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Calligraphy finds a shared language

March 11, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

Tokyo — TOMOMI KUNISHIGE was practicing cursive English writing at university one day when she flipped over her notebook and was struck by the familiar look of the word "truth." "The English handwriting looked just like calligraphy," says the ebullient 28-year-old, who had been studying the ancient Japanese art since age 6.

That's when she decided to mess with tradition.

With its fluid style and swooping lines, calligraphy is suited to improvisation. Kunishige found that with a little imagination she could embed English words in the Japanese characters known as kanji and keep the same meaning. The result is what she calls "ei-kanji," the Japanese phrase for "English-kanji" but also an expression that means "good feeling."

Kunishige has plenty to feel good about. A recent weeklong exhibition in a Tokyo department store gallery saw her framed words flying off walls, and she has been trailed by a documentary crew from Japan's national broadcaster NHK. She combines her love for traditional Japanese culture with a mischievous 21st century urban style -- her clothes are a mash-up of old kimonos and contemporary street fashion, adding to the allure of an artist who claims to be revolutionizing a centuries-old art form. "I inserted a knife into characters and letters and infused art," she says.

"Japan is conservative and not an advanced art country," she says, expressing frustration with the rigidities of traditional calligraphy schools, with their emphasis on achieving ranks the way martial artists achieve belts. "For many calligraphers it is important to get established awards recognized by authorities," she says. "People enjoy my art, and that's my award."

Commercial success is vindication for an artist who couldn't get a job teaching calligraphy after college because of education cutbacks. Inspired by actor-comedian-calligrapher Tsurutaro Kataoka, she even tried stand-up comedy, in the hope that the attention might create demand for her calligraphy. It didn't pan out on stage, but she retains a performance streak, sometimes putting brush to paper in front of an audience. On some pieces, such as "Revolution" or "Strong," she has superimposed the ei-kanji over her own body print.

That makes her work different from New York-based Chinese artist Xu Bing, who has challenged Western and Eastern assumptions about language by creating an English alphabet that looks Chinese -- but which only English readers can understand. Kunishige's words are, with some clever deciphering on the part of the viewer, understandable to both kanji and English readers.

That's why she says the form imposes a ceiling on the number of pieces she can produce. "My rule is that it has to be readable -- in both languages -- so I'll face a limit sooner or later," Kunishige says.

bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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Naoko Nishiwaki of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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