Friday, November 12, 2021

Showcase - Back To Japan The Life and Art of Master Kimono Painter Kunihiko Moriguchi by MARC PETITJEAN Translated by ADRIANA HUNTER

Today I once again am featuring Back To Japan - The Life and Art of Master Kimono Painter Kunihiko Moriguchi by MARC PETITJEAN Translated by ADRIANA HUNTER, a wonderful just released jewel by my favorite Indie publishers Other Press.

ISBN-13:  978-1-63542-090-6
Publisher: Other Press
Release Date: 11-9-2021
Length: 160pp
Buy It: Publisher/ Amazon/ B&N/ IndieBound



From the critically acclaimed author of The Heart: Frida Kahlo in Paris, a fascinating, intimate portrait of one of Japan’s most influential and respected textile artists.

Writer, filmmaker, and photographer Marc Petitjean finds himself in Kyoto one fine morning with his camera, to film a man who will become his friend: Kunihiko Moriguchi, a master kimono painter and Living National Treasure—like his father before him.

As a young decorative arts student in the 1960s, Moriguchi rubbed shoulders with the cultural elite of Paris and befriended Balthus, who would profoundly influence his artistic career. Discouraged by Balthus from pursuing design in Europe, he returned to Japan to take up his father’s vocation. Once back in this world of tradition he had tried to escape, Moriguchi contemporized the craft of Yūzen (resist dyeing) through his innovative use of abstraction in patterns.

With a documentarian’s keen eye, Petitjean retraces Moriguchi’s remarkable life, from his childhood during the turbulent 1940s and 50s marked by war, to his prime as an artist with works exhibited in the most prestigious museums in the world.

Read an excerpt:


As night fell the taxi dropped me by the entrance to the Okura, a luxury hotel in Tokyo’s embassies neighborhood. A friend in Paris had put me in touch with his “Japanese brother.” This was our first meeting. As I crossed the lobby to the bar, I was struck by the sense of harmony inherent in the spaces and materials in this building that dated from the 1960s: a combination of the modern and the traditional.
Cut-glass droplets of light hung from the ceiling, and armchairs were arranged like petals around circular tables on carpeting in a checkerboard of warm colors. The walls were clad in pale wood and the views softened by paper screens. From a distance I watched the female staff elegantly going about their work in their pastel-colored kimonos. The Orchid Bar had an English-style muted feel.
Kunihiko Moriguchi came to greet me with a broad smile: “Ah, Marc!” We settled into black leather armchairs on either side of a beaten copper table, and ordered whiskeys.
He was slighter than I had imagined, spry with a warm smile and a handsome face. He spoke impeccable French, learned in Paris in the 1960s, but, to his regret, he hadn’t had occasion to improve it since. We drank to our mutual friend and to our reciprocal attraction: his to France and mine to Japan.
My first visit had been two years earlier for the shoot of a documentary about Dr. Hida, a survivor of the Hiroshima bomb. He was a committed, charismatic man who devoted himself to treating survivors of injury and radiation, and I saw him as a modern hero who had succeeded in reconciling communism with Buddhism.
Moriguchi told me about Japanese culture and his concept of art; his words gave me glimpses of a society I hardly knew, having discovered it through the very distinctive prism of atomic bombs. As we were about to say goodbye, something gave me pause. I experienced that mysterious feeling afforded by all true meetings of minds.
As if throwing a message in a bottle into the sea, I said I’d very much like to make a film about him and his kimonos, if the opportunity arose someday. The idea appealed to him. It could very easily have melted away like snow in sunshine.
Back at my hotel I leafed through the catalogue of his painted kimonos. I was expecting traditional designs, branches of cherry blossom, waves, pagodas. Instead, I discovered geometric patterns in incrementally fading colors that sublimated the very notion of kimonos.
He had given me a leaflet about the Hotel Okura, making a point of saying how much he liked it. The architects Yoshiro Taniguchi and Hideo Kosaka had combined modernist architecture and age-old traditions of Japanese craftsmanship. Moriguchi claimed he himself adhered to such tendencies. The Hotel Okura was destroyed in 2015 to make way for a thirty-eight-story tower, taking with it memories of its famous guests: Yoko Ono and John Lennon, Madonna, Herbert von Karajan, Barack Obama, Jacques Chirac, and so many more. The nostalgic can always watch Walk, Don’t Run, a film starring Cary Grant that used the hotel as a location in 1966.
True, buildings in Tokyo are regularly razed to the ground and replaced after twenty or thirty years’ service. As such, Tokyo is not so much a city of memories as a city of things to come.

◆ ◆ ◆

In Japan memories seem to be incarnated by people rather than monuments. In a country chronically prone to earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, volcanic eruptions, and typhoons, the Japanese know that houses, villages, and whole landscapes can be damaged or entirely erased from one day to the next. On the other hand, the people who survive these disasters are able to pass on their know-how from generation to generation, so that, to take just one example, houses can be rebuilt in keeping with ancient Japanese traditions. This is how traditional forms of architecture, art, theater, and craftsmanship have been kept alive, passed on and reproduced for centuries right up to the present day.
In 1950 — turning its back on the war and a disastrous colonial past, and in reaction to the horrors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs — the Japanese state decided to establish culture as a higher value in the new society that was being founded. It was in the context of this initiative that the term “Living National Treasure” emerged to honor artists seen as guardians of intangible but significant cultural assets. Kunihiko Moriguchi was awarded the distinction of Living National Treasure in his capacity as a textile artist (in the so-called yuzen tradition established by Miyazaki Yuzen in the Edo period), and therefore became a “human monument.”
One point niggled at me: Moriguchi’s abstract kimono patterns were light-years away from the designs I knew, ones that represented the sort of traditions that the notion of Living National Treasures seemed intended to reference. How did the commissioners for a tradition-based concept of Japanese culture justify this fusion of ancient and modern, Western and Japanese culture? And on a more personal level, how had Moriguchi carved out this niche between these two worlds?


One fine morning four years after that first meeting at the Okura, I found myself outside Kunihiko Moriguchi’s house with a video camera, ready to invade the premises. We had agreed that I could film everything over the three months that I was to stay in Kyoto. He was opening his doors wide to me and was committed to ensuring that I discovered — and loved — Japanese culture. He often said, with a mischievous smile, “We’re very different, but we can still talk to one another and try to draw closer.”
After New Year’s, he invited me to a tea ceremony arranged by the Matsushita Foundation. At its origin, the tea ceremony was a traditional art inspired by Zen Buddhism. The intention is that, during the course of this lengthy, codified ritual, participants are freed of their personal trappings to share in an esthetic experience. The villa where it was held is called Shinshin-An, which means “truth of truth.” Its grounds were there for all to see before the dark, concealed modern building. Silent gardeners hunkered down and gathered the pine needles strewn on the ground, picking them up one by one, then patiently assembled them side by side to form a covering to protect the various mosses from the rigors of winter. This humble consideration for the natural world touched me and persuaded me to take a closer look at the treasure to which they were ministering with such perfect care. I surrendered to the mood exuded by the place. The orangey-brown of the pine needles struck up conversation with the different greens of mosses and the grays of stones. In the distance, behind the gardeners, the view was shaped by the garden’s great variety of trees arranged in a succession of tiers that gradually melted into the wooded slopes of Mount Higashiyama. Exploring the garden was a preamble to the tea ceremony. In addition to the spectacular panoramic composition that greeted visitors when they set foot on the grounds, its designers had devised a carefully planned itinerary so guests could explore the different spaces by taking a variety of paths. Parts of the garden were hidden and then revealed along the way, appearing from behind a tree, a shrub, a mound of earth, or a small wooden bridge. I felt as if the scenery changed as I walked, unveiling a succession of new architectural and botanical themes: mosses and bodies of water, wild trees and pruned trees, a dry garden of methodically raked sand dotted with evergreens, sculptures, a small tea pavilion . . . At the end of this journey stood a Shinto sanctuary, a miniature replica of the Jingu temple in Ise. Matsushita had had it built to express gratitude and respect for “the origin and supreme power of the universe.” It was here that multimillionaires came to marshal their thoughts before making major decisions about the future of their businesses.
There were about ten of us, all men in dark suits, seated in a semicircle facing Mr. Tokuda, the master of ceremonies, who was guided by a woman in a light-green kimono. The mood was relaxed and cordial. He encouraged us to try the welcome pastries from Tsuruya Yoshinobu, and to eat them with our fingers, uninhibitedly. Then Tokuda presented some ancient chinaware, bowls and pots that were passed around carefully, each of us marveling at them and noting every tiny detail like connoisseurs. “Oohs” and “ahs” and other — more Japanese — exclamations accompanied the handling of these objects, whose beauty I failed to see. Kunihiko Moriguchi whispered a translation of the enthusiasts’ comments as they handed the pieces to the next person: “You can appreciate it so much better when you can feel its rough surface, rather than just seeing it,” one said. “I’m fascinated by the shape of this bowl. I can see Mount Fuji in it, and the moon,” said another. Or, “Is that a calabash or a rabbit I can make out here?” They saw fantastical things that transported them far away, while I saw nothing. As consolation, I smiled to myself and remembered a reflection of Claude Lévi-Strauss: cultures are by their very nature incommensurable.
Next Mr. Tokuda showed us the utensils used for the ceremony: “The kettle — shin narigama — was made by the master Ikke, the jug by master Eiraku Zengoro XVI (Sokuzen). The tea caddy was designed by Gengensai of Urasenke, and the spoon by Tantansai . . . I seem to have forgotten the name of the piece . . . Oh, yes, it’s called Yukei.”
Yukei means ‘having feelings of joy,’” the woman in the kimono added lightly.
“She’s my teacher and I’m not a good student.” “Nonsense,” she said gently. “He’s in the third year of his apprenticeship, and it’s good experience for him to do a presentation in front of his teacher.”
“I’m terrified because I feel like I’ve forgotten everything,” he admitted, laughing.
We were served tea in equally remarkable bowls, and, with my thumb inside it, I turned mine around until the pattern was facing me, as I had been taught to do. Only then did I bring it to my lips to sip the tepid green froth of matcha. Mr. Tokuda explained that he had chosen to serve us using bowls that Mr. Matsushita liked in the hope that, as he did, we would sense the spirit of their shape and substance that conjure a historical depiction of the afterlife. Young women in kimonos delicately set down trays laden with exquisite food, and served us as much sake as we wanted. Moriguchi translated the conversations around us for me. “People in Japan think that black and white are colors of mourning, but funeral directors came up with that idea. Black and white are actually the colors of happiness. Bereavement is a happy thing, because when someone dies they are reincarnated in Buddha. Black and white are the basis for everything.” I had plenty to think about.
Konosuke Matsushita was the legendary founder of Panasonic, the first big Japanese electronics company. He succeeded in combining rigorous discipline with technological power to conquer Japanese and international markets. At the same time, he defended and subsidized the conservation, exhibition, and very survival of Japanese arts and crafts. In Matsushita I once again saw that coexistence of the modern and the traditional, and I also found out that the Japanese could relax their reserve like children and go into ecstasies over old bits of pottery that I found unexceptional. Moriguchi explained later that the bowls were true “phenomena” of the history of earthenware and were utterly priceless. Some of the guests held their bowls over a cushion on the ground just in case they dropped them out of clumsiness or an excess of emotion.
To circumvent laws that forbade the exhibition of costly luxury belongings, rare and precious items had been banished in favor of cheap, humdrum ones from everyday life, handmade things complete with imperfections. Kunihiko was very keen that I should understand exactly what was going on. Perhaps he thought that if I didn’t like what I saw that day, then this venture would be a lost cause and I wouldn’t be equipped to go any further in exploring his culture.


“In the limpid stillness of Marc Petitjean’s sentences, and the focus of his gaze, Back to Japan becomes something deeper than a conventional biography. It’s an act of profound contemplation.” —Judith Thurman, author of Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette

“A treasure of a book about a living treasure. Kunihiko Moriguchi’s story is the story of Japanese craftsmanship at its most elegant, and Marc Petitjean’s intimate biography is a window into a rarefied world most Japanese and foreigners never get to see.” —Matt Alt, author of Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World

“An eye-opening sojourn into the world of Japanese art and the remarkable life of a Japanese National Treasure, famed textile artist Kunihiko Moriguchi. It was a delight to read from beginning to end as well as an education into things Japanese.” —Robert Whiting, author of Tokyo Junkie

“Kimono designer Kunihiko Moriguchi is a ‘Living National Treasure,’ the highest cultural recognition bestowed in Japan. But he is not simply preserving a tradition. He has absorbed a modern Western aesthetic, creating his own unique style. This is the story of how he grew up enfolded in a traditional family, learning skills from his father, then leaping into the art world of Paris in the 1960s, only to discover that his true calling lay back home in Kyoto. A rare cosmopolitan figure in the world of Japanese traditional crafts deemed worthy of Intangible Cultural Heritage status, Moriguchi is portrayed through the eyes of his French friend, filmmaker Marc Petitjean, for whom Moriguchi is a portal for understanding deep Japanese sensibilities. An intimate and engrossing portrait of an artist’s life within French and Japanese culture.” —Liza Dalby, author of Geisha and The Tale of Murasaki

“Through his personal interaction with the textile artist, Marc Petitjean narrates a captivating biographical story of Kunihiko Moriguchi, who is a direct successor of the long history and technique of yūzen, a paste-resist method of dyeing invented in the second half of the sixteenth century. Moriguchi combined Japanese tradition and Western modernity to create unique and original geometrical designs that are now his trademark. The book details his upbringing in Kyoto, his experiences in France, and influences from his mentors, such as his father and Balthus, all of which shaped who he is today as Japan’s Living National Treasure. The book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in Japanese art and culture.” —Yuniya Kawamura, Professor of Sociology, Fashion Institute of Technology, and author of The Japanese Revolution in Paris Fashion

“Marc Petitjean’s wonderfully compact book delivers an intimate account of the kimono in modern times from the unique perspective of one of its most esteemed practitioners, kimono painter and Living National Treasure Kunihiko Moriguchi. More than his kimono designs, we learn about the place of the kimono and its arts in contemporary times through Moriguchi’s eyes—from growing up as the son of a renowned kimono painter during the postwar poverty of Japan, escaping to Paris to find a new context for his art, and returning to Japan to define his art’s own context. Back to Japan centers on this life-changing decision. Petitjean gives a candid portrayal of his friend and artist who fiercely protected his creative voice while proudly carrying on the artistic tradition in kimono of permanent innovation.” —Vivian Li, Lupe Murchison Curator of Contemporary Art, Dallas Museum of Art, and coauthor of Kimono Couture: The Beauty of Chiso

“Reading this book is like overhearing someone’s extraordinary story at an intimate cocktail party, with all the characters in the room, and it somehow made me nostalgic for a life before I was born—Paris in the sixties, Kyoto in the seventies. Thanks to Petitjean’s sensitive observation and careful research, we get to witness the unfolding of Moriguchi’s lifelong quest for creative freedom within the constraints of a traditional culture. Back to Japan is a real treasure.” —Beth Kempton, author of Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life

“Marc Petitjean takes readers on a remarkable journey into the life and art of Kunihiko Moriguchi, a Living National Treasure and one of the great masters of yūzen. From the galleries of Paris to the strict workshops of Kyoto, Back to Japan offers an intimate glimpse of an artist who at once preserves and revolutionizes a centuries-old art form. Petitjean’s poetic and heartfelt prose, along with Moriguchi’s extraordinary creations, will linger in your imagination long after you close the pages.” —Virginia Soenksen, Director, Madison Art Collection and Lisanby Museum, and coauthor of Textiles of Japan

“Marc Petitjean’s Back to Japan: The Life and Art of Master Kimono Painter Kunihiko Moriguchi is an exquisite journey into the life trajectory and work ethos of Moriguchi. While painting a vivid portrait of the master, Petitjean also describes the eternal conflicts of modernity vs. tradition, art and artisanal thought processes, and cross-cultural otherness. This book is a rare glimpse into this rarified world and is written with sensitivity and skill.” —Manami Okazaki, author of Kimono Now

“Back to Japan highlights the way art crosses borders—temporal and geographical—and weaves together friendships and family legacies. At once moving and profound, the book follows the life course of a son who, in sacrificing his own passions, discovers new modes of expression in the elegant folds and shadows of traditional yūzen dyeing. Marc Petitjean’s riveting portrait of textile artist Kunihiko Moriguchi is more than biography; it is a testimony to the ‘dynamic dignity’ this art requires.” —Rebecca Copeland, Professor of Japanese Literature, Washington University in St. Louis, and author of The Kimono Tattoo

About the author:
Marc Petitjean is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer. He has directed several documentaries, including From Hiroshima to Fukushima, on Dr. Shuntaro Hida, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima; Living Treasure, about Japanese kimono painter Kunihiko Moriguchi; and Zones grises, on his own search for information about the life of his father, Michel Petitjean, after his death.

The Translator:
Adriana Hunter studied French and Drama at the University of London. She has translated more than ninety books, including Véronique Olmi’s Bakhita and Hervé Le Tellier’s Eléctrico W, winner of the French-American Foundation’s 2013 Translation Prize in Fiction. She lives in Kent, England.


  1. That sounds like it would be an informative book.

  2. Ever since reading Memoirs of a Geisha, I've been fascinated by the Japanese artistry behind their most iconic fashion.