Though there is no definitive origin for the all wood mallet, it is safe to say it was being used by both the ancient Egyptians and throughout China at all roughly the same time. For ease sake and for definition, the mallet I am referring to is called a kizuchi in Japan, a wooden handle with a wooden head. As with most forms, at some point this form transitioned from the tool archetype to ceramic object. This would seem to have occurred sometime in the Sung Dynasty (1127-1279) with the kinuta* forms being popular in Northern and Southern Sung, though to best be perfected in the Longquan celadon of the Southern Sung (Zhejiang Province). The kinuta of the North Sung tend to be unadorned and pure in form and those of Southern Sung see the additions of a flared mouth and handles, though the unadorned type is seen in the south at the same time as well. Most of these pieces were glazed in the sumptuous Longquan celadon creating a rather noble and elegant statement of form and purity of surface.
Through trade with China, kinuta vessels made their way into Japan during the Sung(1127-1279) and Yuan Dynasties (1279-1368) and beyond to Buddhist temples, wealthy warlords and tea masters (like Sen no Rikyu) from the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods onward. These karamono (Chinese things) became known as Kinuta from the term, "kinu-ita" a process in which cloth was pounded with a kizuchi mallet to shine and soften cloth. Though in this instance identified with the manufacture of cloth, the kizuchi was a general, all purpose wood tool, easily made and used for everything from wood-working, print-making, cloth production and a wide variety of other roles. In general, these newly imported kinuta pieces were not necessarily available for widespread study and the adoption of the form in the Japanese pottery vernacular took some time. With collections in several temples, slowly, but surely, the kinuta form began to be manufactured in Japan in another example of study, copy, adopt and create to best suit indigenous needs.
Like their Chinese counterparts, the Japanese kinuta forms tend to fall in to two categories, those with handles (additions or appendages) and those without. With time, the forms became a bit loser and casual which reflected the wabi/sabi nature of chanoyu as well as subscribing to an antithetical reaction to the more formalized form. I am not concluding the more casual, deformed and distorted kinuta form is a reaction to the stiffer, more formalized pieces, but the looser forms find their foundations in the original karamono, while seeking to emulate the well used and weathered wood kizuchi as a possible archetype. The more casual form was well suited to a new style of pottery making that swept through the Momoyama period where the perfection of form is subjugated to the perfection of the irregular, the austere and the casual. Most modern Japanese potters seek to emulate that style and with the works of such notable potters as Arakawa Toyozo, Tsukigata Nahiko, Furutani Michio, Hori Ichiro and many others, the beauty of the irregular kinuta is alive and well.
As with most pots that are simple in appearance, the kinuta form is a bit more complex than it would appear. One of the largest challenges, when making the pot is to construct the vessel in a way that the body or base is simpatico with the neck/column of the piece. It may sound easy, but getting the proportions and complimenting angles right takes practiced and a studied eye. From a less than scientific study, the angles of the base are many times mimicked in reverse at the neck and where the form has mostly straight lines, the top and bottom will usually have similar lines as to not create a pot that is visually perceived as two pieces. As for the transition from the base to neck, it is this area that maintains the pot as a whole and keeps the pot from being merely pieces stuck on top of one another, ultimately, this is the weak point for tying the form together and again is navigated through study and practice. Some kinuta also have additions, lugs or appendages added to the neck to break up the line, this is common on seiji and seihakuji pieces which many times have molded additions as well as wood fired pots to deflect and alter the path of the fire and ash. In the end, like any good pot, it is all about trial and error but in this case, we have at least nearly eight centuries of examples to learn from and draw time tested conclusions from.
Illustrated is a kinuta style vase with pinched on lugs by Shigaraki veteran potter, Sawa Kiyotsugu (b. 1948). Made using the coil and throw style of potting, the vase has a sturdy and classic appearance with a great transition from body to neck and completed with an exceptionally seductive lip and mouth all the while pointing to the fact that he has made quite a number of mallet vases. Using primarily red pine for his wood source and firing in both noborigama and anagama, Sawa is not only an accomplished potter, but a mentor to a number of younger potters who are all now coming in to their own. This particular vase was pulled out of the red hot kiln, hikidashi style**, freezing the ash into glass over almost the entire surface of the pot with green glass running around the lip of the mouth and down the piece accentuating the vertical nature of the pot. Like his father before him and his son today, Sawa Kiyotsugu is interested in the possibilities of the clay and fire and is constantly striving to continue imbuing his creative and modern spirit in to every pot he fires.
(*kizuchi; mallet with wooden handle and head, kanazuchi; hammer with wooden handle and iron head)
(** By following this link, you can see a short video of the hikidashi process showing Sawa Katsunori, son of Kiyotsugu, pulling pots out of the red hot kiln; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnU9uWERpDM )