Japanese Aesthetics

By Brian Hershey

Sometimes there is a moment in visual experience when suddenly, from nothingness, a strange art presents itself. A shadow, or a reflection, or a color confronts you surreptitiously and holds your gaze for a fraction of a second too long. The fraction of a second becomes an uncomfortable eternity in your mind as your whole consciousness is pulled in by an inescapable gravity. It tries to tell you something and then it reveals itself plainly, it is digested and it retreats to the world of the mundane. The art that existed can no longer be articulated after the fact—only dreamed of curiously.

On a hot Summer day in Tokyo, a seven year old girl steps off the Hibiya Line at Hiroo station. With a 500 yen coin clutched in her sweaty little palm she enters a small sushi restaurant she has been to so many times and she orders cotton candy flavored kakigōri—her favorite. She is brought a mound of electric blue shaved ice in a small black lacquer bowl. She sees it set down on the table in front of her and then it happens.

The lacquer’s soft texture empties its rich coloration of its potency. The darkness in its surface is like the blackest species of shadow—a shadow’s shadow—not just the absence of light, but its mortal enemy. It’s surface neither shines nor dances with the world of light but rejects it entirely. Because it reflects nothing, it never changes. The bowl appears the same under the Summer sun’s radiance as it does in the lightless chasm of a bottomless cave—black. No flickering light or chance reflection can come to life on its surface revealing the world around it at present. The lacquer bowl mirrors only one thing: an incorruptible vision of the past as it always was and will be.

Sitting in the bowl’s belly is a corpulent sculpture of air, water, sugar, and food coloring. Every instant a million tiny fractals glisten in the light and melt away without a trace. A stray ice crystal slips over the edge of the lacquer bowl and as it melts goes from blue to black, disappearing as it slides down the bowl’s surface, then appearing again as it catches a glint of light on the table.

The little girl smiles at the sight of her refreshing treat. She ordered the blue flavor not because it tastes the best but because of some unconscious preference to its color, to the bowl it is served in. These things coalesce for her in some strange art that makes it impossibly beautiful to her. She succumbs to it for an evanescent moment then grasps her spoon and begins scraping and scooping away. Then she clumsily flicks a drop of blue syrup onto her white school uniform. Her frustrated mother will ask her what the stain is and she will answer, kakigōri desu!

The tiny blue speck on the little girl’s white cotton blouse becomes the entire visual experience of the kakigōri—the lacquer bowl, the unnaturally blue fluff of ice, the peculiar art of it all. This is the essence of Japanese aesthetics. How much can be shown with how little? How much complexity can be evoked with simplicity? What story can be told in so few words? How much of the fleeting art we encounter in the immediacy of our personal experience can be captured in the smallest of stains on a little girl’s blouse? In this uniquely Japanese aesthetic ecosystem the meaningless becomes the most meaningful, and even the most commonplace scene becomes so incredibly interesting to look at.


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