparent hopelessness of his task, decided in his own mind that "destiny is determined by heaven " gave rein to his good horse and dashed into the river. No one of his pursuers felt himself called upon to attempt to follow the fugitive into the swirling waters, and, fate favouring the bold, Gentoku safely negotiated the dangerous passage and gained the opposite bank, thus escaping the snare so carefully set for him.

After many desperate battles he at length, in A.D. 221, obtained the sovereignty of Shoku, and died in the following year. His perilous escape is a frequent subject of illustration. Japanese Treasure Tales - Kumasaku Tomita