The Beautiful, Brutal World of Bonsai

Winford Hunter

“I do,” Neil said.

“You should reconsider,” Urushibata said, then turned his attention back to the spruce.

It’s not difficult to create a tiny tree: you just need to restrict the roots and prune the branches. This has been known since at least the Tang dynasty in China, circa 700 A.D. One method was to plant a seedling in a dried orange peel and trim any roots that poked through. With a smaller root base, the tree cannot find the necessary nutrients to shoot upward, and thus remains small. In certain environments, like rocky cliffsides, this can occur naturally. The artistry, then, lies in shaping the tree. For most bonsai practitioners, “styling” a tree is a question of which branches to cut off and how to bend those which remain, using metal wire, so that the plant’s over-all form elicits a feeling of something ancient and wild. The usual aim is not to imitate the profile of big trees—which are considered too messy to be beautiful—but to intensely evoke them. In culinary terms, bonsai is bouillon.

In the 1990 book “The World in Miniature,” the Sinologist Rolf Stein notes that a range of early Taoist practices focussed on the magical power of tiny things. Taoist hermits, and also Buddhist monks, created miniature gardens as objects of contemplation, full of dwarfed plants, rock-size “mountains,” and “lakes” the depth of teacups. These spaces provided a form of virtual travel, not unlike how books function for us today.

Taoism had a special reverence for fantastically gnarled trees, which, because their lumber is useless to woodcutters and carpenters, are often spared the axe, enduring for centuries. This aged look was incorporated into the aesthetic of miniaturized trees; after all, there is nothing magical about a tiny young tree.

The vogue for miniature gardens spread throughout China, and then, around the thirteenth century, to Japan. As Japan urbanized—by 1700, Tokyo, then known as Edo, was home to a million people, nearly twice the population of London—the miniaturization of nature gradually came to serve a more practical purpose: it allowed people to go outdoors without leaving their homes.

As the bonsai historian Hideo Marushima has noted, “The keeping of potted plants is not often a matter of public record,” making it difficult to trace the development of the bonsai form. But we do know, from historical woodblock prints of bonsai, that early artists favored twisty trunks and tufty foliage. Changes in fashion tended to hinge on particular species rather than on pruning styles: a fad for azaleas was followed by one for smooth-barked maples, then one for mandarin-orange trees. A craze for wild Ishizuchi shimpaku junipers caused their near-extinction.

In the early twentieth century, the widespread adoption of copper wire, which allowed artists to perform increasingly precise manipulations, led to more extreme stylization: some bonsai leaned far to one side, as if buffeted by harsh winds; some stood ramrod straight; some spilled over the side of the pot, as if cascading down a cliff; some resembled the sinuous ink stroke of a calligrapher. It could take decades, or longer, to create a trunk with the desired silhouette. Patience, care, and an invisibly light touch were the hallmarks of a bonsai master.

Kimura is sometimes said to have done for bonsai what Picasso did for painting—he shattered the art form and then reëngineered it. Using power tools, he performed transformations so drastic that the resulting shapes seemed almost impossible. Moreover, his new methods allowed him to execute dramatic alterations in hours as opposed to over decades. Not surprisingly, his accelerated technique was admired and imitated throughout the West.

When Neil spoke of his desire to apprentice with Kimura, many American bonsai enthusiasts warned him that Kimura was harsh, uncouth, even cruel. But Neil wasn’t easily intimidated, and he was dazzled by what he had seen.

He flew back home and resumed college. After enlisting a tutor in Japanese, he wrote a rudimentary letter to Kimura asking to become his apprentice. Kimura did not respond. So Neil wrote another letter, and, when that was also met with silence, another, and another. Writing each month, he sent some twenty letters without hearing back.

Shortly after Neil graduated, though, he received an elegantly handwritten note from Kimura. He was elated to learn that his request had been granted. Kimura wrote, “Training is of course about acquiring skills, but total apprehension of the spiritual aspect is of the utmost importance. It may be strict, but, if you dedicate yourself fully, it will most certainly be rewarding.”

Masahiko Kimura was eleven years old when his father, a successful engineer, died suddenly. The family fell into poverty, and Kimura was forced to get a job as an errand boy. Life became “hell,” he has said. It was 1951, and Japan was still recovering from the Second World War. College was out of reach. When he was fifteen, his mother announced that she was sending him to apprentice at Tōju-En, a famous bonsai garden in the Tokyo suburb of Ōmiya. It was the epicenter of the art form. She had noticed that he was good with his hands, and she wanted to give him a profession with a stable income.

For the next three years, Kimura worked seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., without a single day off. His master at Tōju-En, Motosuke Hamano, harshly corrected his every error; Kimura says that his master even instructed him in how to walk. Kimura was given five minutes to finish meals. He was allowed no girlfriends, no alcohol, and no cigarettes. At night, he practiced the guitar and dreamed of being a rock star.

Kimura completed his apprenticeship when he was twenty-six. Lacking the money to open a bonsai garden of his own, he instead started a plant shop. It was successful, and, after a decade or so, he had saved enough money to become a professional bonsai artist. Now married with two daughters, he was determined to catch up to his more privileged contemporaries. One day, after he’d spent seven hours shaping a shimpaku juniper, a thought occurred to him: Why doesn’t anyone use power tools to accomplish this more quickly?

Around this time, a thirty-year-old engineer working at Toyota named Takeo Kawabe visited Kimura’s bonsai garden, fell in love with the trees, and asked to become his apprentice. Together, they developed an arsenal of custom devices—sandblasters, small chainsaws, grinders—that made it easy to quickly shape deadwood into whorls and wisps. Using power tools, Kimura could hollow out thick roots, allowing him to coil them up in smaller pots; he could also bend stout trees, to make them appear smaller, or split them apart, to create forest-style plantings. Michael Hagedorn, an American bonsai artist who apprenticed in Japan, said of these advances, “It’s similar to electrifying a guitar—the possibilities just go 3-D.”

Because Kimura’s shop could work faster, cheaper, and better than those of his competitors, his business flourished. He eventually made enough money to begin buying wild-collected miniature trees, called yamadori. Such trees, scarce in Japan, can be many hundreds of years old, and, once beautified by an artist, they can fetch astronomically high prices. (In the nineteen-eighties, at the peak of Japan’s economic boom, a brilliantly styled yamadori might sell for more than a million dollars.) As Kimura’s status rose, he recalls, he was also receiving “lots of criticism from bonsai V.I.P.s.” Some detractors derided his use of power tools as “noisy bonsai”; others accused him of making “sculptures, not bonsai.”

Masahiko Kimura, the so-called magician of bonsai, is widely regarded as the field’s most innovative living figure.Photograph by Toshiki Senoue

A bonsai sculpted by Kimura, who uses power tools to perform transformations so drastic that the resulting shapes seem almost impossible.Photograph by Toshiki Senoue

In 1988, Kimura submitted a wild-collected shimpaku juniper, estimated to be seven hundred years old, to the Sakufu-ten, an annual bonsai competition whose top award is bestowed by Japan’s Prime Minister. The tree, named “The Dance of a Rising Dragon,” was Z-shaped, its bleached trunk rising in hard, nearly horizontal slants. Dead branches curled out in all directions, like dense smoke. Atop this luscious chaos sat a neat but asymmetrical dome of foliage—a green cloud into which the dragon’s head vanished. It is widely regarded as one of the finest bonsai ever created. Kimura won the top prize.

An air of genius now attended him. He had published a lushly illustrated book, “The Magical Technician of Contemporary Bonsai,” which introduced his work to a global audience. The book included a manifesto in which Kimura declared, “We young bonsai artists must not be afraid to break with tradition. . . . If not, bonsai will evolve as a mere curiosity, but not an art.”

Kimura began giving demonstrations in Western countries. He often theatrically revved his chainsaw onstage, and during question-and-answer sessions he could be shockingly blunt. An American bonsai aficionado recalls attending a demonstration in Anaheim, California, in which someone asked Kimura, through an interpreter, what he thought of American bonsai. Kimura responded in Japanese, and the Japanese-speaking members of the audience gasped. “Very nice,” the interpreter translated, awkwardly. When audience members pushed him to reveal what Kimura had really said, they were stunned by the answer: “American bonsai is like maggots at the bottom of a toilet.” (Kimura claims that this was a mistranslation.)

As Kimura’s wealth grew, he adopted a Hemingwayesque life style. He drove American muscle cars and learned to pilot speedboats. He collected videos of Mike Tyson boxing matches. He hunted wild boar in Spain with the Spanish Prime Minister.

Kimura is now eighty-two. His wife died in 2009, and he continues to live with his daughters, who cook for him. He never drinks alcohol, but he is fond of going to nice restaurants and of singing karaoke with beautiful female companions. He smokes two packs of Winston cigarettes a day. A few years ago, he was given a diagnosis of lung cancer and had sixty per cent of one lung removed. He stopped smoking for a month, then resumed. He now appears to be in fine health.

A few years ago, I spoke with Kimura over a bento-box lunch in his sunny office. The walls were lined with framed photographs of his many award-winning trees. He wore a lavender dress shirt with “M. Kimura” embroidered on the breast pocket, in light-blue thread. His palms were thick, and he had a pianist’s long fingers, his nails perfectly trimmed and clean. His face, up close, was slightly forlorn, with deep-set eyes and jutting cheekbones. In rare moments of levity, his eyes crinkled and his smile revealed a gold molar.

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