Kiri-e artist restores long-forgotten memories of seasons

Courtesy of Shu Kubo

“Junpu” (Tailwind) by Shu Kubo

By Michinobu Yanagisawa / Japan News Staff WriterWith the rainy period ending earlier than usual this year, a full-blown summer is once again ready to engrave vivid colors on our minds through Japan’s distinctly seasonal landscapes. Capturing the nation’s charming seasons with gentle yet robust lines and tones, kiri-e paper-cutting master Shu Kubo conveys long-forgotten memories and nostalgic tenderness to the people who view his work.

A collection of about 30 newly produced works by the 66-year-old artist is currently on display in the exhibition “Kami no Japonism, Iro no Kaori” (Japonism in paper, scents of colors) at the Isetan department store in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Among them is a piece strongly evocative of summer titled “Junpu” (Tailwind), in which big waves — somewhat reminiscent of Edo-period ukiyoe artist Katsushika Hokusai — crash over leaping flying fish. The scene unfolds against a simple, classical backdrop of clouds.

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  • Courtesy of Shu Kubo

    “Edo Jocho Nokoru Sawara” (Sawara, the town retaining the charm of the Edo period) by Shu Kubo

  • Courtesy of Shu Kubo

    “Tokibi” (Corn) by Shu Kubo

  • The Japan News

    Shu Kubo cuts washi paper to create a kiri-e work of a bangasa traditional oilpaper umbrella at his atelier in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, on June 28.  

“I wanted to depict a cheerful, forward-looking moment. Also, the waves convey a sense of Japan,” Kubo told The Japan News at his atelier in Suginami Ward, Tokyo.

Another work, “Edo Jocho Nokoru Sawara” (Sawara, the town retaining the charm of the Edo period), captures his affection for ajisai hydrangeas, which are emblematic of Japan’s rainy season. Large ajisai blossoms in front of a traditional Japanese house in the Sawara district of Katori, Chiba Prefecture, are boldly depicted using a nuanced gradation of colors.

Kubo is continually inspired by all things seasonal. “The changes in Japan’s seasons are extremely subtle, as indicated by the variety of expressions in Japanese vocabulary that denote periods even within each season,” he said.

Innovative color techniques

Kubo expresses the texture of objects in his art using both his own innovative color development techniques and traditional Japanese kiri-e practices, which are said to have been refined since the Nara period (710-784). In doing so, he creates a sense of depth and stereoscopy.

When beginning a kiri-e project, artists first prepare an outline. Kubo draws sketches at locations where he finds thematic objects, including farms and fishing ports. He places the sketches over traditional washi paper dyed with persimmon tannin juice, and delicately cuts out various parts in line with the sketch.

The next step is coloring. In a unique approach, Kubo mixes acrylic paint with pigments in a fine balance to create just the right tones for each part of the objects. He places the mixture on a small close-meshed metal net and drops powdered paint with a brush onto another piece of washi.

The newly hand-colored washi fills the sections cut out from the persimmon-dyed paper, and is carefully attached to each of the sections from the reverse side.

Influence of Komatsu, Okamoto

Scenery in Japan’s changing seasons involves innumerable colors, he said, recalling the natural beauty he constantly saw growing up in the mountainous city of Mine, Yamaguchi Prefecture.

However, Kubo’s path to become a kiri-e artist was not always straight.

As the son of an architect, he followed in his father’s footsteps by majoring in architecture at university, only to find more pleasure in making perspective drawings and paper models than in architecture itself. He decided to pursue kiri-e and successfully improved his cutting techniques.

Kubo’s encounter at the age of 27 with science fiction author Sakyo Komatsu further deepened his artistic commitment. In those days, kiri-e was often used for illustrations accompanying books, but the famous writer encouraged the young Kubo to create more artistic pieces with the technique. Komatsu may have seen in his experience the writer’s own struggles with how to position science fiction in literature, Kubo said.

Komatsu kindly introduced him to Japan’s top cultural figures, but Kubo was shocked by some of the comments he received from them at his exhibitions.

“Do you think this is art?” artist Taro Okamoto asked Kubo. “It’s true that you’re meticulously cutting paper, but there’s no adventure or futuristic features.”

Painter Kokuta Suda said: “Your pictures are explanatory and uninteresting. They don’t convey the heart or mind of a creator.”

Inspiration from Spain

Even so, they apparently sensed talent in the young artist. With their generous support, Kubo had the chance to study art in Spain — a country whose great painters he adored, including Francisco de Goya and Pablo Picasso. He moved there for a year in 1984.

He was immensely inspired by the artistic spirit of Spaniards in maintaining classic stone architecture as well as artists’ resolve to transcend the physical confines of artwork. Back in Japan, he soon established his unique technique of using various materials, such as acrylic paint and sand.

Kubo’s current attention to seasonal themes in Japan was prompted by the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, which hit the Kansai region, including his base at the time in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture. The disaster killed over 6,400 people.

“Landscapes and treasures hundreds of years old instantly disappeared,” he recalled. Kubo decided to help preserve the nation’s most precious beauty through his art.

He’s increasingly worried about Japanese people’s excessive emphasis on convenience and their loss of a sense of the seasons as a result of being surrounded by all kinds of food year round.

The art piece “Tokibi” (Corn) on display at the ongoing Tokyo exhibition, is one of his most bountiful works, which powerfully depict juicy vegetables and fresh fish that Japanese people have long appreciated as gifts from nature. A collection of his works dedicated to such seasonal foods was published in book form in 2015.

While appreciating Japanese themes and objects, the artist continues to explore aesthetics by communicating with and learning from people abroad. Designated by the Cultural Affairs Agency as a “Japan cultural envoy” in 2009, Kubo has led a number of workshops around the world, including the United States, China, Russia, Cuba and Iran.

“Kiri-e is said to straightforwardly enter the hearts [of people who view it]. I want to promote this uniquely Japanese technique around the world so that one day those countries will become famous for their kiri-e artworks,” he said.

“Kami no Japonism, Iro no Kaori” runs through Tuesday at the Isetan department store in Shinjuku, Tokyo.Speech

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