Ikebana: The Living Flowers of Japan

by Karen Azoulay


Loosely translated to “living flowers,” or “making flowers come to life,” ikebana is the Japanese tradition of flower arranging. This is an art of refinement, rooted in rigorous guidelines of composition and asymmetry. 

In 1927, ikebana master Sōfu Teshigahara developed one of the tradition’s three schools of thought—Sōgetsu-ryū. Dedicated to teaching ikebana as an art form rather than an element of décor, Teshigahara added a modern twist to its longstanding tradition by encouraging the use of unorthodox materials in traditional flower arrangements. His bold integration of freedom with formality informed numerous dynamic compositions that remain celebrated today for their embrace of individualistic expression.

Teshigahara’s son, the filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara, is best known for his 1964 feature film Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna). Alongside his work in cinema, he also achieved mastery in calligraphy, ceramics, and ikebana. Under his father’s tutelage, Hiroshi eventually became an expert in ikebana and developed a sculptural practice focused on massive, site-specific installations of curved bamboo. 

Though Hiroshi was indeed one of the greatest admirers of his father’s work, he was also an influential figure in the Japanese New Wave cinematic movement. His 1956 experimental documentary, appropriately titled Ikebana, is a testament to this admiration in its close inspection of his father’s life. The film begins as a traditional documentary: With a pair of shears in hand, Sōfu examines the work of his students at the Sōgetsu school he founded the previous year, in 1955. Teaching through demonstration, he improves his students’s compositions with the occasional snip. 

The film soon takes a sharp turn in tone, picking up pace through a montage of Sōfu’s own awe-inspiring feats of balance and form—his sculptures. They fill the screen within galleries and natural landscapes, their modernism appearing both monumental and bold as closeup shots linger on complex arrangements of stone, steel, and plants. This surprisingly surreal collage of imagery references Sōfu’s exploratory and inspired process.

As the film proceeds, its soundtrack shifts from a score of metallic clangs to a musical rendition complete with the ominous din of gurgling water. Then the camera turns, revealing a beach studded with sculptures. The frame slowly focuses on a large stone, skull-like in form. Through the hollows of its “eyes,” we observe a mushroom cloud of atomic detonation. This allusion to apocalypse falls into greater context once Teshigahara’s backstory is taken into consideration. At the age of eighteen, he witnessed the horrific aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Created in the immediate postwar era, Ikebana’s solemn undertone contextualizes the film within the political reality of mid-century Japan. 

It is through this film that the foundations of Teshigahara’s ikebana are passed down with thoughtful synchrony and gently link the art form to unexpected notions of abstraction, beauty, balance, and tragedy. 

Karen Azoulay is an interdisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn.