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.