The beautiful and brutal world of bonsai
“Yes,” Neil said.
“You should reconsider,” Urushibata said, then turned his attention back to the spruce.
It is not difficult to create a small tree: just restrict the roots and prune the branches. This has been known since at least the Tang dynasty in China, around 700 AD. One method was to plant a seedling in dried orange peel and cut off any roots that stuck through. With a smaller root base, the tree cannot find the nutrients needed to grow upwards and therefore remains small. In some environments, such as rocky cliffs, this can occur naturally. The art therefore consists in shaping the tree. For most bonsai practitioners, “styling” a tree is a matter of knowing which branches to cut and how to bend the remaining ones, using wire, so that the overall shape of the plant evokes something old and wild. The usual aim is not to imitate the profile of tall trees, considered too messy to be beautiful, but to intensely recall their. In culinary terms, bonsai is a broth.
In the 1990 book “The World in Miniature”, sinologist Rolf Stein notes that a range of early Taoist practices focused on the magical power of small things. Taoist hermits, as well as Buddhist monks, created miniature gardens as objects of contemplation, filled with dwarf plants, “mountains” and “lakes” the depth of teacups. These spaces provided a form of virtual travel, much like how books work for us today.
Taoism had a particular reverence for fantastically gnarled trees which, because their wood is useless to woodcutters and carpenters, are often spared the axe, which has lasted for centuries. This aged look has been integrated into the aesthetics of the miniaturized trees; after all, there is nothing magical about a small sapling.
The vogue for miniature gardens spread throughout China, then, around the 13th century, to Japan. As Japan urbanized – in 1700 Tokyo, then known as Edo, had a population of one million, nearly double the population of London – the miniaturization of nature gradually served a more practical purpose: it allowed people to go out without leaving their homes.
As noted by bonsai historian Hideo Marushima, “conservation of potted plants is not often in the public domain”, making it difficult to trace the development of the bonsai form. But we know from historical bonsai woodcuts that early artists preferred winding trunks and bushy foliage. Changes in fashion tend to revolve around particular species rather than pruning styles: the craze for azaleas was followed by that of smooth-barked maples, then that of mandarin trees. A craze for the wild shimpaku junipers of Ishizuchi caused their near extinction.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the generalization of copper wire, which allowed artists to carry out increasingly precise manipulations, led to more extreme stylization: certain bonsais leaned from afar, as if shaken by violent winds; some stood like straight sticks; some spilled over the side of the pot, as if falling off a cliff; some resembled the winding ink stroke of a calligrapher. It could take decades or even more to create a trunk with the desired silhouette. Patience, care and an invisibly light touch were the hallmarks of a bonsai master.
It is sometimes said that Kimura did for bonsai what Picasso did for painting – he broke the art form and then redesigned it. Using power tools, he performed such drastic transformations that the resulting shapes seemed nearly impossible. Moreover, his new methods allowed him to make dramatic changes in hours instead of decades. Not surprisingly, his accelerated technique was admired and imitated throughout the West.
When Neil spoke of his desire to apprentice with Kimura, many American bonsai enthusiasts warned him that Kimura was harsh, rude, even cruel. But Neil was not easily intimidated and he was dazzled by what he had seen.
He returned home and resumed college. After enlisting a Japanese tutor, he wrote a rudimentary letter to Kimura asking him to become his apprentice. Kimura didn’t answer. So Neil wrote another letter, and, when that too was met with silence, another, and another. Writing each month, he sends about twenty letters without having a return.
Shortly after graduating, Neil received a classy handwritten note from Kimura. He was delighted to learn that his request had been granted. Kimura wrote, “Training is of course about gaining skills, but total understanding of the spiritual aspect is of the utmost importance. It may be strict, but if you put your mind to it, it will most certainly be rewarding.
Masahiko Kimura was eleven years old when his father, a successful engineer, died suddenly. The family fell into poverty and Kimura was forced to find a job as an errand boy. Life has become “hell”, he said. It was 1951 and Japan was still recovering from World War II. College was out of reach. When he was fifteen, his mother announced that she was sending him to apprentice at Tōju-En, a famous bonsai garden in the Tokyo suburb of Ōmiya. It was the epicenter of the art form. She had noticed that he was good with his hands, and she wanted to give him a profession with a stable income.
For the next three years, Kimura worked seven days a week, from 8 a m. at 11 pm., without a single day off. His master at Tōju-En, Motosuke Hamano, harshly corrected his every mistake; Kimura says his master even taught him to walk. Kimura was given five minutes to finish meals. He was not allowed to have girlfriends, no alcohol and no cigarettes. At night, he practiced the guitar and dreamed of being a rock star.
Kimura completed his apprenticeship at the age of twenty-six. Lacking the money to open his own bonsai garden, he opened a plant store instead. It was a success, and after about ten years he had saved enough money to become a professional bonsai artist. Now married with two daughters, he was determined to catch up with his more privileged contemporaries. One day, after spending seven hours shaping a shimpaku juniper, a thought came to mind: why doesn’t anyone use power tools to accomplish this faster?
Around this time, a thirty-year-old engineer working at Toyota named Takeo Kawabe visited Kimura’s bonsai garden, fell in love with the trees, and asked to become his apprentice. Together, they developed an arsenal of custom devices—sandblasters, small chainsaws, grinders—that made it easy to quickly turn dead wood into whorls and whorls. Using power tools, Kimura could hollow out thick roots, allowing him to coil them into smaller pots; he could also bend large trees, to make them appear smaller, or separate them, to create forest-style plantings. Michael Hagedorn, an American bonsai artist who trained in Japan, said of these advances, “It’s like electrifying a guitar – the possibilities just go 3D.”
Because Kimura’s shop could operate faster, cheaper, and better than those of her competitors, her business flourished. He eventually earned enough money to start buying wild miniature trees, called yamadori. Such trees, rare in Japan, can be several hundred years old and once embellished by an artist, they can fetch astronomical prices. (In the 1980s, at the height of Japan’s economic boom, a brilliantly styled yamadori could sell for over a million dollars.) As Kimura’s status rose, he recalled, he also received “a lot of criticism from bonsai VIPs.” Some detractors have called his use of power tools “noisy bonsai”; others accused him of making “sculptures, not bonsai”.
In 1988, Kimura submitted a wild-collected shimpaku juniper, about seven hundred years old, to Sakufu-ten, an annual bonsai competition whose first prize is awarded by the Prime Minister of Japan. The tree, named “The Dance of a Rising Dragon”, was Z-shaped, its white trunk rising in harsh, almost horizontal slopes. Dead branches curled in all directions, like thick smoke. Atop this luscious chaos rose a neat but asymmetrical dome of foliage – a green cloud into which the dragon’s head disappeared. It is widely regarded as one of the finest bonsai trees ever created. Kimura won the first prize.
An air of genius accompanied him now. He had published a lavishly illustrated book, “The Magical Technician of Contemporary Bonsai”, which introduced his work to a global audience. The book included a manifesto in which Kimura declared, “We young bonsai artists must not be afraid to break with tradition. . . . Otherwise, bonsai will evolve as a mere curiosity, but not as an art.
Kimura started doing demonstrations in Western countries. He often spun his chainsaw theatrically on stage, and during question-and-answer sessions he could be shockingly brutal. An American bonsai enthusiast recalls attending a protest in Anaheim, California where someone asked Kimura, through an interpreter, what he thought of American bonsai. Kimura responded in Japanese and the Japanese-speaking audience members gasped. “Very well,” translated the interpreter awkwardly. When audience members pressured him to reveal what Kimura had really said, they were stunned by the response: “American bonsai are like maggots in the bottom of the toilet.” (Kimura claims this was a translation error.)
As Kimura’s wealth grew, he adopted a Hemingway-style lifestyle. He drove American muscle cars and learned to drive speedboats. He collected videos of Mike Tyson’s boxing matches. He hunted wild boar in Spain with the Spanish Prime Minister.
Kimura is now eighty-two years old. His wife died in 2009 and he continues to live with his daughters, who cook for him. He never drinks alcohol, but he likes to go to good restaurants and sing karaoke with beautiful companions. He smokes two packs of Winston cigarettes a day. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had sixty percent of one lung removed. He quit smoking for a month and then started again. He now appears to be in good health.
A few years ago, I spoke with Kimura over a bento box lunch in her sunny office. The walls were lined with framed photographs of his many award-winning trees. He wore a lavender shirt with “Mr. Kimura” embroidered on the chest pocket, in light blue thread. His palms were thick and he had long piano fingers, his fingernails neatly trimmed and clean. desperate, with sunken eyes and high cheekbones.In rare moments of levity, his eyes would squint and his smile revealed a golden molar.