Seiko Presage × Matsumoto Koshiro Exclusive Interview
Beauty and artistry in step with Japanese tradition
vol.4 Urushi Dial - The fathomless jet-black color symbolizes a glossy ‘Japan’
“I feel tremendously inspired by the human-centric craftsmanship,” says kabuki actor Matsumoto Koshiro as he looks at a Seiko Presage watch on his left wrist. He is referring to the connection he senses between his endeavors to convey to the world the appeal of the traditional Japanese theatrical art of kabuki and Seiko’s history of showcasing the finest Japanese aesthetics through its watchmaking craftsmanship.
This is the last in a series of four interviews Matsumoto has had with master Japanese artisans who are preserving traditional craftsmanship. The first, second and third articles covered the Arita porcelain dial model, the shippo enamel dial model and the horo porcelain enamel dial model, respectively. This article features the urushi (Japanese lacquer) dial model whose color has a fathomless texture unique to each urushi application.
Urushi is natural lacquer obtained from the refined sap of Japanese lacquer trees. Japan has a long history of utilizing urushi — earthenware bearing black lacquered patterns have been excavated from multiple ruins dating back to the earlier half of the Jomon period in Japanese prehistory. During the Sengoku (warring states) period (1493–1573), urushi was utilized to increase the strength of metals used for armor and that of leather used for harnesses. Urushi is known for its characteristic to turn the surface of a metallic object, for example, to a glossy mirrorlike surface.
Japan has developed unique lacquer decoration techniques, such as the “raden” method of applying the iridescent linings of seashells and the “maki-e” method of sprinkling gold or silver powder onto lacquered surfaces. Matsumoto looks completely fascinated by the glossy beauty of the dial created by the urushi.
Countless layers of darkness possible only after rounds of applying 0.1-mm-thick coats and polishing
Matsumoto Koshiro: This dial is thin, but it still gives a sense of depth to the extent that I feel that I am about to be almost swallowed by it. Indeed, it has a jet-black coating. To borrow an expression from novelist Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay titled “In’ei Reisan” (In Praise of Shadows), its hue appears to be “built up of countless layers of darkness” (translated by Thomas Harper and Edward Seidensticker). How did you create such depth?
Isshu Tamura: As you quoted the Japanese word “taiseki” that means “build up,” it is possible to deepen the hue just by building up layers of urushi in the lacquering work on the dial. I understand that the word “Japan” is used abroad to refer to lacquerware in recognition of the fact that the unique hue of lacquerware is rooted in Japan’s tradition.
Matsumoto: I now know that the process of lacquering is not an easy one — you cannot finish it with just a single lacquer coating. Did you have any specific difficulty in employing your lacquering expertise to wristwatch dial production?
Tamura: I went through multiple rounds of lacquer coat application and polishing. The difficult part of the process was to choose exactly when I should go ahead with each round. How long it takes for the lacquer to dry varies each time, depending on the temperature and humidity levels. Lacquers tend to harden as they take in moisture in the atmosphere. This means they tend to dry more quickly during the tsuyu rainy season. Even so, I had to keep the thickness of lacquer coatings at 0.1 millimeter. In the final finishing step, I coated one of my fingers in a special kind of powder to buff the surface of the urushi dial. This step was also meant to be my last moment to check the quality of the finished work. I did everything by hand throughout the entire lacquering process. I kept relying on my experience and intuition, not reason.
No matter how monotonous the lacquering work may appear to be, urushi artisans stay concentrated and continue doing their utmost throughout each lacquering step. Tamura says, “I always begin work by thinking first of all how I can do something, instead of thinking that I won’t be able to do it at all.” Matsumoto looks convinced that he has much in common with Tamura.
Matsumoto, wearing the Presage watch, says, “This hue can be possible only with urushi. It’s black, but it’s absolutely beyond an ordinary black tone.” The kabuki actor is amazed by the depth of the urushi craftsmanship.
Welcoming new experiences is the path to continuously refining tradition
Matsumoto: In the kabuki world, I need to keep playing the same role in a monthlong run. In reality, how I feel physically and how audiences react to my performances vary day after day. So, it is quite important to know exactly how I really feel every day because I have to take care of myself and keep in shape day after day so as to continue always playing the same role in the same way. I now believe that the worlds of traditional performance art and traditional craftsmanship have much in common — intuition fostered by an accumulation of experience seems to be of vital importance in both worlds.
Tamura: Every time I receive an offer to take up a new challenge, I, of course, feel nervous about the difficulty of what I am supposed to do. Yet, I feel excited at the same time. Once I begin my new experience, I usually keep overcoming one hurdle after another. Then, at a certain time, suddenly I notice an improvement in my skills. This is the moment of joy in my craftsmanship career. If I choose to rest on the laurels of tradition, new opportunities will become less and less visible to me.
Matsumoto: I agree with what you are saying. To inherit a tradition and hand it down to the next generation, I believe that we need to keep taking on new challenges in line with changes in the times. In the kabuki world, we have introduced a variety of new events, including staging Shakespeare plays in kabuki style and putting on a new kabuki play at a skating rink. We streamed the world’s first online kabuki performance, titled “Zoom Kabuki ‘CHŪSHINGURA,’” in the summer of 2020.
Through this project, I was given the opportunity to get a firsthand look at a variety of “Presage” watches, the fruit of Japan’s traditional craftsmanship. As I got to know the artisans involved in the production of these superb dials, I felt really stimulated. All of the artisans are sincerely devoted to producing these dials, proving that they believe in the possibility of traditional craftsmanship developing further in the future. For my part, I would like to keep carving out the future of the kabuki world.
The “Presage” series is the fruit of the fusion of the experiences of distinguished craftsmen and the culmination of more than 100 years of Seiko’s watchmaking expertise. Matsumoto says, “I am proud that Japan has inherited traditional craftsmanship in the manufacturing field.” Following a series of interviews with the artisans who were involved in the “Presage” dial project, the kabuki actor looks further convinced of the importance of crafting an innovative way to preserve tradition.
Matsumoto Koshiro, a kabuki actor (left)
Born in Tokyo in 1973, he debuted at the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo in 1979. He assumed the stage names of Ichikawa Somegoro VII in 1981 and Matsumoto Koshiro X in 2018. He performed a kabuki version of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and a kabuki adaption of Chaplin’s “City Lights.” He won the 2019 Japan Art Academy Award.
Isshu Tamura, a lacquer artist (right)
Born in Ishikawa Prefecture in 1957, he grew up in a family of artisans. His grandfather was a maki-e craftsman, and his father was a lacquer artist. He studied under maki-e master Ikko Kiyose, learning the traditional Kaga maki-e gold lacquer technique that is unique to Kanazawa City. After honing his skills in the technique, he began producing unparalleled original works of art. He utilizes his lacquering expertise not only for producing traditional maki-e lacquerware, but also for decorating luxury fountain pens and wristwatches. His works have received worldwide acclaim for their elaborate detail and fine beauty.
Seiko Presage urushi dial model
This model adopts the dial layout of the 1913 Laurel, Japan’s first wristwatch and the very origin of Seiko. Its dial has the Arabic number 12 placed on black lacquered layers with a “honkin” (gold) maki-e multiple decoration, which exudes the subtle and profound beauty of the moon. The model has the caliber 6L high-precision movement. It combines the finest traditional craftsmanship and more than 100 years of watch manufacturing experience. This limited-edition model will surely be coveted by those who admire wristwatches that are highly usable and rich in stories.
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