Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Edging Toward Japan: How Japanese calligraphy connects to the great art of the world

Calligraphy for The Three Cornered World by Misuzu Kosaka.

By Damian Flanagan

I used to think of calligraphy (shodo) as something like the tea ceremony, bonsai and ikebana: all venerable in their traditions, but far too stiff, fusty and conservative in their obeisance to tradition to catch my interest.

This all changed with a series of chance events back in 2005. I'd begun to think I might learn how to draw characters with a brush and happened to see an advert for a demonstration of calligraphy at the Kobe Club. On a weekday morning, as the only male person in an audience exclusively made up of expat wives, I was intrigued to see a lady calligrapher, Misuzu Kosaka, dressed in a kimono, presenting calligraphy the likes of which I had never seen before.

Things might have stopped there, but just at that time my book "The Tower of London" about the life of the great Japanese author Natsume Soseki in London in 1900-1902 was about to be published. The publishers sent me a mock-up of the proposed cover, containing both a picture of the Tower and the three Japanese characters for the "Tower of London." Even I could tell that the characters had been written by someone with a fairly clumsy hand: it occurred to me that I might ask Misuzu Kosaka to do the characters instead.

Several weeks later, the calligraphy arrived. Kosaka managed to capture in the space of just three characters the nightmarish history of The Tower of London which Soseki had invoked. In Kosaka's characters one could recognize crucifixes, gallows and instruments of torture. This was calligraphy transformed into art, as if Kandinsky or Miro had picked up a calligraphy brush and started to draw.

The artwork was so good, it seemed to me, it deserved to stand alone on the cover but I worried that people would be confused if we juxtaposed it on the cover with an image of the Tower. So we settled on a compromise that a more conventional, though beautifully drawn, rendering of the characters would appear on the cover, while the art work would comprise the frontispiece to the book. This set the pattern for three more books we did in the series.

Time and again, I marveled at Kosaka's ability to capture the entire mood of a book, sometimes in just a single character. How, for example, could you do anything with the very simple character for "gate?" Yet in Kosaka's hands, the two sides of the character began to resemble human heads facing one another, like the husband and wife of Soseki's novel "The Gate" facing each other across the brazier each evening.

In the case of The Three Cornered World (Kusamakura), Kosaka produced something entirely different. Inspired both by the novel's central image of a beautiful Ophelia floating in a stream and the concept that art is something that is constantly being imagined and reimagined in the stream of consciousness of the person experiencing it. Here we have multiple distorted and transformed images of the characters for "Kusa Makura" constantly being born anew in the mind of the reader.

It is a manifesto for a new type of calligraphy that refuses to be placed in the straitjacket of tradition, one that sees the possibility of Japanese calligraphy connecting to the great art of the world.


(This is Part 14 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media