Introducing a true Masters’-Master, Mr Kunio Kobayashi!
We’ve been promising this interview for some time, & we’re very pleased & honoured to be able to make good on our promise. Peter Warren very graciously agreed to interview Mr Kobayashi on our behalf. And so, without further a due….
(1) What is your favourite species of tree to work with, & why?
I like black pines in particular for their power and presence, and they are relatively quickly to make. I am impatient so it suits my personality! There is something about a black pine which no other tree possesses, an aura of dignity and great vitality.
(2) How do you view the current state of bonsai in your country, & that of other countries – are there any other countries outside of Japan that particularly stand out in their approach/standard to you?
Bonsai in Japan is on the decline, there are not enough new enthusiasts getting involved and that is not good for the future.
Recently I have been very impressed with the efforts of the Chinese Bonsai community and they have come forward dramatically in the last few years. The trees there are not as restricted as the trees in Japan and they have a freedom and dynamic spirit which is refreshing.
(3) Is there any particular piece of work that you are most proud of, & what is/was it?
The black pine “Seiryu” is one of my most well known pieces and the work did to that was pretty dramatic. I was given the tree by my biggest customer who told me to change it for the better, so after consideration I performed a very risky and dangerous operation. It was only after it had been successful that the owner told me how much he paid for it which is a good job because otherwise I may have had second thoughts!
(4) How did you discover bonsai, & what keeps you interested?
My father was originally a flower grower and I grew up making potted plants, flowers for the markets and after graduating from horticultural school I began working in the family business. I decided to move into growing Satsuki Azaleas as they were very popular at the time and there was a lot of money to be made. After a number of years of this, I went to one of the early Sakkafu-ten exhibitions when it was raining one day and there I saw the pine tree “Oku no kyousho” and I was transfixed. There appeared to be such life force emanating from within the tree, it was almost as if there were a god inside it. There and then I decided to become a bonsai artist.
What keeps me interested is the challenge of constant improvement, always finding new and better material and also the evolution of my own tastes as I get older.
(5) Do you have a favourite potter, who are they, & what attracts you to their work?
I tend to prefer antique Chinese pots more than anything, they have a patina and clay quality that is impossible to reproduce, but there are a good number of relatively modern Japanese potters whose work I used to collect including Tofukuji and Makuzu Kozan. In the course of making my second book, I handled a great number of pots and to be honest, they were all my favourites.
(6) If you could only give one piece of advice to a bonsai enthusiast to keep them on the right path, what would it be?
Buy good material from the start and do not be afraid to make mistakes.
(7) Are there any species of which you still struggle with?
Junipers and White pine struggle to grow very well in my garden in Tokyo because of the climate, to be honest, bonsai need clean air and drop in night time temperatures.
(8) What do you consider raises the standard of bonsai, & what holds it back?
Effort and a desire to improve. Competition helps incredibly, during the bubble period there was great competition between five or six top artists including myself and Masahiko Kimura and we had a great rivalry (friendly). It was during this period that we all produced our best works.
What holds it back is politics, a lack of long term vision and small minded thinking. It is important to think of the future at all times, both in creating a tree and also from a business perspective.
(9) Whom has influenced your work?
Many people but the biggest influence on my aesthetic tastes was my “teacher”, Mr. Sasaki, a local artist who had a great eye and understanding of beauty. He used to come round and teach me many things, not from a technical perspective but fom an artistic and spiritual perspective. Many of the things he used to say to me made no sense at the time, but now as I get older I begin to appreciate it and understand. He saw beauty everywhere and once said, ” even the lines in a dog turd on the pavement can be beautiful”, prompting me to see beyond the immediate substance. Like I said, some of the stuff made no sense at the time!
(10) What is your view of collecting Yamadori, & the price of yamadori?
Yamadori trees offer the best character and age possible for material and it is an essential part of bonsai but it must he done in a responsible way. It is not an unlimited resource and we in Japan have very little new material now. I understand that there are many people who work on trees too quickly or who sell trees just off the mountain and this practice should be discouraged, there is no future to this at all . At demonstrations and workshops I have been given material that was too young to be worked with and unfortunately I am certain that many of them died due to a lack of understanding of the specific aftercare required for such trees.
As for the price? Compared to japan, it is very cheap, good yamadori doesn’t grow on trees and so great material should have a justifiable high price, but only if the market can sustain it. If there are no end purchasers for the trees once they have been made by professional artists, then they cannot make a living and cannot then afford the next piece of material. It is my understanding that in Europe in particular, it is seen as cheating to buy a tree professionally styled by someone, but if those professional artists are not supported then how is bonsai supposed to grow?
(11) What are your favourite, & least favourite aspects of bonsai?
I like the creative side of bonsai very much. I am at my happiest when sat in front of a raw piece of material and all the possibilities it offers me. I work very quickly so it doesn’t usually last long!
Least favourite aspects? Having to rely on apprentices to look after the trees when I am busy or away. I wish I could just stay at home and tend to my trees but this isn’t possible and leaving them in the hands of the young apprentices can be a worrying situation.
(12) Are there any influential texts/books that you might consider recommending? *
My two books! Hahaha! Well other than those, I would recommend the book by Seiko-en “Beauty and Harmony” and also “Four Seasons of Bonsai” by Murata Kyuzo. The best study though is to look at as many trees in person and ask questions, Why is this good? Why does this not work? This also applies for natural trees. Look at trees in nature and be influenced by their shapes and growth.
(13) Is there an elusive tree that you’re looking for (A species, style, & size of your dreams), & if so, what would it be?
There is always an elusive tree, always something to be dreaming of.
(14) Do you have any interests outside of bonsai?
My grandchildren! I enjoy other art forms but simply do not have enough time to visit museums or study them. I believe that you should do one thing and do only one thing but do it with all your heart.
(15) What is your view of one day demonstrations?
As a performance it can be fun, as long as the demonstrator is engaging. i always try to make jokes and talk with the audience. I know a lot of Japanese demonstrators don’t do this, and also some Europeans. If you don’t talk who will learn anything? The demonstrations are for the benefit of the audience, not the demonstrators.
There is also a lot of pressure to create a finished image in one day and so a lot of cheating and incorrect technique gets put forward. Perhaps people should be happier to see a properly done tree in one day that isn’t finished, rather than a finished tree incorrectly done.