In Search of a New Red
Potter Yasokichi Tokuda IV
Shiseido Chief Color Coordinator Miyoko Aizawa
Awed by the blue-colored sky, enchanted by the bright red sea draped in the light of the morning sun, and soothed by the deep green of the trees that surround us—from time to time we encounter colors that completely enrapture us. Among these colors are those that awaken something in the depths of our hearts. For a woman this might determine the way she chooses a color of make-up to suit her, why she picks a particular color of clothes for a special day, and how she decides upon a bag or pair of shoes based on the colors she likes.
Both central actors in our story are enchanted by the world of color. One of them is Miyoko Aizawa, Shiseido Chief Color Coordinator and responsible for over 95% of the colors used in Shiseido's lipstick products. The other is potter Yasokichi Tokuda IV, known the world over for her intricate control over a palette of uniquely vivid colors. The encounter between these two creators of color sparks a special kind of resonance that we now recount here.
A Workshop Amid Idyllic Paddy Fields, Nestled Between the Mountains
Kutani ware is a traditional craft from Ishikawa Prefecture, and is famous for the "five colors of Kutani"—green, yellow, purple, deep blue, and red—that feature in the images painted on the pottery. The year 2015 marked the 360th anniversary of the establishment of the first Kutani ware kilns. Even among the tradition's myriad potter families, the Tokuda family stands out as one of the most famous.
The first Yasokichi Tokuda strove to revitalize Kokutani ware patterns from Edo period, while his successor then further expanded them with his own unique painting style. Yasokichi Tokuda III stepped away from traditional Kutani ware designs and moved toward a radical new approach that aimed toward expression through color alone. These new gradations of colors, from yellow into green, green into blue and blue into purple, never before seen in Kutani ware, earned Yasokichi Tokuda III a great reputation, both in Japan and abroad, the pinnacle of which was his recognition by the government as a Preserver of Important Intangible Cultural Properties (commonly referred to as a "Living National Treasure") in 1997.
His technique, sense of color, and passion for pottery have been inherited by his eldest daughter, now known as Yasokichi Tokuda IV. From her young beginnings as a potter working under her birth name, Junko Tokuda, she has been seeking to create her own artistic world by adding a feminine sensitivity to the vivid colors brought forth by her father. Her works have received worldwide attention, as illustrated by her permanent exposition in the British Museum.
Before calling on the Tokuda Workshop, Miyoko Aizawa briefly visits the Nishiki Gama ("glazing kiln") exhibition hall of the Komatsu City Museum, not far from Komatsu Station. This charming wooden construction was the home of both Yasokichi Tokuda III and IV, and the very site where the first three masters of that name devoted themselves daily to their art. The building was donated to Komatsu City and is currently exhibiting old Tokuda kilns and other valuable artifacts relating to the family, as well as many Kutani ware masterpieces, both old and new.
On the day of her visit, works from all four generations are on display. This is Aizawa's first chance to see the Tokuda family's works up close and her breath is taken away by the delicacy of the paintwork and vigor of the colors.
"It's really amazing. Every single piece is completely different from the last. I really can't wrap my mind around how they made these masterpieces. The colors just look so complete."
Museum curator Mr. Hashimoto chimes in to explain, "In Kutani ware, the pieces are glazed many times, giving them a glass-like luster. If you look into the deeper colors for example, you can see your own reflection, as if you're looking at a mirror." The Kutani ware pieces arrayed majestically in display cases gleam with light and, as a result, give off a warm glow. It is no wonder then that visitors from around the world are often surprised to learn that these pots, so spectacularly colored, are actually made from clay. Deeply impressed by what she has seen, Aizawa makes her way toward the Tokuda Workshop.
The Tokuda Workshop stands in the middle of a farm landscape with ridged peaks as a backdrop, about a 15-minute drive from Komatsu Station. Set at the foot of a mountain and with golden rice fields in the foreground, the building is a low wooden structure that extends horizontally, making it resemble an old-fashioned schoolhouse. It is a vista that makes the onlooker feel as if he or she has slipped into a scene from a postcard.
Yasokichi Tokuda IV comes out personally to welcome her visitor. Beforehand, Aizawa imagined her to be a stern and somewhat difficult person, but she turns out to be a kindhearted soul with a jovial demeanor, giving brisk and cheerful instructions to the rest of her workshop. Small in stature, Yasokichi is the kind of person who can muster a great deal of vitality and energy when called upon.
A Single Color Passed from Father to Daughter
Yasokichi first gives Aizawa a tour around the workshop. When one imagines the stereotypical potter's workplace, one might think of a floor littered with the shards of broken pots, smashed because they did not turn out the way the potter wanted them to. The Tokuda Workshop, however, is a very orderly place. In the kiln room, all ongoing projects are neatly arranged, with only the bare minimum of work tools kept within each craftsperson's reach and the glaze stored in a thermo-regulated cabinet—each item can be seen quietly awaiting its turn.
The late Yasokichi III was quick to introduce an electric kiln to his workshop.
"The Tokuda colors, particularly the color gradations introduced by my father, are achieved by letting the glaze melt and run from the heat. An electric kiln can produce a heat of over 1,000 degrees centigrade, higher than any regular kiln, and is essential to achieve such gradations," she tells Aizawa. "When my father was still working under my grandfather, he initially used a conventional kiln to produce his works. Unfortunately, he managed to destroy two kilns in his quest for more heat, and my grandfather ended up kicking him out," she adds with a smile.
Their next destination is the place where the special Tokuda glazes are blended according to secret formulas. Aizawa has the fortunate opportunity to witness this process. The formulas for the glazes are transferred from the master to only one successor. No other craftsperson in the workshop can know the secret, regardless of how long they have been at the workshop. With the old notebook inherited from her father in hand, Yasokichi carefully prepares the glaze for each different color.
Intently following the scene unfolding before her eyes, Aizawa asks, "What color is that?"
"This is colcothar, red iron oxide."
"Colcothar! We also use that when making lipstick. All the different lipstick colors in the world are made from nine different colorants, including colcothar. When developing new products we also use careful measurements to produce our desired color, it's a wonderful feeling seeing that exact process unfolding in front of my eyes right now."
Yasokichi cannot help but smile at Aizawa's enthusiastic outpour.
The two of them then move on to Yasokichi's work table. Unglazed vases, inked to outline the areas to be glazed, and carefully concocted glazes are lined across the table. In order to produce that unique and beautiful Tokuda color gradation, Yasokichi starts by applying different glazes that each vary slightly in density.
The glazes used by the Tokuda family belong to what are known as "waenogu"—glazes which change color in the process of firing. The glaze labeled as "Shin-aka" (new red) initially is a light, pinkish brown, but turns a vivid red color after being fired. Yasokichi is kind enough to let Aizawa try glazing for herself using the Tokuda glazes.
"There is no worry of the glaze running in drips because it contains funori glue. Apply plenty of glaze to your brush and then apply it as if you're 'putting' it on the pot surface."
She applies the glaze carefully along the lines; if the brush is moved too widely in a hurry then the glaze will get too thin.
"Thin glaze means the color won't come out well, so be sure to apply enough glaze," Yasokichi warns. Observing Aizawa from her side, she lets her know if she is doing well or not.
Impatience is counter-productive, and any attempt to speed up is futile. It is impossible to produce such stunningly beautiful colored ceramic pieces if any unnecessary desire enters the potter's mind. Yasokichi shows Aizawa what a model example should look like. In a flash, her expression changes from a cherubic smile to the serious demeanor of a leading expert of modern pottery. With intricate brushwork, she evenly distributes the glaze over the clay.
Aizawa is curious to know what Yasokichi thinks about when glazing her artwork.
After considering this for a while, Yasokichi answers with a bright smile, "I don't know… Maybe I just don't think of anything! I'm probably in a state of nothingness."
Yasokichi goes on to talk about the sources of inspiration for her works.
"Anything I see, really. For a piece that I named Mizuho ('Fresh Ears of Rice'), for example, I was inspired by the color of the rice ears blowing in the autumn wind in the fields in front of the workshop. For one of my more famous pieces, Shoryu ('Rising Dragon'), I used the imagery of a dragon rising from the Gotani River that flows past our workshop. That was shortly after my father had passed away."
After the glazing is done, the pot is fired again until the right colors appear. This still does not mean that work is done, however; more glaze must be applied while slightly overlapping the glazing lines. This process is repeated two, three, and sometimes even four times. The pieces are then fired so the intense heat melts the glazes to form a seamless color gradation. Aizawa is visibly moved by her new knowledge of the fastidious techniques and wonders that go into pottery-making.
Longing to Someday Encounter a New Red
"Even though my job consists of only creating the colors, I was thrilled to see that, at least in that respect, you and I both do very similar work," Aizawa tells Yasokichi after moving to the gallery space.
"I had no idea that lipstick was made that way. How many lipsticks have you made so far?" inquires Yasokichi.
"It's difficult to tell. Recently we've been producing over 200 different colors of lipstick a year, so I can't really keep track of how many I've created in total. Even though lipstick for the larger part comes in red, we are also tasked with using all kinds of subtle formulas to change our colors—it's hard work."
Red—for Aizawa, who has worked with this color for 20 years, a particular question stands out in her mind. She wants to know more about this color that Yasokichi IV has worked so hard to make "her own."
"You actively seek to incorporate red into your work, whereas your father did not use the color, right? I heard that you developed your own glaze formula to create your trademark red. Where did your fascination with this color come from?"
"Even though I've yet to reach total control of expression through red, I feel that recently I've discovered a formula for my own red. In my workshop I've labeled this color as 'Shin-aka' (new red). I would say this color is a gentler, more feminine shade of red than the stronger reds we've seen up until now. I don't have a particular reason as to why I'm so preoccupied with red. It might also be because my father never used it. However, while red is a feminine color, at the same time it is also full of life and instinctive force. I definitely want to express that energy."
"Red functions the same for lipstick and blush," Aizawa adds. "We can add a bright and lively expression to our faces by just applying a little bit of rouge to the skin."
Yasokichi nods. "Yes, I agree. That's what makes red my favorite color."
In Japanese there are many different words to indicate all the slightly different shades of red – scarlet, vermillion, madder, crimson... Or even the different hues in which the sun reddens the morning sky. This kind of culture, history and sentiment toward the color red is something that we should cherish, Yasokichi tells Aizawa.
Gradually the topic transitions toward their passion for creating things.
"We are strictly bound by law when it comes to selecting the ingredients we use for producing make-up; this is only natural because we apply these products directly to our skin. The restrictions do however make it difficult to create a lipstick with a vivid red color using the approved ingredients. Nevertheless, some people want this kind of red for their lips, but no matter how hard we try, it is still very hard to yield a satisfying result. Figuring out how to make a lipstick with a high-chroma red is one of my biggest motivations," effuses Aizawa.
"I don't think creators can ever be satisfied," Yasokichi takes up. "Although we all have that feeling of joy and relief when we complete something, we already have new goals in mind for our next project. If you don't have this kind of mentality, I don't think you can be in this profession for long."
Yasokichi I sparked the resurgence of Kutani ware, his successor revolutionized the style of the painted images, the third of his name opened up a world of dazzling colors, and his present heir, Yasokichi IV, pursues a quest for a kind of colored pottery that can express her individuality. Each of these artists has become loved in all of their times because none of them has ever been satisfied to rest on his and her laurels. This spirit is the very essence that conveys the allure of the Yasokichi Tokuda name.
Yasokichi gives Aizawa the following parting words.
"A series of innovations will become tradition—this is what every generation of my family has always believed. I, too, plan to continue my pursuit of red and I am up to the challenge, as long as there is at least a single person out there who wants my work."
Yasokichi Tokuda IV
Learned coloring techniques from her father Yasokichi Tokuda III, a Living National Treasure, and inherited his coloring and paintwork techniques. While she uses her father's color tones as a basis, her usage of feminine colors in particular leaves a strong impression on those who see her works. Her work "Rising Dragon," created using a firing technique known as "inverted firing," is on permanent display at the British Museum's Japanese Galleries and has received worldwide acclaim.
Shiseido Chief Color Coordinator
Joined Shiseido in 1978. Has been involved in the production and product testing of lipstick and is currently involved in the development of lipstick coloring. She is responsible for coloring of 95% of Shiseido's global lipstick products for brands such as clé de peau BEAUTÉ, SHISEIDO and MAQuillAGE and has a hand in an annual total of over 200 colors of lipstick.