His voice is rusty. Hands strong and old. Takahashi Tsunebei is a craftsman. A printer. He prints rolls of cotton and silk, using the Some-Komon technique. A technique passed down through the generations, now reaching a dead end.
10 meter long lines of textil is hanging from the ceiling in neat curves. Aluminium containers with liquid are arranged in lanes. “Do come in” a voice says. “Welcome, welcome!”. 88 and full of energy. Soon, we’re inside and the city pulse fades quickly. We’re in a different world, in company with what turns out not just to be a collection of rare craftsmanship but nothing less than a National treasure.
Tsunebei explais: “Japanese craftsmanship is not as well preserved as it could be. Many specialists of all kinds are passing away these decades and they take they skills with them. Nobody can afford to learn and the government can’t be bothered”.
Tsunebei-san might be near 90, but he is absolutely alive. Never have I experienced a more passionate artist. Which says quite a lot. We’re in Japan. You might be passionate, but you rarely express it. And certainly not in Tokyo. “After the war, a lot of original stencils were trashed. It was in the air: Out with the old, in with the new! … Many great pieces were lost those years”. He has been collecting Katagami since he was 18. “I lost most of my collection when Tokyo burned at the end of the war”. When he returned home from China, he started over. Today he has more than 30.000 original stencils.
He shows me some of his Antique cuts from the Edo-period. Approximately 50x30cm. Brownish red paper, patinated but intact. “Ready to print” he says with a grin. ”200 years old and ready to print”. He brings a magnifying glass. The details are astounding. Single silk threads keeps the details in place. The patterns looks advanced. Difficult to cut without specialist tools, he explains. “The last expert who knew how, died a few years ago”.
The motives are varied. Carps playing in a rushing stream. Fabulous artwork. Advanced perspective. I gawk at the raster-effects. Dots and cross-hatch for shading. Butterflies dancing with falling cherry blossom petals in optical tricks between for- and background. Abstract backgrounds. Provocative cropping of motifs and sophisticated mirrored expressions. All executed with Japanese sense for perfection.
“My shoulder hurts” Last week, Takahashi cut 400 delicate pieces to fit into the preservation-boxes. ”I can wield the cutter anymore without pain. I’m getting old”.
Behind glass doors In an old cupboard awards and personal treasures are on display. I ask him about the medals. Six of them. “They are from WWII, young man”. Takahashi was in the infantry in the greater Asian war, stationed in Manchuria. “Look at this wristwatch. The Prime minister handed it to me on my return”. He drifts away for a few seconds, then returns to the present. “The contemporary plastic stencils are … not that good”. He pauses again. “How can you develop craftsmanship disconnected from the source? … Impossible!”
The rare pieces of Katagami in Takahashi’s collection is in good hands. But on the right hands? This is more than a collection. It’s a National, perhaps International treasure. When I ask him why they’re are not in a museum, he replies: “The attention of the official sources is hard to get. I lack funding the oil that machine, if you understand”. A close friend of him with extensive public network warned him directly: “Don’t do it, he said … They will end up in a drawer somewhere and be forgotten”. His hands fiddles with a corner of a piece of cotton. “I tried anyway … But they don’t really understand”. He pauses. And laughs: “That leaves me to do the hard work!”. He chuckles and clears his throat: “I have a great responsibility”.
An apartment next door holds a little private museum. One masterpiece after the next decorates the wall under dimmed light. His walk is uneven. He disappears into a lost age as he describes his favorite piece. He coughs a bit. And giggles. It’s doubtful, that the templates will last another 100 years.