The Philosophy of the Calligrapher Souun Takeda: Curiosity, Joy, and Gratitude
When you meet Souun Takeda, you get the impression that he is lively and cheerful. Renowned for his calligraphy as well as his work as a contemporary artist, Takeda inspires many people through his joyful, positive way of living.
Souun Takeda was born in 1975 in Kumamoto Prefecture, and he trained under his mother and professional calligrapher, Souyou Takeda. After graduating from Tokyo University of Science, he joined NTT where he worked for three years before turning to the path of the calligrapher. Since then, he has worked on numerous projects, including the title lettering and logos of many films and TV programmes. In recent years, he has been expanding the range of his activities overseas. We spoke to him about his philosophy at the root of his positive energy.
Choosing to Live by Curiosity and Gratitude
Since his mother is a professional calligrapher, Souun Takeda first took up calligraphy at the age of three. He was brimming with lively curiosity as a child, always wondering why the strokes of a character are written in a fixed order, or what sets apart “bad” calligraphy from “good.” He often played around with calligraphy, loosening up the strokes or writing faintly on purpose.
Takeda studied engineering at university; even now, his mind is full of thoughts of atoms and equations, and he has a wealth of knowledge on the sciences. When it comes to calligraphy, it’s not as if he feels a compulsion to write. Rather, what he holds on to is his gratitude for and curiosity towards his existence in the present, a point in the long galactic time.
“Ever since I became independent,” Takeda says eagerly, “these twenty years have been nothing short of heaven. Every day is a paradise.” During our interview, he showed us how he creates a piece of artwork, following his inspiration and using India ink in many vibrant colours. Since the beginning of his calligraphy career, his mindset has always been that he is “being allowed to participate” in the history and culture of calligraphy, as well as in the techniques that the people of the craft have developed over time, never forgetting that words and kanji characters existed long before him.
Once he decided to live only by curiosity and gratitude, he has been keeping control of himself to try not to have other kinds of emotions. Every morning, he says with a boyish sparkle in his eyes, “I adjust my mind to align with ‘relax and enjoy’ before getting up, so I never stop smiling throughout the day.”
Being Mindful of Each Gesture Sets Life “Free”
When asked why he chose the character “楽”(raku or gaku) as his kanji to represent life, he answers that this kanji signifies relaxation and enjoyment. For him, positive energy and having fun give birth to calligraphy and art. When it comes to relaxation and joy, it seems, he has it all covered.
One experience that encouraged him to become independent as a calligrapher was when he saw that his work had made someone cry. He was intrigued by what his work — something merely drawn with a brush — communicated to the viewer to move them so much. For him, such a feeling of being moved is about wonder. “I wonder at everything. Even myself. Trillions of cells are in my body, collaborating without thinking. I appreciate what god has made, and I am overcome with wonder and gratitude.” This feeling seems to be at the heart of his creative practice.
“I like having fun, so I can do that naturally,” says Takeda. “But it’s easy to take things for granted and forget to be thankful for them. So I’m conscious about being grateful.” In order to do so, he controls his bearing. Looking into human behaviour led him to realise that, while it is difficult to control your emotions, you can stabilise your emotions by putting on a peaceful expression. It’s possible that being mindful of each movement you make in equanimity naturally allows the emotions of gratitude to come out.
“If you only look at things negatively, there’s no wonder or gratitude,” he continues. “The deeper my wonder is, the more I want to try everything to convey how wonderful this world is. The negative aspects are only a part of it. If you look at the whole, the world is wonderful — that’s what I’d like to convey.”
To Contribute, Not to Advance
For his current project, Takeda is making washi paper in a washi studio and writing on these pieces of paper while they are still wet. His writing in white on spotless white paper gives the impression of purity. Sometimes people describe Takeda as “pure,” too. He says, “I always live in the present, the ‘now,’ so I don’t have a timeline.” Instead of focusing on schemes or ambitions for the future, he embraces the wonder and gratitude of the present.
Takeda believes that his works might speak to some people in a way that makes them realise pure emotions they had forgotten, whether by clinging to their stature or by bearing a burden from their past.
In the future, Takeda wants to keep being grateful to the history of calligraphy and its time-honoured technique. He also hopes to spread the wonders of Japan to other countries. To do so, he will begin with accepting and being thankful for the cultures of those countries. The important thing is not just to communicate what you want to communicate, but to stand in the other person’s shoes and think about what makes them feel happiness and contentment. Art is a form of communication between the maker and the viewer. His aim for the future is not to “advance,” but to “contribute.”
Calligraphy is an art form of words, and even just by the calligrapher’s choice of words, it functions as a communication. Takeda’s works, however, have something in them that goes beyond words. One way to put this, perhaps, is wonder and gratitude. His works have the power to speak to people around the world regardless of their languages because his art resonates with the universal emotions of joy and gratitude.
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