All eyes in the room are on her. It’s a moment that would make anyone nervous. Yet renowned Japanese calligrapher Sisyu seems unperturbed, even serene. Her gaze is fixed in steely concentration, as she moves her brush against her canvas.
At first, there are vague shapes. Then the skeleton of an image begins to appear. Soon, there is applause as the form of a tiger begins to appear, its mouth open as if in mid roar.
The image, once completed, is beautiful. But that is perhaps to be expected. Sisyu, after all, is an award-winning calligrapher, officially recognised by the Japanese government. Calligraphy, for her, is a way of finding stillness in the chaos of life.
“The hearts of people are always in flux. There are always waves, sometimes they are little, sometimes they are huge. We always worry about something in the past, or something in the future. It’s very rare that we are calm,” says Sisyu, speaking through a Japanese interpreter, during a calligraphy demonstration at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Kuala Lumpur.
“The brush is not easy to control. It needs an intense level of concentration. When you are able to command the brush, you master that concentration, you are able to free yourself from anything that binds you down. You are able to focus yourself on just that moment in time.”
In person, Sisyu cuts a remarkable figure, looking resplendent in a bright gold dress with large matching earrings. She seems soft-spoken and polite, addressing those who speak to her with customary Japanese politeness.
Who she is, is a bit of a mystery. Her real name and age are kept private. She isn’t even revealing her place of birth.
The name “Sisyu” comes from the kanji characters of “purple” and “boat”. Sisyu, an internationally established name in Japanese calligraphy (Shodo), has received the most attention, however, for blending the traditional art with other forms of media and modern technology.
Her work has been presented to the Emperor and Empress of Japan in person and exhibited all over the world, including New York’s Grand Central Terminal, the Venice Biennale, and at the 2012 Nobel Prize ceremony in Sweden. She also created kanji-inspired lamps for the Engawa restaurant in London, and 3D calligraphy sculptures for the Carrousel du Louvre mall in Paris.
In 2015, she did kanji interpretations for the characters of Inside Out, the Disney/Pixar film, when it showed in Japan.
“My favourite character is ‘sadness’. I think if you have that emotion within you, you become more compassionate and stronger. You can also be kinder,” reveals Sisyu.
Becoming a world-famous calligrapher was not an easy journey. Sisyu has practised her art since she was six. Believe it or not, part of her story has a Malaysian connection. When she was younger, the artist who would become Sisyu visited Kota Kinabalu, Labuan and other parts of Sabah as part of a student exchange programme.
“My stay with my host family was very short, but they left a deep impression on me. I was only a child when I met them, so I do not remember their names, but I really remember their warmth. During my stay, I remember drawing pictures of exotic fruits that I had never seen in Japan, such as longan, mangosteen and rambutan,” says Sisyu.
“Drawing these fruits was very fun, and it helped lead me to become an artist now.”
Sisyu is currently a professor at the Osaka University of Art. “It’s different in Japan now, especially with IT, but when I first started out, seniority was something to be respected, and calligraphy was very male-dominated. Now, even if you are young, there are opportunities available if you know where to look for them.” Sisyu takes her art very seriously. She does not take meat, fish or alcohol.
“It’s to enhance my concentration, and to create powerful work,” she adds. “I think good calligraphy is something which communicates emotions. If so, for example, it is written ‘to your better health’, when displayed it has that aura or vibe for you.”
According to her, while traditional calligraphy is a very ancient art, she foresees it still being relevant.
“I think it will continue to be valued. Partly because it’s part of the curriculum in Japan. And because it’s created by the hand. Just as the body and heart are connected, there is also a connection with what we write. You can tell things from it about the person who wrote it, like the proof of their existence, the emotions they were feeling, and so on,” says Sisyu.
Speaking of the future, are there any projects from Sisyu that we can look forward to seeing? “The Olympics are coming to Japan. So maybe something to do with that?” says Sisyu with a smile.