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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese art critics living in Japan.

Sculpture Haven: The Kodaira Hirakushi Denchu Art Museum
Michael Pronko
The superbly maintained garden of Hirakushi's Kodaira home is used for tea ceremonies and other events.   Tea-ceremony utensils wait for the ceremony to begin. The museum offers a space for holding events that exudes a lived-in, well-used atmosphere.

Close by the campus of Hitotsubashi University in Kodaira, an unassuming suburb of western Tokyo, lies an intriguing museum dedicated to one of Japan's masters of wood sculpture, Denchu Hirakushi. The museum houses a fine collection of his works in a fireproof exhibition annex, as well as the nicely preserved Japanese-style home and garden where he lived in the final years of his life.

Those years were almost as active as his early career. Hirakushi lectured, taught, and worked over a long and productive span, living until the age of 107. Even at the time of his passing, Hirakushi had stored up enough wood for many more years of work. Sculpture must be good for longevity.

Born in 1872 in Okayama, Hirakushi was apprenticed to a puppet master in Osaka, where he learned the basics of his craft. He spent part of his early years living at temples and working with priests on Buddhist sculptures, whose influence can be seen in many of his works. He was awarded the Order for Cultural Merit in 1962 and continued to influence students, sculptors, and artists throughout his life.

The dry rock garden forms a central focus for the surrounding rooms of Hirakushi's home.   This bronze work (1934) is of Nagakoto Asano, one of the last surviving daimyo. The work combines the formalism of traditional artistic styles with the realism of more modern approaches.

The museum's exhibition space is wonderfully laid out. The works on display are varied enough to convey the breadth of Hirakushi's oeuvre, but presented with enough space between each one so the viewer can consider each work slowly and carefully. Most of the sculptures exhibited are of wood, but Hirakushi's approach to plaster and clay models is also highlighted. The bronze pieces are perhaps the boldest and most impressive, forceful in their energy.

Whatever the medium, Hirakushi's works are tremendously lively. His carvings of people walking, sitting, or looking at the viewer express an inner vitality through external detail. By combining the methods of Buddhist sculpture with modern European realism, the sculptor achieved a balanced blend of the spiritual and material. Some of his works clearly lean towards the style of Buddhist images, while others focus on the humanity of the subject by drawing on western approaches to sculpture of the early 20th century.

This small piece titled Sumo (1945) demonstrates Hirakushi's exceptional attention to the color and grain of the wood. The monster-like sumo wrestler seems ready to leap into the air.   The model for this bronze (date uncertain) was a well-known Kabuki actor, who posed in Hirakushi's study. The pose is from the famous Lion Dance.

The focus on the human figure is central to almost all of his works. Hirakushi created statues of women and girls as well as Kabuki masters and Buddhist priests. One of his masterworks, a two-meter-high statue of a Kabuki actor performing the Kagamijishi Lion Dance, is exhibited in the National Theater of Japan, though only a small model is on display at the museum. His works offer both a sharply observed realist vision of the human figure and a guide to further contemplation of spiritual principles.

Next to the exhibition space, Hirakushi's traditional-style home provides more insight into the harmony of life and work that formed the background to his art. The sumptuous garden alone merits a visit, and is regularly used for tea ceremonies and other cultural activities. The front garden is filled with the trunk of a camphor laurel tree, one of Japan's largest and hardest varieties of wood. One wonders what Hirakushi was planning for this massive cut of timber.

The museum rotates exhibits from time to time, so a return visit to see the other masterpieces in its holdings is well worth the time it takes to reach this marvelous facility somewhat off the beaten paths of Tokyo's art circuit.

This plaster work (date uncertain) is entitled Uyuu Sensei, which roughly translates as "Prof. Nowhere," but reflects Hirakushi's interest in Buddhist principles. Uyuu is connected to the concept of non-existence or the attainment of a higher state of existence.   The small wooden sculptures Hirakushi made were often painted, but the unpainted version reveals the fine woodwork more clearly. Entitled Kiraku Bo, or "Carefree Monk" (1961), the piece shows the fun-loving side of the sculptor and his Buddhist beliefs.

All photos by Michael Pronko, with the permission of the Kodaira Hirakushi Denchu Art Museum.

Kodaira Hirakushi Denchu Art Museum
7-5, Gakuen Nishimachi 1-chome, Kodaira City, Tokyo
Phone: 042-341-0098
Open: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Tuesdays and the New Year holiday (27 December to 5 January)
Access: 10 minutes’ walk from Hitotsubashi-Gakuen Station on the Seibu-Tamako Line, one stop from Kokubunji on the JR Chuo Line
Michael Pronko
Michael Pronko teaches American literature, film, art and music at Meiji Gakuin University. He has appeared on NHK, Sekai Ichiban Uketai Jugyo, and other TV programs. His publications include several textbooks and three collections of essays about Tokyo. He writes regular columns for Newsweek Japan, ST Shukan, The Japan Times, and for his own websites, Jazz in Japan and Essays on English in Japan.
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