the reforging of the meitbutso

05Apr07

In 1719 the Hon’ami family, who were the heredity sword-appraisers to the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan, were ordered by the eighth Shogun, Yashimune, to compile a written record of all the meito in Japan.

The meito (meaning ‘swords with a name’ or ‘famous swords’) were not only the finest examples of the Japanese swordsmith’s art, they were forged for unbreakability, with great design and an accurate temper line. They were finely constructed, with a lethal cutting edge.

They were also swords that possessed individual character, often with given names and all were distinctly recognisable on sight. They were also historic swords, each with famous owners and proud histories that were well documented and revered by experts since their creation.

The result of Hon’ami’s work was the Kyoho meibutsucho (Catalogue of famous things). And each meito sword listed in the work became known as a meitbutso (famous thing).

It was while reading of United’s demise this week, with the few remaining clients and very few staff being absorbed into Grey, that I was reminded of the meitbutsucho. You no-doubt know United’s previous incarnations as Red Cell (WPP’s 4th string agency network) and the incredible HHCL. HHCL are acknowledged as the brightest and the best advertising agency of the Nineties and were not only lauded in the U.K.

The staff and clients changed over the last decade, along with the loss of the gifted names above the HHCL door and many other talented people. The name changed and the agency saw waves of replacements join, leave and be replaced without seeming to get back into its stride.

That was perhaps until the announcement that Sky had appointed United. What a win. What deep client pockets. What a need for great work there was.

As someone who worked at Bates when they won the Sky business and who now works with an ex-Sky cult (staff) member, I have a glimmer of an idea how daunting the task can be to appease the great Sky god.

While this seemed to put a solid foundation under United, the network became incoherent and the glory heaped upon HHCL failed to be rekindled in London. Then Sky, always with consistency in its approach to agency fidelity, switched to WCRS.

A tragedy. Or had the real death of that agency happened half a decade before? I‘m sure I will never really know.

However, I mentioned the meibutsucho. There is a section of the work that is dedicated to ‘lost blades.’ These were famous swords that were destroyed or damaged by fire, such as during the fall of Osaka Castle in 1615 or during the great fire of Edo in 1657. It also included meito that were, with much regret, lost.

I love a little melodrama. But if at this point I were to opine that HHCL or United are perhaps the modern equivalent of such lost meitbutso. I think I would be missing something.
I think the reason the story of the Japanese swords came to my mind was because the lost swords were individuals. Distinctive. Designed to be supreme examples of their craft. And recognisable at a single glance.

I think the meito (famous swords) were the staff, not the agency. I also believe there are still a few meitbutso left, even if they are a little lost at present.

But like the lost blades of the meitbutsucho, some of these were rescued from the flames, re-tempered and lived once again as meito. I look forward to reading more about these famous things soon. Very soon.

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