INTERVIEW - July 24, 2019

Interview with Ishii Houtan:
The galaxy, the Mogami River. Looking up the world of light.

The interview of PURE SHODO introduces the calligraphers who live original way. In the first interview, we enjoyed talking with Ishii Houtan. He has been active as an avant-garde calligrapher for a long time and his the "COSMOS" series has recently received high praise as modern art. Ishii also organized many exhibitions, in particular, the 'Ten-ten' exhibition, which has held since 2008, is an exciting place. At the 'Ten-ten', the calligraphers gather from all over Japan and present their experimental works. They jump over lightly the "frame of Japanese calligraphy". This year, it's the 11th anniversary, and it held as the 'Both Extreme of Japanese Calligraphy' exhibition in June (You can watch the exhibition and gallery talks on YouTube). It featured leading calligraphers in both avant-garde and traditional. Not only were the works great, but it also helped both viewers and calligraphers discover that "Extremes meet" and had a significant effect. In this interview, we talked about the background of his recent series "COSMOS".

A portrate of ISHII Houtan
A portrate of ISHII Houtan

石井抱旦 いしい・ほうたん
Born in Sagae City, Yamagata Prefecture in 1947. Lives and works in Chigasaki. The member of the examination committee for the Mainichi Shodo Exhibition. He learned calligraphy under UNO Sesson 宇野雪村 and MIZUKOSHI Bouson 水越茅村, and was active as an avant-garde calligrapher since around 1970. Since 1980, he has exhibited at overseas exhibitions, and visiting Europe, the United States and Asia. In 1990, he received the Grand Prix at the Mainichi Shodo Exhibition. He organizes the 'Ten-ten' exhibition annually since 2008. In 2017, he received the award at the NEW ARTIST UNIT EXHIBITION and got a special solo exhibition the following year. In 2019, he organized 'Both Extreme of Japanese Calligraphy' show at Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse.

-- I had been looking forward to seeing you today. Let's get straight to the point. Mr Ishii, could you tell me what made you start the avant-garde calligraphy?

I started calligraphy after I graduated from university when I became an elementary school teacher. A colleague told me to learn it because I was not good at writing on the blackboard. So I started to learn calligraphy from master MIZUKOSHI Bouson in Chigasaki.

MIZUKOSHI Bouson was a disciple of UEDA SokyuIn 1959, he won the first grand prix in the avant-garde category (which was established in the Mainichi Shodo Exhibition in 1958. In the 1st time, there was no applicable person). Yes, he was awesome. After I had learned from such a master for two years, I was told "Give it a try." and started writing abstraction. On that day, there were three or four people, and all of them were school teachers. We covered the six tatami mat room with vinyl to the ceiling, and spread 3x6 (Saburoku) paper (90 cm x 180 cm, one tatami mat size) out in the centre. Then the master said, "Draw a line". When I asked him, "How can I do it?" he said, "In a second". I tried, and I found it was a pleasure. "Write a circle next", he said. Immediately, I was addicted to that way. I still have what I wrote at that time. I clearly remember that.

The master said, "Calligraphy is just like a sculpture". Creating a sculpture is the minus work of cutting and carving stones. On the other hand, creating a statue is a plus work to stick clay. Calligraphy is written in Sumi ink. Once you fail, it's over. How the white space should be divided or trimmed. I was told, "Cut the space! If you draw with loose lines, you won't be able to cut it! It's like a sculpture!". Yeah, it's also a plus because adding black to white, but I do a minus job in my head. I can say it's a two-faced relationship.

-- It's cool. It is around 1970, isn't it? I cannot think it was 50 years ago. What were you interested in before you started calligraphy?

When I was in high school, I painted pictures in the art club. I've been singing in chorus since I was a child, so I was also a group member of the music club. I wanted to go to an art university, but I went to a certain university in Tokyo and got a teaching certificate in the department of education. I majored in Japanese history at the Department of History, Faculty of Letters. I won't mention the university name because I hardly attended classes. You know, I'm "baby boomer generation". But I didn't do a student movement. I was a non-political student. At that time, classes were boycotted, so I worked part-time every day. It was the time when instant noodles were on sale firstly, and I piled up 20 kg bags of flour all night. Instead of barricades :) The good things about working at night are having a midnight snack, taking a bath because it gets too powdery, and having breakfast. I can't move during the day because I was working like that, right? I needed 60 pages to write my thesis. I wrote seriously on the first page, and on the remaining pages I wrote out just Japanese poem "Irohanihoheto" spent three days. We didn't have a computer or a word processor like we do now. The teacher understood my circumstance and accepted it. That was the era like that.

I passed the Teacher Employment Examination of Kanagawa Prefecture. I got a pass notification as a social studies teacher, but I didn't get a job offer. I couldn't graduate in March, and I graduated in April. I worked part-time to draw a road line until I got a job. The notice arrived on April 15. I was suddenly told, "Come to Chigasaki". Some teachers who came from the countryside could be hired by the locals and returned there, and the seats became vacant. It's unthinkable now, but that kind of relaxed atmosphere was still there.


A part of 'COSMOS -breath-' 2019 ISHII Houtan
A part of "COSMOS -breath-" 2019 ISHII Houtan


-- I heard that you were the principal of an elementary school, but at first, you started your career like that way. By the way, in this year's Mainichi Calligraphy Exhibition, you exhibited the artworks of "COSMOS" series. "COSMOS" means space, doesn't it? What made you interested in it?

I'm from Sagae city in Yamagata prefecture, and I grew up in an environment where the sky was full of stars, and the Milky Way was visible. I've always been interested in space. I've loved reading books since I was a child. I read all the books in my school library. Do you know Carl Sagan's book 'Cosmos'? I think Carl Sagan has been dead for about 20 years. There will be an equation to calculate the probability that aliens exist in the book. It's a famous formula called the Drake equation, and I taught it to my children when I was a teacher. It's a fraction calculation, so even children can understand it. I told them if our school ground was space, and the Earth was a golf ball, well, what do you think where the Moon and Mars are?

My "COSMOS" has only light. It's outer space and also the world which I saw as a child. When I was probably in the 2nd grade of elementary school, I watched a movie of Miyazawa Kenji's 'Kaze no Matasaburo' in the school gymnasium. With the dark curtain drawn, suddenly the wind blew, and the cloak spread. It's an abstract and mysterious world.

Then the world of light at the bottom of the river. Do you understand this? My house was on the banks of the Mogami River at that time. The Mogami River is a large river with a width of about 100 meters. There are shallow places and deep places, so I used to swim quite often. I dive and catch fish. The flow is fast. One day, when I went underwater and looked up, I found snakes floating on the surface of the water. Snakes wriggled through the glittering light. Can you imagine? Another day, somebody threw stones at the beehive from the river, and said "Everybody, dive! Quick!" Yes, it was exciting. Shall I teach you how to catch fish without tools? A fish hides under a stone, and if you throw a stone at it, the fish will faint. You just grab it. I skewer the cicadas and grill it with charcoal. Aburazemi was the most delicious among cicadas. It's crispy. My father told me not to eat more than ten at a time. "You're going to be deaf." It must be superstition. We ate watermelons picking from the field around there.

If I draw these things as they are, it becomes pictures. But I only depict the light - fantastic and mysterious world.

Kenji Miyazawa's world is abstract. "Clambon" is a mystery. He created a world of darkness and light. He wrote a lot about space. When I was a teacher, my colleague was a researcher of Kenji, named Shoumei Aoki. He gave a lecture the other day. At that time, I drew about ten illustrations for Kenji's short story 'Yamanashi' in the brochure.


'A Surreal three‐legged race' 2019 ISHII Houtan
'A Surreal three‐legged race' 2019 ISHII Houtan


I was so impressed that the "COSMOS" series has such a background. I would love to see the illustrations. You are making a new series recently, aren't you?

Here it is (He showed me). It's technically interesting. Anyone can do it, and it's fun to do it. These are surreal shapes. A human doesn't have a body like this; it has no neck and legs are strange. I'm into this surreal shape, so I've already created about two hundred works. There's no failure. Whoever can do, and it becomes humanlike. I want to continue doing interesting things in the future that other people don't do.

 Interview Note -- On the day of the interview, we met at the entrance of the Mainichi Calligraphy Exhibition (Late Stage I) which was being held at The National Art Center, Tokyo in Roppongi. As you know, the venue is vast and filled with numerous works from the first floor to the third floor. We stopped in front of wonderful works and talked that this piece is excellent, this calligrapher is this kind of person, and so on. I spent a dreamlike time with the foremost person in the avant-garde calligraphy, and I thought I was happy to start PURE SHODO. Ishii-san, thank you so much for such a fun time!

Interview, text, photo: Mayumi Yoshisue