“Live your era, surmount your era!” With these words, written in 1935, the young woodblock artist Yoshio Fujimaki gave out a cry for genius. Certainly his words apply to the genius of Bob Dylan (whose 70th birthday was celebrated on these pages last week), since both he, Fujimaki and others of genius not only represent their generation but are also symbols of the aspirations of those coming after.

It was this notion — of individuals bridging eras through the force and inspiration of their outstanding creative ability — that set me to mulling the nature of Japanese genius. In this society, which is self-deprecating to a fault, its geniuses often remain unsung — I sometimes even think Japanese people are perversely ashamed of them — yet their number is legion.

First, though, what are the specific qualities of Japanese brilliance that characterize this nation’s gifts to the world?

In answer to this question I think of Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), a playwright and aesthetic theoretician who introduced the ritualized profundity and elegance into Noh theater, which he cofounded with his father, Kan’ami. These qualities came to represent aesthetic principles that have lasted more than half a millennium. I think, too, of the artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), whose awesome gifts shone in every genre he inhabited, from classical-style painting to manga, from woodblocks and etchings to illustrations for humorous books.

In the works and legacies of both Zeami and Hokusai, fantasy and reality so intermingle that you cannot tell them apart. Their versatility of talent in creating the unexpected, the bizarre and the incongruous is stunning; while their worship of the old edifices combined with a willingness to break them down and reuse their blocks to create the unheard of and unseen is utterly astonishing.

These are the qualities that make Japanese aesthetic genius so attractive to the world.

Then, as I continued to mull this topic, two more creators of genius came to mind. One is Kinzo Hirose (1812-76), the artist known as Ekin. The second is ceramicist, calligrapher and master chef (in addition to being a master of seal-making and lacquerware), Rosanjin Kitaoji (1883-1959). These two geniuses, to my mind, define the style of their own eras, yet both also surmounted their eras to become transcendent symbols of the fashion, art and the very form of Japan.

Born in the city of Kochi on the southerly island of Shikoku, Ekin showed great promise at an early age, and at 17 he went to Edo (present-day Tokyo), where he spent three years training in painting. But in 1844, after he had returned to Kochi, he became implicated in a case of forgery involving artworks. Though it remains unclear whether Ekin in fact played any part in the wrongdoing, he was obliged to leave Kochi. For some years he then wandered the Shikoku countryside painting for dyers, kite-makers and other such artisans.

However, it was when he turned his hand to painting screens that Ekin’s genius came out. These large screens depict scenes of high drama, catching people at an emotional, and sometimes orgasmic, peak. Grotesque, yes. Full of gore, even more so. His screens scream out theatricality in raucous colors. This is Breughel and Dali rolled into one, but even more in your face. Anyone who might have thought Japanese aesthetics was all understatement and minimalism should have a look at the works of Ekin — with the (Japanese-language) website www.muian.com/muian04/04ekin.htm a good place to start.

Rosanjin Kitaoji, who is known in Japan by his given name, Rosanjin, devoted his life to the dogged pursuit of beauty. As a potter, he turned out more than 20,000 items, and was a noted connoisseur of antiques, particularly from Japan and Korea. He sought in ancient works of art what he called their “inner values,” and strove in his own work to recreate the spirit underpinning those values.

Born into a family that served the Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto, in 1921 he formed the Bishoku Kurabu (Epicures Club), eventually becoming a great master of Japanese cuisine who viewed a meal as a total sensual presentation.

Married six times, Rosanjin was renown for his acerbic tongue.

Once, when dining at the famed La Tour d’Argent, a venerable Paris restaurant known particularly for its duck dishes, Rosanjin said to the waiter, “This sauce doesn’t work with this duck.” He then poured wasabi-flavored soy sauce, which he just happened to have on him, over his duck.

Another time he said of Picasso, whom he had met, that “he has produced a lot of trash (dasaku), and I couldn’t care less how many others have commented on or analyzed his work.”

To be fair, though, he said as much of many other famous creators, including haiku poet Basho and the Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico.

His vitriolic ways apart, Rosanjin’s genius can be found in an eclecticism that came together into a workable and vibrant whole. His lack of inhibition served him well for the very reason that his retort to this society, riddled with inhibitions as it is, was to refashion with utter conviction the basic notion of what went with what — and to have it make perfect Japanese sense. He had no time for the orthodox and the established. In the saying of his that I like the most, he likens old culture to a stopped watch: “The only value in a stopped watch is the cost of the metal in it.”

By looking at iconoclastic artists such as Ekin and Rosanjin, we can see where the genius of Japanese creativity lies. Both these men, in their lives and works, display a theatricality that willfully defies logic as they borrow, append and refashion. It is the very eclectic nature of their creations that turns incongruity into style. Despite the outward prudishness and reserve of Japanese society at large, their art is no holds barred. There is scant distance between the high culture and the low, between the chic and the naive.

Ekin was an outcast, not certainly by choice; Rosanjin, an eccentric, certainly by choice; Ekin a wandering ghost of a man; Rosanjin, a man of means, until the war robbed him of his worldly goods. But the art of both is totally accessible to anyone who cares to visit a summer festival in the countryside some sweltering evening or who simply admires a beautifully sliced fillet of fish arranged with apparent artlessness on a textured Japanese dish.

As the Renaaissance artist and man of letters, Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), observed of Leonardo da Vinci, “Sometimes, in supernatural fashion, beauty, grace and talent are united beyond measure in one single person.”

There was nothing supernatural about the genius of Ekin and Rosanjin. They are arch-natural artists, tied to the colors and textures of the soil of this country.

Perhaps this is the genius of Japanese culture that transcends any era: Extravagant simplicity, a simplicity that reveals to us truths we may only have suspected existed before having the fortune to witness them.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.