Making Red

A mystery in colour

obuse — From my hotel window on Tokyo Bay, I watched a neon-trimmed Ferris wheel spin slowly in the dark. I wished its little buckets could dig down and raise the dead of old Edo, buried with their picturesque wood-and-paper world under this concrete metropolis. But the buckets raised no one.

Can I?

I have come here on the trail of a fictional character. That is, she will be fictional when I’m finished with her. At the moment, she is historical, but barely. She is a great, lost woman artist. A painter who lived in the shadow of her famous father. Her birth name was Ei. But he called her to his side with a “Hey, you!” (O-oi in Japanese) so often that she adopted a homonym of this as her painting name, “Oi.” Her time, the last half-century of the Tokugawa shogunate, was hugely oppressive to women. Around her father’s death in 1849, she was briefly famous. Then she disappeared. There is no record of her death. She rarely signed her work. But when she did, she called herself Flourishing Woman. Or perhaps it was Drunken Woman; the characters could mean either. It depends how you read them.

I’ve been looking for her in another language, another script, another century. Now I’m in another country — hers. Do I think I will encounter her, walking on the street? No. The past is all but invisible here. But how funny. On my rail pass, embossed and in foil, is The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, the most famous image from Japan ever to wash over the rest of the world. Her father, Hokusai, Japan’s premier printmaker, created it. And Oi was there, under its snarling lip.

After so long, all this happens in one day.

6:30 a.m.: Train from Ueno Station to Nagano.

8:30: Change for Obuse, on a slow commuter.

9:15: My spirit guide is waiting for me under the station roof in this little mountain town where Hokusai took refuge in his ninth decade. I’ve never met Kazuhiro Kubota. But he knows more about Oi than anyone alive. Through the aegis of a generous scholar, a translator, and email, we have corresponded. According to collective memory, kolekutibu memori in Japanese, Hokusai “just showed up, when he was about eighty.” He had walked from Edo through the mountain pass. He found a generous patron here. Later Oi came to assist him. They enjoyed times of comparative comfort and ease, and produced work that can still be seen in the town.

10:15: We are leaning over a case in the Hokusai Museum, with Hart Larrabee, an American translator. Under glass are two letters in Oi’s hand. There is also a copy of a receipt with little sketches of both the master and Oi drawn on it. It can be seen as a clear statement that father and daughter worked as partners. Kubota-san was employed at the museum. But now he has been let go. He wonders if his research on Oi is not appreciated, if it is seen to detract from her father’s reputation.

He reads the letter, written in pre-modern Japanese, and says the words aloud in contemporary Japanese. Hart repeats it in English. “Thank you for your letter. Although we have never met,” she begins, “I am most pleased to hear that you are well . . .”

She is speaking, after all this time. It’s a short letter, responding to a commission, promising to supply examples in a month. She thanks the sender for his generous gift of chestnuts. It is so ordinary, so personal. I can feel her shadowy figure gaining substance.

The other letter is longer. Most of it is instructions for making red pigment. “That was her job,” says Kubota-san, surprising me with his English. Oi ground the pigment, producing deep, rich colours for her father, and ultimately for her own work. She has added little drawings.

. . . knead the shoenji between your fingers, causing all the red powder to fall. Then you boil it down. If you’ve done like so [illustration of fingers kneading] and ended up with this much (shoenji powder) [illustration of quarter-circle] you should put water in a dish like this [illustration of water in dish] and heat it over a fire. Add (the shoenji powder) to the water and boil the water away until the white at the bottom of the dish shows through.

There is a small hole in the paper: Kubota-san thinks perhaps the recipient burned it while following the instructions. Or perhaps Oi dropped a spark from her tobacco pipe, which she was rarely without.

3:15: We are having tea in a private room in a home behind the miso factory. Hirofumi Koyama’s prominent family has owned Kokuhei-Miso since 1784. We bow and kneel. He serves us chestnut sweets that look like a mountain with streams running down its sides. He found the letter from Oi in this house. It seems obvious that the recipient was his ancestor Iwajiro. Iwajiro was the second son; since his older brother had taken over the miso business, he was free to take art lessons by correspondence.

Koyama-san tells me that twenty years ago he became curious about his ancestor’s painting and looked through storage. Iwajiro left no finished work; his older brother died, and he had to take over the business. But Koyama-san found other treasures — first, a screen with a painting glued on it.

“Oi did this one.”

It is simple, a painting of lilies. Given that there are only five works in existence signed and proven to be by Oi, it is amazing to see. So small, so intimate, so beautiful.

He found more.

“This is very important,” murmurs Kubota-san.

Koyama-san brings out a small wooden chest and folders of papers. The papers are brush exercises. He sets them on the floor. He opens the doors and drawers of the chest. He pulls out bundles of tissue. He unwraps them to reveal little white paint cups with dried paint still in them — yellow, orange, and of course red. He pulls out a cylinder of brushes. We sit quietly. The colours, no doubt made to Oi’s instructions, are intense. The brush ends, each hair clean, dry, separate, stand like tiny antennae in the air. Something happened here. You can feel it in the room. It was long ago, but these things are untouched. They are clues to be followed.

Katherine Govier