Thirty five years in Kunitachi
Masahiko MUTO, a master of light and shadow created by power-operated dolls
I’ve been living in Kunitachi for more than thirty five years now since my twenties, when I worked as a co-assistant in Sokei academy of fine art and design. There used to be a wooden building called Kunitachi Hall along Koushu Road, and I lived and worked there. After marriage, the room became my main studio. Then a few years ago I reluctantly moved out of the building because of its rebuilding. My new studio is located only a few hundred meters away from the place where the Kunitachi Hall used to stand. A number of my works were produced in the room of the old building in Kunitachi.
Conflict between my father and me
I grew up in Tsurumi ward in Yokohama city. It was a nice downtown. People say I was kind of an unusual boy when I was small. For example, I often walked down the street playing the recorder. When I was taken up with something like clay modeling, I wasn’t easily bored and even my mother’s calling didn’t break my concentration. I was very talkative and sociable as well.
I have a sister and a brother. My sister is a poet and my brother is a copywriter. My brother is an exceptional storyteller and when he was an elementary student, he had his own share of time exclusively for storytelling in the homeroom activity time…
My family members are all good storytellers and I think my father’s influence was really big. He worked for a company for a long time. But when he was in his late thirties, he decided to quit the job and became a lawyer. He really was a person of effort. My father is now eighty seven years old and still works as a lawyer. He often says, “I’ve never made a catastrophic mistake in my life” or “Luck was always on my side.” He was a very strict father, so I found it hard to get along with him when I was young.
I majored in oil painting at Sokei academy of fine art and design. I was awarded prizes, but they didn’t impress my father at all. In fact, he asked me coolly if the prize would pave a secure path for me to be a professional artist. I felt down to hear his serious words, but at the same time they made me determined to do a better job.
It was when my art of a wind-up doll was featured in a magazine “the Asahigraph” (April 5th, 1996 issue) that I felt like talking with him on the same footing. My art appeared in the cover and with twelve pages of double page spreads. Luckily, the next issue featured a well-known famous actor, Kazuo Hasegawa, so my father finally understood how much my work was appreciated among people in general. “You are featured in the same magazine as Kazuo Hasegawa. How marvelous!” We’re now in good terms with each other. I have come to appreciate his unique way of saying things with humour.
The world of light and shadow
I was a high school student when I came to know about oil painting. I was amazed and thought I was born to meet this oil painting, which would be a tool that I can express my own feelings and ideas. People use many different tools to express what they think. Sometimes it’s music. For others, writing or acting will do. Actually, I was a member of a brass band club in junior high and high school and played the trumpet.
I think oil painting best provides the nuances of light and shadow. You see some physical material under the light but nothing in the dark. I was really fascinated with oil painting. But when I was twenty six or seven, I suddenly lost my vigor and couldn’t produce anything anymore. I achieved several big prizes, but I was never fully satisfied and somehow I felt empty.
Then one day I remembered the days when I played with clay. I started to make clay dolls, and lo and behold, I ended up making more than two hundred unglazed terra cotta dolls in just one month. Their images were all from my oil paintings. They became three dimensional from something on flat paper. I let the light shine on them and took a video recording of them. What I recorded was a breathtakingly beautiful world created by light and shadow. It was then that I made up my mind and started to create power-operated dolls.
For starters of my creation, I build a box for the stage. I intentionally limit the space where a story takes place and then develop the story. When I finish creating the space and making a blueprint, other stuff such as the mechanism of dolls, the variety of characters, and lighting plans are usually ready.
Dolls are one element of the art I create with the space, the lighting, and the story development, but they also have an important role as a medium between the real world and the fantasy inside the box. Therefore, the degree of completion of each doll determines the value of the whole work. If I don’t work hard on creating the dolls, then my message may not be thoroughly conveyed to the audience. You can say that the key of my art is the dolls.
Actually I’m sometimes frustrated about employing this complicated process. The speed of the job doesn’t catch up with the speed of my thinking. Even when I have a clear image with dolls moving in the box, the creation is often still halfway through. It takes about one month and a half to two months and a half to complete the work. So when every single part is placed where it should be, I feel like jumping over the moon.
Lighting matters the most
Once the structure is done, I make an adjustment to the movement of the dolls and arrange some music to go with them. I sometimes play an electric piano or the trumpet myself and create the music. I listen to the music, make some changes to the lightening, and then move the dolls. That’s how I create “flow of time,” which you can’t experience in ordinary days. How I move the lighting is the most important part of my art. I believe there are many aspects you can enjoy in my creation – rather monotonous back music, light and shadow made by the lighting, simple movement of dolls, and my own voice to lead all of them.
My current ambition is to create a lot of big works and exhibit them in a big hall. I’m thrilled to move into a new step.