Performance calligraphy touches on essence of art form

January 29, 2012

By NAOTO INAGAKI / The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

High schoolers swing brushes in sweeping motions, then bring them down, while also flinging themselves about with abandon.

Wearing cherry-colored hakama, they run around freely, wielding huge brushes on a sheet of paper five meters long and 10 meters wide.

This is performance calligraphy, which incorporates music and dance into the writing of characters on large sheets of paper. The demonstration was put on by the calligraphy club at Matsuyama Girls High School in Saitama Prefecture, currently one of the leading exponents of the art. Their abundantly energetic performances are dazzling to watch.

Of the roughly 30 songs that they use to accompany their performances, the most popular is Ai Otsuka's "Sakuranbo." When the introduction begins to play, one of the club's 30 members yells "Here I go!" before running around on the paper to write the first character. Next, several other members stand up and take over, each writing a different part of the lyrics.

Fluid syllabic kana characters and Chinese kanji characters spring forth from their brushes. They use not only black ink, but a special colorful water-based paint in hues such as blue and pink.

According to the club's adviser, Hiroko Ishihara, it only had a tiny membership when she came to the school 12 years ago. It began to grow several years ago, due to the popularity of a manga titled "Tomehane! Suzuri Koko Shodobu," about teenagers who practice calligraphy.

In contrast with the usual image of calligraphy as a discipline that requires its practitioners to sit statically facing a piece of paper and an ink stone, the training for performance calligraphy is quite athletic. Club members practice for around an hour in the morning, then in the evening from 4 p.m. to after 7 p.m. Muscle pain is routine for first-year newcomers. The key members who form the performance team are selected through internal auditions.

Matsuyama Girls High School also has a formidable track record in traditional calligraphy. At the International High School Shodo Exhibition in 2011, the calligraphy world's equivalent of the annual National High School Baseball Championship, it won its second national title in the school division.

"In our performances, we give thought not only to the beauty of the characters we write, but also how to present ourselves when we're writing," says Ayako Ono, 18, third-year student and club vice president.

Simply listening to them tell me about it wasn't enough, so I tried it myself. The giant brushes are nearly 130 centimeters long, but as they're made of plastic, they're not as heavy as they look. However, it was my first time writing characters, or anything else for that matter, on the several sheets of imitation Japanese vellum stuck together that they use. I was at a loss as to how to balance out the "radicals," the components that make up kanji characters. I wrote the character "sho (書)" as it is used to represent calligraphy, but a female student who was only a third of my age gave my effort a thumbs down.

"It would've been better if you'd paid more attention to the thickness of your lines."

For a large group to write characters in time to music and create an integrated artwork, considerable teamwork is required.

The originator of performance calligraphy is thought to be Kenji Kiyohara, 64, adviser to the calligraphy club of Seiho High School (formerly Chikujo Chubu High School) in Buzen, Fukuoka Prefecture.

It all started 18 years ago. Seiho High School has a proud record of five national title victories at the International High School Shodo Exhibition, and a celebratory function held at a local hotel is said to have been the first time that performance calligraphy was demonstrated on a large sheet of paper in front of an audience. Five years later, members of the school's calligraphy club appeared on a television program writing characters on a large sheet of paper to the music of male R&B dance unit Da Pump, making the art known to a wider audience.

"At first, people said to me, 'Do you call that calligraphy?' " says Kiyohara. "However, the best writing comes from distancing yourself from preconceived notions about the way calligraphy should be. We never forget about writing characters to a professional standard either."

Performance calligraphy is currently spreading all over Japan. The Shodo Performance Koshien, a national tournament, has been held every summer since 2008 in gymnasiums and other venues in Shikokuchuo, Ehime Prefecture, which also happens to be the country's largest shipper of Japanese writing paper.

It was proposed by Kazutaka Hattori, former calligraphy club adviser at Mishima High School in Shikokuchuo and currently an associate professor at Fukuoka University of Education, who suggested that high schoolers would be open to trying new things.

Mishima High and two other schools participated in the first-ever tournament, which drew around 300 spectators. At the 4th Shodo Performance Koshien held in July, 15 schools from around Japan took part, watched by a record crowd of 3,500.

Hidenobu Abe, 34, Mishima High School's calligraphy club adviser, says that calligraphy tends to be regarded as something akin to painting and art, but performance calligraphy is actually closer to music because it uses the entire body, and requires attention to breathing and rhythm.

It is a performance art that could be seen as falling outside the boundaries of tradition calligraphy. "But in fact, it is actually deeply connected to the essential principles of Japanese calligraphy," he says.

By NAOTO INAGAKI / The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE
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Members of the Matsuyama Girls High School calligraphy club, and their work. Once finished, it is held up to show the crowd.

Members of the Matsuyama Girls High School calligraphy club, and their work. Once finished, it is held up to show the crowd.

  • Members of the Matsuyama Girls High School calligraphy club, and their work. Once finished, it is held up to show the crowd.
  • Performance by members of the Matsuyama Girls High School calligraphy club

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