akira yoshizawaAkira Yoshizawa

Akira Yoshizawa almost single-handedly defined the 20th century art of origami, and while his contributions were many, two in particular stand out to me. First, he broke out of the largely static repertoire of traditional designs and established a culture of development of new figures and with it, the never-ending quest to capture the inner spirit of the subject. This act essentially set the modern art of origami on its present course. Yes, there were others in Japan and elsewhere who sought to create new figures in the early part of the last century.

But no one conveyed this approach to the world more effectively, in part, simply due to the value of publicity, but even more, because the works themselves displayed a beauty and life that lifted origami out of the realm of mere playthings and into a true art form. His second, and perhaps more long-lasting contribution, was the code of instruction that he devised -- the arrows, dotted and dashed lines that we now take for granted. Again, others had developed ways of expressing origami instruction, but Yoshizawa’s system was so clear and compelling that it (and its derivatives) have become the standard for the worldwide dissemination of origami.

akira yoshizawaWhat I find most remarkable about the man and his work is his longevity as a creative force within the world of origami. This is most unusual! In art (and especially science – and origami is in some ways a science) we often see creative bursts. A person comes on the scene, performs some remarkable feats during a 5-10 year creative period, then slowly fades from view, as the next creative star burns brightly. What was novel twenty years ago now looks clunky and dated. What is remarkable about Yoshizawa’s work is that figures he did ten, twenty, even thirty years ago, are still fresh, new, and living. And we can all learn from them.

When I was a young folder, eager to make my mark, Alice Gray told me about her encounter with Yoshizawa at which he showed her his cicada, and he remarked that it had taken him twenty years to design! “Hmmph!” I thought. “I don’t need no twenty years to design a cicada!” And I sat down and designed one, that I became very proud of (so proud that I put it in my first book). But after a few years, I began to perceive its flaws: the body wasn’t quite right, the wings weren’t positioned properly, the legs looked too generic. So I set about designing another. “Now,” I thought, “I’ve got it right.” But presently, that one, too, began to display weaknesses. And so another. And in a few years more, yet another. Two years ago, I attended the JOAS Convention and during a visit to the city of Shizuoka during the cicada emergence season, I looked closely at the cicadas on the trees all around and realized once again the flaws in all that I had folded before, and set out once more. The result was “Shizuoka Cicada, opus 445.” And finally, I thought, I nailed it. But, you know, when I look at a calendar…it’s been about twenty-five years since I fi rst started working on this subject. So I only overshot him by five years, and I guess that twenty years is not too long to fold a cicada.

akira yoshizawaTo Yoshizawa, the life in the folded form was paramount, and that, perhaps, is at the heart of why his work remains relevant and instructive. There was a thirty-year period – the 1970s through the 1990s – that might be called the “Golden Age” of technical folding, when origami design tools were developed that allowed the realization of undreamed-of forms of complexity. By and large, Yoshizawa remained outside of that development. And the separation was mutual: within the technical community, the focus on technological development often ignored the development of living form. An origami subject was merely a problem to be solved. Once you’ve folded a base with 18 legs, the problem is solved, the work is done, and the final shaping is merely an afterthought.

But with the turn of the century, there has been a renewed emphasis on the finished form: technology is back in its proper place as a tool in service of an artistic goal. Yoshizawa recognized the priority of the artistic form from the very beginning, and his books, demonstrations, and exhibitions have always brought out this philosophy. His work remains an example of breathing life into the paper, as relevant for the bird-base-bird as for the 100-legged centipede. He is now gone, but his work will continue to inspire and educate folders no matter how much or little experience they have. I used to think, somewhat foolishly, that with enough time and experience, I could fold like Yoshizawa. Now, I hope that with enough time and experience, I will simply be able to fully appreciate his extraordinary work. And for me, that will be enough.

Taken from an issue of British Origami.

Robert Lang

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