The Bonsai Art of Kimura
by Katsuhito Onishi
Stone Lantern Publishing Co. Sudbury, MA USA: 175pp, $29.95.,
Reviewed by Will Heath*
This English Language version of Kimura's book is based mostly on "The Magical Technician of Contemporary Bonsai, Part II" and includes some content from his first book, "The Magical Technician of Contemporary Bonsai, Part I." It was his first book that rocketed him to bonsai fame and made him a household name, but not without a price. He was heavily criticized at first for his work, many saying that it was more sculpture than bonsai. This outlash was not surprising considering that in Japan, up until about 30 years ago; bonsai had remained virtually unchanged since its beginnings and Kimura, in an instant, transformed the art forever.
The same criticisms can be seen today every time someone steps out side of what is considered the traditional norm, when someone thinks outside of the box. Maybe these new artists, the artists who are actually creating art and not following line-by-line instructions, can find some solace in the words Kimura adds to the end of this book. "But in the future, the bonsai art must be expressed in a new way, with a more expanded concept. We young bonsai artists must not be afraid to break with tradition, for the objectives are the same. If not, bonsai will evolve as a mere curiosity, but not an art."
He goes on to say, "But it is now time for bonsai to cease being a static art and for us to begin creating bonsai for the twenty-first century, adding new trees worthy of appearing side by side with the classic works in exhibitions and in albums."
Written in the third person singular, this book takes the reader on a journey though the creation of world-class bonsai by one of the most respected and recognized artists of our time. Narrated with clean crisp writing and illustrated with many high quality full color photographs, this book is more of an inspirational work than a technical manual. Focusing more on the why than the how, a few pieces of information pertaining to the technical aspects of creating such masterpieces, such as thick trunk bending and trunk thickening, do find their way into the pages but such content is greatly outweighed by the thoughts behind the design. The many progression photographs reveal the processes used to create the remarkable bonsai featured in the book, while the text lets us understand the reasoning behind the paths chosen. Although this is a refreshing change from the usual how-to bonsai books, the reader is never allowed to forget the horticultural needs of the material and the importance of considering the health of the material first.
In the first chapter, Special Creations, the reader is greeted with the story of the Dragon, a seemingly impossible piece of stock which Kimura strips the live vein off the dead wood in order to lower the root mass three feet below its current location at the new planting angle. If that wasn't innovative and creative enough for the reader what follows is Kimura's often talked about and quite famous Chinese Juniper which had no functioning roots and a trunk that was dead when he received it, the scare foliage was living on what small amount of sap was left in the trunk. Kimura's solution was to induce roots from the small amount of foliage at the top of the tree and once stable, he turned the whole tree upside down and placed the new roots into the pot, leaving what was once the base twisting and spiraling upwards in a fantastic arrangement that is remarkable by anyone's standards.
Later, in the chapter titled "New Bonsai for the 21st Century" we are given example after example of how Kimura took neglected, unkempt, or poorly designed bonsai, some bordering on being no more than great stock, and transformed them into artistically created world-class bonsai that truly inspires all who view them.
Here Kimura efficiently destroys all arguments against creating instant bonsai and proves that healthy, quality bonsai can be created from material in time spans usually scoffed at by many, indeed the same time spans used in many on-line styling contests.
The first example in this chapter is one of my personal favorites in which Kimura takes a Chinese Juniper that had not been worked on by its owner at all for several years after repotting it. Kimura received the tree on January 6th, 1984 with the news that the owner wanted to exhibit it in the upcoming Kokufu exhibition in April, three months away. Kimura's transformation of the tree would be astounding no matter how long it took him; the change is nothing short of miraculous. The before and after pictures in the book show a time span of only 13 days! This included a re-potting in order to change the pots and a major wiring a shaping job. The outcome was so good that it was awarded a Kokufu prize! The last words spoken in the book on this remarkable tree were, "Kimura had created the instant bonsai."
In another example, Kimura completely restyled another Chinese Juniper into a incredible work of art that is unrecognizable from the original in a single day leaving the narrator to state, "Another instant bonsai was created that will remain a masterpiece for posterity."
Although the book shows some excellent examples of what can be done in a very short time frame, it also shows more long-term projects, some encompassing years. In the chapter "Some Future Bonsai Masterpieces" we are shown some projects the master is currently working on, those which he feels will be very good sometime in the future.
At the end of the book we are treated with a chapter titled "Earlier Works of the Master" in which some of the amazing techniques used to create his past works are shown. This adds depth to the artist and gives us a glimpse of where he came from and what resides in this very talented artist's mind.
Well worth the price, this inspirational and also educational book never fails to encourage my own modest attempts at creating bonsai and always revives that original sense of awe and wonder I felt the first time I saw a bonsai. This is a book for all serious bonsai artists as well as those who just admire the great works of our time.
* About Will Heath