I have been asked by a dear friend, who practices aikishintaiso, to write something about the Japanese calligraphy workshop taught by Koshu I attended on the second of November. This one hour workshop was offered as part of “Canterbury Anifest”, an annual animation festival , which this year was celebrating Japanese animation. As soon as I heard of it, I booked my tickets – I would have happily attended every event, but with young children to look after, it wasn’t possible. So I chose to watch Ghost in the Shell again, and to attend two talks : one by Andy Frain (one of the producers of Ghost in the Shell) and the other by Jasper Sharp, entitled “A brief history of Japanese animation”. The film, I loved, in spite of the scenario’s shortcomings (I don’t think it is a successful adaptation of the manga) because of the beauty of the images, the enthralling music and the fact that it reminded me of a happy period of my life shared with dear friends. I found the talks at the same time generally interesting and somewhat disappointing. And then, there was the calligraphy workshop.

But now that I’ve left more than two weeks pass, I find it difficult to know how and what to write (especially in English). I could describe what happened, and I will, a bit. But I am quite sure I won’t be able to convey the intense feeling of wonder and fulfillement it gave me. Does the word wonder really translate the French émerveillement ? Does it evoke eyes wide open, the vibration of an inner dawn overwhelming you, the sharp sensitivity creeping at your fingers and your lips, the bursting joy of novelty and recognition at the same time? I don’t know what happened and I don’t know why I loved it so much. But I am sure it has to do with Koshu.

The workshop took place on the second floor of the Gulbenkian building in a classroom. The tables had been arranged in four islands for eight people to attend (in the end, we were nine). Koshu was standing in front of the whiteboard, a very thin, elegant lady dressed in dark colours. I had visited her website before coming (http://koshujapaneseart.co.uk/) and felt intimidated on meeting in the flesh the fruit of such an impressive calligraphic lineage. But she seemed, in fact, very amiable and accessible.

On the tables, in front of each chair, were disposed large sheets of paper on a textile blotter (I am sure it has a technical name, you’ll have to forgive my ignorance), a metal ruler paperweight, a brush and an inkstone. Koshu started by giving us a quick introduction to the various calligraphic styles one can learn, illustrated by examples presented on the whiteboard. Then, the practice began. We were going to learn to draw a horizontal line first. And this is what Koshu said :

“The horizontal line tells much about you, whether you are confident, or not. The spirit is like… You have never killed anyone, of course, but try to imagine. Imagine you are a samourai, about to kill someone. First you draw your sword a bit. And you know exactly what you are going to do, you have pictured it in your mind. Then, you do this (gesture – strength, determination, precision). Then, calmy, you finish (puts the sword back in its sheath).” (Did I breathe during this demonstration ? I am not sure. The gesture was strikingly beautiful).

“Apply your brush, twist, then push – push, never pull the brush – then, calmy, lift, and finish.

Apply your spirit to your work.”

Some strokes, I couldn’t draw at all, until Koshu said “The spirit goes this way” and demonstrated it with her body or a movement of her hips. Suddenly, as if by magic, I understood what was asked (which is not to say I could do it properly…).

Of course, we only had an hour. We had to try to do things which take months and years to master. We only had a few minutes for each stroke, and as a result, it was very intense. We got the feeling we had to “inhabit” each of our clumsy attempts, try not to waste a stroke, apply our spirit, our energy, our body. I am quite sure it wasn’t just me, because at the end, nobody wanted the session to stop, we were all hanging on to our brushes, hurrying to try once more, although our teacher had to go and the room had to be tidied up. What I write here will seem very exagerated and probably even crazy, but I had the feeling I had to try as if my life depended on it, that this was my chance to… to what ? I don’t know. All of a sudden, everything seemed to be alive. No more half-heartedness, no more creeping sadness, the present was intensely real, and beautiful, and fulfilling. I can honestly say I haven’t done anything as satisfying in a very long time, including gardening or writing poetry, even though the written word is where I feel most in my place. But then, calligraphy is also writing. Yes, I would have liked it to go on forever.

I am trying to understand what happened. Hypothesis : that feeling of happiness could be compared to a sense of reconciliation with oneself, of healing maybe (although I don’t like the charismatic connotations of that word), of what we call “réparation” in French. In the gesture of brushing ink on the paper, the body and the mind seem to fuse, I don’t know, create an alliance, and something happens or opens like the epiphany of love. And you want to do it again and again. Is there an opening into the meaning of the sign you write ? It seems something deep and essential stirs as you push the brush, like a hint to an unknown sense waiting to be awakened. I cannot draw for the life of me. But I could learn calligraphy.

I can’t attend Koshu’s class for the moment as I live too far and don’t drive, but it is a dream that I hope to realise in the future. I have no idea if there are other courses near my town, but really, my heart says I should learn from her. Needless to say I would recommend to anybody to try her lessons. She is beautiful and so inspiring. Here is a picture of her from the Canterbury Anifest website (http://www.canterburyanifest.com/) which I feel captures a bit the energy she exudes.


And here are pictures of my attempts. The results don’t matter, of course, I don’t know anything about calligraphy. They are just a reminder of what happened in that hour, and of the renewed joy I could find in the future, when I meet Koshu again.

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2 thoughts on “The Japanese calligraphy workshop

  1. J’ai vu l’autre jour une dame dans le bus qui avait un manuel pour apprendre le japonais, chez Piquier jeunesse. J’ai un peu parlé avec elle dans le bus. J’ai pensé à toi. Pour moi, apprendre une langue est inimaginable dans ma vie telle qu’elle est… Et toi, tu en es où ?


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