A radical in the stones

From the ashes of Kishiwada's ancient castle, a most remarkable garden has been grown

by Stephen Mansfield

For many Japanese film buffs, the name Kishiwada is synonymous with Miike Takashi’s 1997 movie “Young Thugs, Innocent Blood” — an example of a cinematic genre described by film auteur Donald Richie as “anarchic and set in the brutal and amoral present.”

However, as far as I could tell while strolling through residential back lanes to the city of Kishiwada’s historical district, any mean streets in this place on Osaka Bay in southern Osaka Prefecture were entirely in the director’s imagination.

The centerpiece of Kishiwada turns out to be neither gangland, barland nor strip-club land — but its castle. Commissioned by Koide Hidemasa, a relative of Japan’s great unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98), lightning struck its five-storey donjon in the early 19th-century. The concrete, three-storey replacement, built in 1954, is now a museum, but the most arresting feature of the site is the garden created in its forecourt by design radical Mirei Shigemori, a leading figure in the development of the modern Japanese garden. The garden was completed on Dec. 20, 1953.

Shigemori believed that the Japanese garden had lapsed into mannerism and over-decorativeness during the Edo Period (1603-1867), and that the form needed revitalization. His mission therefore involved a degree of iconoclasm, including — to the distress of many traditionalists — the introduction of materials such as concrete, tiling and paint into his stoneworks. Despite such contemporary, contentious elements, Shigemori’s gardens also incorporate many tried-and-tested, even entrenched concepts and aesthetics found in the much older landscapes of the Muromachi Period (1333-1573).

The Kishiwada Castle landscape, known as Hachijin-no-niwa (Garden of Eight Battle Formations), challenges our thinking about the calm-inducing effects of stone gardens. Based on the strategic layout of a mythological battle conducted by a Chinese general, Zhuge Liang, the stone setting at the center of the design — aptly named Central Camp — is the garden’s focal point. Eight stone sub-camps — named Heaven, Earth, Wind, Cloud, Dragon, Tiger, Phoenix and Snake — surround the main encampment, sitting on slightly raised ground at the heart of the composition.

Several features of the garden mark it as the work of Shigemori: an inordinate number of standing stones is one such element. Large rocks contrast with small stones; upright rocks with a flat, linear scheme that can appear closer to architecture and schematics than garden design. Shigemori’s stone of preference, was ao-ishi, a chlorite schist with a greenish-blue cast that is now very common in private residential gardens. True to form, though, many traditionalists feel that its hues and its bold, veined surfaces are too assertive for a Japanese garden.

However, the landscape changes as you circle the garden, but the overriding impression is of ruined foundation lines. The layout, in fact, shadows the original fortification system. Shigemori wrote of his design intentions: “Castles are supposed to last forever, and the garden attached to such a castle should be designed in the same spirit.” Hence the choice of stone, an immutable material lending itself to abstraction, is significant.

One of the limitations in viewing or photographing conventional stone gardens is that, with very few exceptions, you are not allowed to enter into the composition. You must view it from the same proscribed angle, usually a wooden verandah. Where Shigemori’s design deviates from this is in his insistence that visitors should step onto the wall lines and, making their way above the gravel, advance to the center of the garden. The use of linear walls in a garden genre typically consisting of sand, gravel and rock groupings, was a thrilling and divisive departure in design for the Japanese stone garden.

Shigemori’s insistence that gardens should be interactive and multifunctional led to the arrangement becoming the first stone garden in Japan to be requisitioned as a performance and exhibition space — firstly as a venue for an exhibition of metal sculptures. During the event, Shigemori’s daughter performed a traditional Japanese dance on a stage in the garden. Produced by the master himself, the theme, appropriately enough, was the straight and curved line.

Shigemori observed that: “My main idea was to create a layout referring to the original Kishiwada Castle from an aerial view, something that had never been done before.”

The most elevated view of the stone garden, and the one that helps to make sense of the strategic pattern of the design, can be had from the viewing platform on the third floor of the castle tower. Shigemori’s vision of the future, and his need in this instance to create strong, assertive lines, was as if to ensure that gardens would be viewed henceforth more often from on high — including even from planes or helicopters.

As garden writer Christian Tschumi observed on this point, “It must be one of the ironies of history that, 40 years after its establishment, this garden is just a stone’s throw away from the new Kansai Airport.”

Kishiwada Castle is a 7-minute walk from Kishiwada or Takojizo stations on the Nankai Main Line are both easily accessible from Namba on the Osaka Subway Line. Maps in both stations point visitors in the right direction. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Monday. Christian Tschumi’s “Mirei Shigemori: Modernizing the Japanese Garden,” is published by Stone Bridge Press.