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Just as every person has his or her own individuality and character, so every bonsai should have its own appearance and personality. Whereas no two people, however similar, are exactly alike, so too a bonsai has to differ from another in tiny details, in which it is possible to discern the handiwork of its creator.
Although the great Japanese masters have frequently invited us in the West to create new forms, taking our inspiration from nature which surrounds us, it is nevertheless true that a tree is a tree all over the world and that the Japanese have run the full gamut of possible classes and styles. Familiarity with such styles is the basic stock-in-trade of every bonsaist. However, this does not imply that we should slavishly ape them, no matter how praiseworthy the originals, with endless and often futile repetitions, leaving no scope for creativity.
The division into classes has been established on the basis of height, number of trees in a container, and number of trunks on the same tree. Height is always measured in a straight line from the upper rim of the pot to the apex of the tree, whatever its style or development. The only exceptions to this rule are the cascading and semi-cascading styles in which the tree is measured from the lower to the higher apex.
The numerous styles envisage virtually every possible type of development of the tree in the container. If we took at the Japanese styles we recognize that they can all be fitted into a triangle or series of triangles. In practice I have always maintained that a tree manages to be convincingly beautiful only when it conforms to this geometrical shape. The rules of bonsai -- the quest for thetriangular form and an odd number (except for the twin-trunk style) of trunks or plants in a pot -- show an interesting affinity with the beliefs of the pythagorean Greeks, back in the sixth century B.C. that the triangle was a sacred figure and that odd numbers were associated with perfection.
There are five principal styles, even though others may justifiably be considered such. In the following list the Japanese names and their English equivalents are given.
This consists of a single upright plant with the apex perpendicular to the base of the trunk. The branches, balanced in threes (left-back-right or right-back-left) alternate symmetrically along the trunk and thin out towards the top. The first branch, which should be about one third of the total height, determines the position of the plant in the pot, placed on the side opposite to that in which this branch is pointing.
Although not originally accepted by purists as a true and proper style, it has become increasingly popular, not only because there are numerous examples of it in nature but also because it allows greater freedom and less blind obedience to the rules, inasmuch as it combines the features of various styles. The apex is perpendicular to the base, as in the Chokkan style, but differs in the development of the trunk, which zigzags gently upwards. The branches stem from the outside of the curves and bend slightly downwards.
The trunk is leaning, with the apex inclined at an angle of 45° to the base. The aerial development and Surface roots follow the line of the trunk; the first branch, however, grows in the opposite direction, balancing the plant. This branch, which should be positioned about one third of the way up the tree, is the important determining factor in the harmonious achievement of this style.
The tree is planted opposite to the side over which it hangs down. The style provides for two apices, one on top, situated roughly above the bend in the main branch, the other below, at the limit of plant growth. The lower apex should never exceed the height of the pot. Sometimes vegetation is only present towards the end of the trunk, which in this instance is of prime importance.
Similar to Hah kengai, this style differs in that the apex exceeds the height of the pot. The foliage can also grow completely outside the container, on the side opposite the base of the trunk, without touching the rim. The container has to be very tall and its choice is the determining factor in the composition's final effect.
A few main branches arranged in a ring around the trunk support a mass of thinner branches which form a dense oval or rounded crown immediately above the base of the trunk. The tree is positioned slightly off-center in the pot, which is as a rule quite shallow. This style, frequently used in Japan with Zelkova, more or less resembles the majority of trees seen in the European countryside.
This dramatically represents a tree shaped by the wind, leaning over at 45° or more. For this reason the aerial development is positioned inside the inclined part, while jin elements may be present on the opposite side and at the apex. It is the only style that allows branches, following the direction of the wind, to cross the trunk. The tree is planted, in a fairly shallow pot, on the side opposite to the direction of incline.
A few large exposed roots follow and extend the line of the trunk, while others, generally thinner, stem from them: the tree appears to be suspended and the total effect is of airy lightness. The style is seldom used today but was at one time very popular.
Simple and elegant, this style is said to have been inspired by ancient Chinese paintings which depicted trees silhouetted against the sky high in the mountains. The singular feature of the style is the disproportionately long trunk contained in a small circular or oval pot. The single slender trunk bears several thin branches, most of which are concentrated towards the apex.
This style was once widespread, but is now rare, although there are some very old specimens in Japan collected from the wild. The trunk forms one or more curves that coil in on themselves. Bonsai, especially of Pinus parviflora, inspired by this style, have been sold and distributed since the seventeenth century.
Dry wood, suitably treated, is generally used for this style. Occasionally one or two lateral branches, linked by a thin strip of bark to the roots, are used to give the impression of a tree that has survived massive natural calamities.
Several trunks, arranged more or less parallel, form a grove or clump, seemingly joined by a single root. Actually, the grove is fashioned from a single, one-sided tree laid horizontally in a pot. The trunk is half-covered and the branches are arranged to appear like a grove of connected trees.
A clump of separate plants springing from the same root. It is similar to Ikada buki but differs in the freer arrangement of the trunks. It is generally used with plants such as elms that sucker freely from the roots.
Several trunks which stem from the same base form a single tree. This style is achieved with shrubs that have several trunks or with plants that are capable of suckering at the base of the trunk, as in Cryptomeria and certain species of maple.
This is a variant of the preceding style whereby the branches, stemming from the same base, snake upwards. The same name is given to a plant in which the branches wind downwards, and in either case it is derived from the evident resemblance of the branches to the tentacles of an octopus.
Root over rock
Thick roots coil around a rock before being buried in the ground. In this style, the shape of the rock, the surface roots, and the container are as important as the shape of the plant in making a harmonious whole. Sometimes the overall effect is provided by the form and color of the rock or by the impressive structure of the roots.
Clinging to a rock
The tree is planted directly into a rock cavity. In this style, too, the shape of the stone is extremely important, as is the moss and the presence of smaller plants which constitute a tiny fragment of the natural scene. Sometimes, to simulate an island, Ishitsuki is placed in a very Iow tray full of water.
Clearly inspired by miniature gardens of very ancient origin, this style was created by the Japanese master Toshio Kawamoto and became popular during the Second World War. It consists of a landscape in a container, formed of rocks, trees, plants, mosses, and sand to simulate a river or the sea.
Nature offers us rare examples of this style, in which the bark alone spirals up from the base to the apex, leaving some underlying wood uncovered. The term may also describe a tree such as the pomegranate -- whose trunk is twisted like cord.
Copyright © 1990 Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A., Milanby
1990 in the English translation Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A., Milan