The Blacksmith’s Apprentice
Three years ago, when I started the body of work “Lost Ceremony,” I met Eric Chevallier and his girlfriend in Tokyo for dinner. Along with my girlfriend, we sat for a bowl of steaming ramen and two very cold beers. We exchanged the pleasantries that are common when you land in a new country. “How was your trip, what’s the hotel like, what have you done so far?” These are the types of conversations that never have any real depth, but then again you’re usually so jet lagged that anything more than a simple yes or no is bound to zap your brain of its last functioning cells. After dinner we parted ways. We were on our way to Okayama, Eric was going back to Sakai, and Mariko had things to take care of in Tokyo. I had no idea how the next few weeks, let alone the next two years would keep our paths all intertwined.
In a way, 2012 was the beginning for both Eric and I. For me, it started this body of work which will wrap up this year. It feels like it could go on forever (and I’d never grow tired of it) and for Eric he was just into the first year of his apprenticeship with master blacksmith Yasuhiro Hirakawa.
As an apprentice, Eric has piles of responsibilities he must attend to on a daily basis. Beyond all of the listening, watching and learning that comes with an apprenticeship, he is also working on his Japanese. Originally from northern France, Eric is of exceptional interest for the obvious reason that he is not Japanese. There is a certain pressure on him to perform and the recent coverage from television stations like NHK WORLD (Japanese News Station) has only made that pressure greater.
In conversation he readily admits his anxiety about the many eyes which are witnessing his development. Normally an apprentice is allowed to develop without any real external audience. They have one person to please, their master…that’s it and that’s usually enough for anyone. In effect, as an apprentice no one usually cares who you are, what you do, and if you ever succeed. It is the master who gets all of the attention and that’s just fine, because like an unripe vegetable the apprentice is not yet fit for human consumption. But this is not the case with Eric. He has needed to assume dual roles as an apprentice and a liaison between the cultural communities of France and Japan.
Recently NHK WORLD released a 30 minute piece where they filmed Eric visiting a number of blacksmiths around Japan. It’s a unique view into two things that are rarely seen: the development of an apprentice and their sources of inspiration along the way. There are some things that I greatly admire about Eric’s presentation and efforts in the show. Firstly, he is speaking in both English and Japanese; neither language is native to him. While my Swiss friends can rattle off five languages with total ease, as a barely bilingual American, I find Eric’s language skills fantastically impressive. Secondly, as a young man in his twenties, Eric makes no attempt to hide the pure admiration and enthusiasm he has for the opportunity to meet some of his idols. We are not all afforded the chance to meet the people who influenced our development and if we are so lucky, we don’t often show up with a television crew. All in all, it makes for a distinct viewing experience.
As Eric leads us through his journey, we see workshops that appear to come right out of a Miyazaki film. Assemblies of blackened gears, oversized cogs, and greased covered motors look surreal in comparison to the everyday products they yield. But then again, what would the creative process be without a touch of visual fantasy.
What becomes very clear by the end of the episode is something that reminded me why I started “Lost Ceremony” in Japan. Traditions are great…there is no doubt about that, but why are they great and better yet, why are they worth preserving and what happens when they are lost? The idea that Eric inadvertently approaches in this piece is that traditions are inextricably linked to tools. When the tools change, the by-product of those tools change too. And when the world, which is shaped by tools, changes, it has a huge impact on multiple facets of the culture. So before we wipe the slates of ancient forms of manufacturing, it’s worth noting what we gain and what we lose in the process.
If you would like to follow Eric’s development please visit: http://www.sasuke-smith.com/