A respectful history of Ishikawa Goemon XIII, Part 2:

Zantetsuken and the Scrolls

As mentioned in Part 1: Though several versions of Zantetsuken's origin have been told over the years, they essentially say the same thing: Zantetsuken was forged either from an amalgam of blades created by three great real-life masters (Kotetsu, Yoshikane, and the immortal Masamune), or by using the combined secret techniques of those masters, plus the unearthly addition of iron from a fallen meteor. It is worth noting here that Yoshikane is known to have been--like Ishikawa-san--a master of iaido, and is said to have possessed "two scrolls on secret views of the sword", possibly those or ancestors of those which come into contention so often in the world of Lupin. It's also interesting to note that one of the swords used is not a Muramasa; Muramasa's blades have the reputation of being bloodthirsty or evil (in fact, his school of swordmaking fell out of favor largely because the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu had a superstitious fear of his swords and forbid his warriors to use them) while Masamune's are considered to possess the inner serenity and calm of the true Zen warrior. The most famous legend of the difference between the weapons of the two swordmakers is based on what happens when one of each sword is placed standing upright in a slow stream. Muramasa's sword was able to cut a floating leaf cleanly in half, while another leaf changed course and slid serenely past Masamune's sword without touching it, too affected by its inner peace to do even this small violence to itself.

The secret formula for the steel-cutting process is contained in two scrolls which are first seen in the first series episode #7 "A Wolf Calls A Wolf"; in the 2000 Episode 0: First Contact the scrolls have been reduced into one, encased in a tube of the same uncuttable metal as the sword. In the 1994 movie Dragon of Doom [actually "Burn, Zantetsuken!" or "Zantetsu Sword on Fire" (Moeyo Zantetsu-Ken)], a dragon statue lost in the sinking of the Titanic is molded from a plate engraved with the secret formula for a metal even stronger and lighter than Zantetsuken, which was created by the same smith--described here as an ancestor of Goemon's--who forged the Zantetsu blade. (There's also a secret scroll in this story, this one telling how to make the dragon statue revert in form to the original enscribed plate.) --One begins to wonder if it's really such a secret! On top of all that, Ishikawa-san seems to have relegated the scrolls to a position of secondary importance by committing the formula to memory: while Zantetsuken can cut nearly anything under the sky, it does encounter objects which can break it, yet it's always returned to working order quite shortly, theoretically impossible for a blade forged in the laminated fashion of a typical katana. One must logically conclude that Goemon knows how it's done...

To make matters more interesting yet, Lupin's father, Lupin II, owned a dagger made of this same mysterious metal, the whereabouts of which is not known [see frame below]; and in the second series episode #131 "The Two Goemons--Mystery of Zantetsuken" we learn that Zantetsuken has a mate, a wakizashi (short sword) which he/it must spend the night with once every three hundred years. The wakizashi is lost in the course of the episode, which would seem to divorce the pair, but that it existed at all suggests that with so many copies of the formula drifting around, there may be still more metal-cutting blades in the world. (And that's not even taking into account the other metal-cutting sword mentioned in Dragon of Doom, which --if it still exists-- is lighter and stronger than Zantetsuken, and completely lost from sight.) This prospect troubles Goemon, who is intensely possessive of his beloved's special properties and has gone to great lengths to confiscate the formula every time it has come under contest in the past.

And even without the formula there's risk: in the second series episode #108, "Zantetsuken's Lament", an old blacksmith near the end of his life devotes all his remaining energy to creating, on his own, a sword that can cut Zantetsuken. There is much anguish when it seems he's succeeded, but it was just a ruse of Lupin's to let the old coot die happy... he does, however, discover the intriguing detail that Zantetsuken has a remarkably high internal temperature, so that it steadily melts snow falling on it.

This proliferation of blades strongly supports, in my opinion, the translation/interpretation that it is the formulae of the ancient masters, rather than actual blades made by them, that went into the forging of Zantetsuken: after making the Zantetsu sword itself, its matching wakizashi, and the mysterious dagger, surely the supply of original metal must be played out, yet Goemon continues to worry about the formula falling into the wrong hands (i.e. anyone's but his).

--I'm delighted to include here GeckoZero's theory, with which I quite concur: the information that an ancestor of Goemon's was the smith who created both Zantetsuken and the dragon's blade tallies nicely with suspicions that Zantetsuken must be an Ishikawa family heirloom. It evidently passed out of the family's hands for some time, probably stolen (perhaps by Lupin II at the same time that he acquired the still-missing dagger?) but--as seen in Episode 0: First Contact--Goemon was always aware of its existence and was searching for it, certain that he was its predestined true master. This of course still contradicts episode #5, in which Goemon already has the sword when he first meets Lupin, but it would settle the question of the Zantetsu blade's original creation and of how it came to belong to Goemon; it would by inheritance have always rightly belonged to him, even if there was a period in which he didn't know where it was.

To even begin to detail the amazing feats Zantetsuken and Ishikawa-san have performed together would take pages. Moving trains, airplanes, automobiles, powerboats and motorcycles have all been sliced neatly in half, frequently while Goemon was leaping over them; countless things of seemingly uncuttable thickness, including of course safes, bank doors, armored cars; the New York City subway system was nearly reduced to rubble when they pursued Lupin through it in Episode 0; in a fit of intense irritation they once sliced a falling star in half; twice they have even cut lightning bolts, once causing the bolt to shatter like glass (Legend of the Gold of Babylon), and the other just causing a gorgeous display over Manhattan (Episode 0: First Contact).

Here's an excellent article on Kotetsu and his work.
A nice image of a Yoshikane sword, with a link to his pedigree and style.
An article on Masamune with gorgeous photos.
---links at bottom of Masamune page only work with a lot of fussing, so I have added them directly here:
Meito Kansho--beautiful, close-up photos.
A bibliography of books on the Japanese sword

...return to A Respectful History, part 1.

The mysterious dagger...where is it now?...