Masahiko Kimura: White Syrup, Green Clouds

, 2012/02/12

The final of a three part series on Omiya Bonsai.

After The Great 1923 Earthquake, Tokyo’s few remaining bonsai nurseries moved north to Omiya. Up here the air was cooler, the water purer and the soil perfect for growing miniature trees. Today, only ten nurseries remain in the world’s most important area for Bonsai cultivation.

In the center of Tokyo, behind a moat, a stone wall and guards, there is a 500 year old tree named Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu. Owned by the Imperial Family (and kept in the Imperial Palace) this tree is the oldest in the world to be cultivated and cared for by hand. Tended to by dozens of bonsai masters, including one Shogun, it is the greatest example of bonsai as an artwork created by many collaborators across the centuries. Each new master would have spent years pruning leaves or whole branches with bonsai shears, new growths would have been rubbed off, or pinched back to force them to rebranch and other branches would have been bound with wire using a Yattoko (pliers) or wires. All this was done to shrink a five needled pine tree into a miniature version of its natural self.

Masahiko Kimura, one of the world’s most famous living bonsai masters, chose a different method. He is not exactly a bonsai grower, craftsmen or caretaker, but see’s himself more as an artist. His trees are not formed by many hands across the centuries but envisioned and sculptured by himself using power tools in days or hours. “If I spent 100 years tending a tree I would be dead and have never made a living. Artists only became revered once they’re dead, I don’t want that path.” Kimura was born into a family of inventors in Omiya’s Bonsai Village in 1940, but originally his family had little to do with the Bonsai industry. Sadly, in 1951 his father committed suicide, overwhelmed by the responsibility of inventing weapons during the war, and this would deeply affect Kimura. “My mother worked hard to bring us up, but we didn’t have money and I wasn’t able to attend school. She thought bonsai would be a good career for me because I was good with my hands.”

Now, over fifty years later, it is clear that Kimura is good with his hands, but his real talent might be a severe attention to detail. The gardens around his property are immaculate, calling them perfect would not be an overstatement. His bonsai are equally well kept, created with a unique sense of form and highly inventive techniques (most of the tools he uses to work on his bonsai have been built by himself). Overseas however, Kimura’s real fame has come from this last aspect, his inventiveness; what used to take decades for a traditional bonsai master to do takes Kimura a day, or in some cases hours. He shows us a photo album of a tree gathered from the mountains, which he transformed into a spectacularly asymmetrical bonsai in 7 hours and 30 minutes using a range of power-tools and unique wiring techniques.

“In order to make something truly new, a maker must take a serious risk. Not everyone feels comfortable to take that chance.” At one time this attitude gave Kimura the reputation of a heretic in the bonsai community but now he is regarded as something of a genius, and is often referred to in names more fitting of Las Vegas performers than traditional artists. “People call me the ‘magical technician,’ but I don’t really care about being labeled a magician. Every day is a challenge, it’s hard work,” he says as we wander through the nursery. The tree’s we walk past all defy their treeness, and it’s hard to see the Juniper, or the Pine, instead we see the charismatic marks of Kimura ― a trunk and branches whipped into a thick splashes of white syrup, frozen beneath a flotilla of green clouds.

This entry originally appeared in Papersky No. 37 (Norway, 2011).


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Masahiko Kimura
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