THE SECRETS OF NAMAKUBI–INTERVIEW WITH HORIYOSHI III
Among the different motifs of the Japanese iconography used for tattoo, the namakubi – or severed head- has become a classic chosen for its strong visual impact. Tattoo artists nowadays overdo it with blood in order to emphasize the atrocity and its badass strenght ; but how many do really catch the feeling and the meaning behind it ? If it is hard to determine the exact origin of the design, it goes however through the Japanese history as master Horiyoshi III explains, after originating the revival of this motif when consecrating a book 10 years ago.
Does the namakubi has a particular status in the Japanese iconography ?
In the past, the namakubi was a quite common design and often tattooed. It was a motif worn by a certain type of people -ones working in height, on the roofs or scaffoldings for example, the yakuza too- because it was hated in the general opinion. These people were doing dangerous jobs or wanted to show their strenght ; they would choose this motif because of the belief attached to the superstition that would say it protects the wearer against evil, accidents and injuries. I don’t know where this information comes from but these are things said in the tattoo world for a long time.
Nowadays this motif has become a classic…
Since I published a set of drawings in the collection « Namakubi zushû » (2004), it became very popular again. The word « namakubi » has now entered the common language. I am very happy about that, it confirms the popularity of the traditional japanese tattoo – irezumi. Nowadays, anybody can choose this motif but nonetheless, people in general usually don’t know the correct meaning. Tattooists don’t know also how to draw it and send a proper message to the viewer. Personally I have never seen any that really impressed me. Technically, it is a difficult design to work on.
A head can be cut since a couple of hours or a number of days, but when you talk about the namakubi, it has to be related to a freshly cut head. A dead head is simple to do, you only have to make it very pale, white as a sheet. The term « Namakubi » is written with the character « nama » that means « fresh », between life and death -while« kubi » refers to the head, the neck. It doesn’t have anything to do with the head of a cadaver. It should represent a living life, without being alive itself, and without light in the eyes. They should be vague, empty and not focus. In the mean time, these eyes should be able to catch the viewer’s attention. Working on this motif is a bit like a challenge. I have a respect towards it. The most difficult design after the namakubi is the yûrei ghost. It represents the soul of the human being that can not go to heaven and then takes a shape. It is at the same time alive and dead.
It represents war. It is also used in order to give more realism to the drawing or also to signify that the one represented is really hated and killing him is not enough, you have to hammer a knife through is head too.
Has this motif been a privileged subject for the Japanese artists in the past ?
As I said, for illustration it was a common design. The namakubi can be traced back in the Japanese culture from the Edo period (1603-1867). Many Japanese artists, excepted the ones that were close to the imperial palace as the Kanô and Maruyama schools, have worked on it. Katsushika Hokusai, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, even Kitagawa Utamaro, and then later Ito Seiu (in the Showa era (1926-1989), he was a student of Toyohara Kunichika). In one of the prints done by Yoshitoshi – « The battle of Sannô shrine » (*1), he represented a warrior with a severed head designed on the back of his jacket (jimbaori). It stands for his determination and the philosophy thats says : when you are at war whithout fear of loosing your life, the way opens automatically. But the theme of the severed head can also be found in the western art world, I’m thinking of the Salomé’s story or in Christianism. In Japan however, it evokes something mysterious. Hokusai really dig the subject and his severed heads are amazing : nobody has ever done something better since.
Reality inspires artists. Is decapitation part of the Japanese history ?
Yes. Punishment, war, jealousy, personal resentment… In the past, during the civil war period of the 14th and the 15th centuries, you would get a promotion if you would cut the head of the enemy chief. In this way, there was some kind of competition between the warriors to be the first to do it. Until its abolition in 1869, decapitation as a punishment has been done in Japan during more than 1000 years. During the difficult times of the end of the Edo period, there has been a lot of murders and violence, the severed heads were visible in the daily life of the commoner, they were part of their ordinary life. Heads were exposed to scary the population but also to shame the condemned, even after their deaths. The respected persons were buried and the other ones were let rot in 2004, you publish the book « Namakubi zushû » with only designs of severed heads, why?
A lot of artists have worked the namakubi but nobody ever did a book about it. I want to do what other people don’t do, otherwise it’s a little bit like a copy. In that way, the work of Hokusai inspired me. It is the artist for who I have the most respect, he is beyond the sky. In a philosophical matter, according to me, death and life live together. It is something not to be forgotten.
How did you work on its representation ?
When I choose one of them I think of the history of this head had or may have had. It can be the one of someone that robbed an other guy’s wife or that have been punished by « god » (tenchû), the sky… I try to create a story otherwise it stays superficial. The ones that I have chosen are related to jealousy and vengeance.
Why did you use real blood in your illustrations ?
For the drawings to be real. That is a feeling you can not achieve with painting on its own. It is my blood that I used. I didn’t want the one of an animal or an other person. When I go to the hospital and do a dialysis, I pick up a little bit of it. Its colour changes when it ages and then becomes black. It stays alive, in a certain way, it’s then alive and dead at the same time. Blood is beautiful and also grotesque. Right after the decapitation the head is cleaned and the blood is not flowing very much. Using my blood gives it this grotesque feeling to the severed head but also enables to extend the atrocity of the picture. While creating his set of drawings called « 28 murders with verse » (1866-1867) the artist Yoshitoshi would have asked the printer to add some gelatin (made from skins, bones and animal intestines) in the red colour paint in order for the blood to be real.
You were talking about the power of the namakubi, that would work like a talisman…
Yes, the design was used as a talisman to prevent injuries for instance. See the Yoshitoshi’s print « Battle of the Sannô shrine » I was talking about earlier, it is quite representative in the sense that having it painted in the back would prevent the warrior against any calamity. It is hard to believe that this kind of character would hold with them any bad-luck item… Very few motifs hold that talismanic power or could be related to superstitions, otherwise you can not combine a lot of motifs in your composition. Among these superstitions, we say that tattooing the name of someone -called « kirezumi »- separates two people in love. Also, if you get tattooed the design of a woman, she will get jealous and the wearer will not have any more success among other women.