by Don Baird
In the contemporary world and in the light of a dozen ways for poets to create artwork to accompany haiga, Sakuo Nakamura stands out among them all. His work is clear and refreshing.
He isn’t a minimalist necessarily and yet his artwork retains a simplicity and clarity that openly beckons the haiku to comfortably join in. There is nothing in his work that is over stated and yet there is also nothing left in wanting. Sakuo’s work is balanced; it’s complete. A key to his talent is his knowing when the art is finished. When it’s done, it’s done! He clearly knows when to stop and let the haiku and artwork resonate together without interference.
Issa’s haiku is wonderfully engaging yet it is enlivened substantially when illustrated by Sakuo. A key word in the translation is “over”. When reflecting solely on that one word while gazing at the artwork, it becomes clear why Sakuo painted the lotuses near the sleeping man’s head, angled inward and also above.
There is indeed a lingering of scent. However, as the poem hints, the scent is drifting “above” (over) the dozing man. Sakuo sets the poem into the scene with sensitivity, balance and expertise.
In the appearance of just one color, Sakuo points out a key in the poem – the monk’s face is close to the ground. He clarifies the position of the monk. Is this a position of shame? Are his hands tied? Is Sakuo bringing out points of interest in the poem that readers could be unfamiliar with? Has he brought the essence of the poem to surface with his painting?
And then, in the background there are faint tones of grey, pink and light blue. These tones are entwined in the piece just as a gentle seasoning brings a fine soup to life under a master chef.
Immediately Sakuo paints many chestnuts scattered around the turf. Of course, it makes sense to do so or the poem wouldn’t be credible in saying “one chestnut”. There is an implication of more; there is a statement of specificity that Issa has made. The painting cannot support the haiku without addressing these subtle implications. Sakuo, in his clear mind, spots this.
Issa sets the stage in words; Sakuo sets the stage commensurately in art. Together, neither is a distraction to the other but rather, they embrace a perfect combinatory interplay between them – a perfect balance with subtle differences.
Subtle. That is a word that continues to replay itself in my mind when I view Sakuo’s artwork. He understates instead of overstates; he changes nothing of the haiku with his brush. Nevertheless, with just a stroke or two, he opens the poem visually creating a resonant vibration between the poem and art. The two together, though in a magnificent subtle way, are greater not less for being together.
Glancing through Sakuo’s haiga, I became inspired. And, therefore, I had a few questions of which he graciously responded:
DB: What first attracted you to haiga?
SN: I choose haiga as the assisting method of Issa’s English haiku written by David Lanoue.
DB: Your artwork appears to me to be significantly traditional. What are your thoughts regarding contemporary artwork that is abstract with wider distance between the artwork and haiku?
SN: I paint haiga for getting understanding of haiku meaning especially in English translated haiku of Issa. So I don’t like abstract, but I like reality of existence. If it is Sumi-e or cartoon touch, I need the reality of Issa’s life.
DB: Would you please give us insights as to your thoughts and process on how you choose to create your artwork for a haiku?
SN: What condition of haiku made is the most important element for my haiga. For example, time, season, place, happening and surrounding of the haiku-ist.
DB: I notice that your art is what I would reference as “close linking” to the haiku. It’s often said that the art and haiku should have great distance from one another so as to avoid redundancy or repetition. I notice wonderful, but very slight differences between the haiku and artwork that you create. I enjoy the subtle connection. What are your thoughts on the relationship between the art and haiku within a haiga?
SN: You are quit right. When I paint haiga to Japanese haiku, not English Issa, I pay attention to place small distance between art and haiku. Slightly remote and loose coupling are the best.
over my midday nap
the scent of lotuses
This poem of Issa's is wonderful and it stands alone well. Your artwork is a fine visual for the reader, and while very close to the haiku there is just enough distance to give the reader more to think about. It’s close but not a simple reiteration of the words.
Please give us some insight as to how you go about choosing what artwork you are going to create for the haiku.
SN: I have traveled Issa’s places, living, growing up, travel, and his haiku friends as possible as I can. I believe I could report Issa’s real life as well as his emotion, it’s because Issa and I could share same conditions of life.
DB: Do you think haiga is becoming less or more popular today in Japan? In other words, what do you see as the future for haiga in Japan as well as abroad?
SN: Twitter and Facebook have become main communication all over the world. Between different languages, we need to share feeling and thinking, but only language is not perfect. So pictorial image is necessary, but photo is too noisy, so simple handmade is necessary. Haiga is the best for web world communication (of course now haiga is liked more among Japanese)
DB: Thank you Mr. Nakamura!
Taking a moment to enjoy one more:
The sheer number of cicadas Sakuo has included brings the essence of this poem alive. Cicadas never arrive one at a time. They appear in droves all at once. The artwork illustrates that thought perfectly and immediately engages the reader as a member of the choir. What a happy “disease” that would be!
The haiku are written by Issa, 1800s. Translations are by David Lanoue. Haiga are by Sakuo Nakamura. The haiga et al are used here with full permission of Sakuo Nakamura.
More of Sakuo’s haiga can be seen here: https://underthebasho.com/summer-2011/simply-haiga/2942-sakuo-nakamura.html
A retired chemist, Sakuo Nakamura enjoys the fine arts of haiku, haiga and playing billiards. He continues to post his work on his blog “Everyday Issa” at http://sakuo3903.blogspot.com .