Ryuichi Kakurezaki: on clay and legends

by Robert Yellin

Special To The Japan Times

It’s not easy to make profound changes in a ceramic style that has a 1,000-year history. Take, for instance, the style known as Bizen. Bizen pottery is one of Japan’s most celebrated high-fired unglazed ceramic styles, and continues to be so to this very day. Forms that started with farmers’ needs in the 12th century morphed with the demands of the tea ceremony in the 16th century and basically have never changed, ever.

How does a grand old tradition find meaning in the present day? Most likely it won’t come from any person born and brought up within that tradition — there are too many indoctrinated blinders, and the “Emperor’s New Clothes” mentality is still at work. No, most profound changes come from an outsider; they are usually more willing to break the mold. For Bizen, there is one artist who did just that: Ryuichi Kakurezaki. And now, a stunning retrospective covering three decades of Kakurezaki’s work is on show at the Musee Tomo in Tokyo until March 30.

Kakurezaki was born in 1950 on a small island that is part of the Goto Islands of Nagasaki Prefecture. After high school he found his way to the Osaka University of Arts where he studied design and then went to work as a graphic designer before switching to clay. That designer background served him well when it came to re-thinking the forms that lay dormant in Bizen’s clay. After studying with a few teachers, namely Bizen’s current Living National Treasure Jun Isezaki, Kakurezaki established his own studio in 1986, yet not before being accepted into numerous prestigious exhibitions while still in training. Afterward, the awards came flooding in.

Being an outsider in Bizen prohibited Kakurezaki from procuring the best, or even good, Bizen clay, so he often had to make do with inferior clay or the “garbage clay” that was discarded by other artists. How fortunate this was to be, as it forced him to create new ways of blending and firing works. Upon entering the first exhibition room at the Musee Tomo, examples of these “inferior” clay works can be seen — and they are stunning. You’ll see large slab-platters with upturned corners or smaller ones that look like geta, and tea caddies bearing a rich palette of blended clays that look like washi paper. The earliest work is from 1983 and is a most elegantly formed, wide-mouthed vase with thin wispy rice-straw markings called hidasuki.

Kakurezaki is also a brilliant kiln designer and fires his work with keen precision that creates all kinds of yohen or “kiln change” ash-glaze effects on his works. Some are take-offs on traditional forms such as eared-vases, yet with Kakurezaki each piece has “attitude,” as if it were a person standing with hands on hips and shrugging off the mundane world.

Other works are from his series “Hiruco” (2001 and 2004), “Hokuso” (1998), “Shin-in” (2002), “Phalanx” (1991), “Zoi” (2010), “Gambaruman” (2007) and “Una Mistura” (2006).

The “Hiruco” series has an interesting background of Japan as a land of ancient myths and gods. In the “Kojiki,” Japan’s oldest chronicle, is a tale of one god named Hiruco who was born from the gods Izanagi-no-Mikoro and Izanami-no-Mikoto. Born without any bones, Hiruco was cast out into the ocean at age 3. Somehow, however, he returned to land where he was cared for by the Ainu Ebisu Saburo. He overcame many hardships and later became Ebisu, one of the Seven Lucky Gods (Shichifukujin) of Japan. Two of Kakurezaki’s masterpieces are tall rich, natural-ash glazed “Hiruco” forms, which stand together, sharp in tension, in the main room of the Musee Tomo.

Kakurezaki thinks that these days we need to toughen up a bit; thus he chose the title “Hokuso” (looking north) for one series works.

As he told me: “We always think of directions as associated with images: The image of the south being warm, sunny and friendly, and the north as cold, cloudy and severe. I feel we need to look to the north now to find inspiration and change, both Japan itself and myself personally.”

And inspiration he has found in spades: He brought a revolution to Bizen, shifting it from Momoyama Period (1573-1615) inspired Bizen to the new way of Heisei (1989-) Bizen. This exhibition is titled “Serving for Integrity” and refers to Kakurezaki’s intent to “express awe and respect for nature” and his approach to creating. The 55 works on display are examples of the profound success this influential outsider has achieved.

“Kakurezaki Ryuichi: Serving for Integrity” at Musee Tomo runs till March 30; open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.musee-tomo.or.jp On Feb. 21, Robert Yellin will give a talk at the ICJC Lecture Hall in Yokohama on Japanese pottery. For details, visit www.icjc.jp/calendar/dsfag