Kogoro Kurata isn’t your average ironsmith. He doesn’t hammer out swords or forge bridges; rather he produces massive, awe-inspiring structures of myriad purposes and forms. Kurata creates 4-metre-tall robots and gothic restaurant interiors; he produces sombre stage sets, stop-trick animation and quirky, insect-like musical instruments. And there are also his weird, machine-like creatures which began as typewriters, Fiat cars or chandeliers! He also helps out in the local community with projects such as statues and monuments. PingMag went to Kurata’s factory in Soga, Chiba, on the edge of Tokyo to see how he does it and to hear about his obsession with iron.
Written by Vicente Gutierrez
With kind help by Wakako Ito
An iron chandelier from his solo exhibition in 2000. When let down… © Kogoro Kurata
… it opens like an insect’s wings! © Kogoro Kurata
So how did you get started working with iron?
My father was an ironsmith and worked on projects in our backyard when I used to live in Kichijoji. Throughout my childhood, I was more interested in making paper crafts and plastic models or paramodels but after growing up around his work, I guess it was something I just picked up naturally. But iron work being so noisy, he moved his factory out west to Yamanashi Prefecture and I couldn’t really see him work anymore. However, during my summer vacations I would visit him, and in high school I just developed more of an interest. I guess it was like I ended up following in his footsteps.
Then what was the first thing you made yourself?
A playable bass guitar, but it wasn’t solely made of iron. I used wood as well.
Massive! © Martin Holtkamp
And how did you get from there to something like the giant ScopeDog robot?
ScopeDog is originally from an ’80s cartoon called Votoms, although it wasn’t a show I really watched. As a kid, I had made a plastic model of the ScopeDog robot and was just really attracted to the design and aesthetic. I wanted to make it to have more content for my website and blog but I think I really just wanted to prove to people that you can make huge things using iron. It ended up taking a year, and in the middle of it all I broke a bone working on it. It would have actually taken six months if I hadn’t gotten injured…
Oh my! And it IS huge! It really has a presence.
Yeah, it actually weighs two tons, but it is still relatively light compared to other iron works.
Wait a minute… Votoms? Isn’t Gundam more your generation?
Gundam is just too huge! [laughs] When I thought about making a robot, I knew I wanted to make a life-size one, not something scaled down. Votoms are just four meters in height, which was a realistic goal in working terms. And to tell the truth, I just like Votoms more!
The joints… © Kogoro Kurata
… and the massive iron head. © Kogoro Kurata
The robot tool kit: Kurata’s blow torches. © Martin Holtkamp
I think the Votoms design isn’t just for kids — it’s for everyone and it also has a great storyline, or world, associated with it. If you were in the Gundam world, you would need to be enlisted in the army to be a pilot or operate a Gundam robot but in the world of Votoms, someone could just buy a ScopeDog in an ordinary second hand shop for just ¥200,000, and everyone can operate one.
Fair enough! But still, these projects are quite massive, not only in terms of size but also time — what motivates you?
When I start a personal project, I don’t really know what it will end up looking like. So I just follow my imagination wherever it leads me and I end up surprising myself. That’s kind of a motivation in itself because it is like I’m catching up to my imagination and that makes finishing the projects enjoyable.
Would you regard yourself as a traditional artisan?
Not at all, though I am often called that. Being an artisan means you need skills first. However in my case, I want to make something first and then learn the skills necessary to make it, then I perfect it as I go. Traditionally, like a hundred years ago, iron work in Japan was very limited and earlier craftsmen essentially made only swords, or used iron for structures and other light industry, as far as I know.
So you are more of a modern day ironsmith?
If I didn’t work with iron, I don’t know what I would be doing today! [laughs] In Japan it is rare; there isn’t a big market for iron and, naturally, iron isn’t a plentiful resource here. Also, the climate in Japan is humid and it makes iron rusty easily so there wasn’t widespread use of iron in traditional culture. That is also why the iron industry is still quite small, so I think we have more of a wood-based craft tradition. I mean, though there are lots of iron workers in Japan, there aren’t that many similar to me and what I am doing.
Especially when the typewriter is being transformed into a computer keyboard… © Kogoro Kurata
Other iron workers can be found today, like the wakaji, which is a Japanese style of ironwork focusing on making swords. But one reason ironwork is so rare is because it makes a lot of noise and that is just difficult to do in Japan. And frankly, its not a popular occupation as well.
Iron is not exactly a delicate material. What are the biggest challenges in working with it?
I usually work by myself and that’s been my style. However now, for bigger projects I need to work with other people and it can be tricky and at times difficult. Technically, when you weld iron, the steam and fumes generated are harmful to your lungs and iron powder is bad for your throat, too, so I use a mask. I also keep headphones in my tool kit to block out the loud noises. Another thing is how heavy iron is — sometimes I hurt my back from handling the sheer weight of iron slats and bars and it’s even led to broken bones. I pretty much get injured all the time, day to day!
Oh no! But despite all the risks, this is the field you chose to work in. What kind of shapes are difficult?
It depends. Even though iron bends when it’s heated, when you weld two plain iron plates together, the welded parts can get too hot and bend too easily. So, making straight things is pretty difficult and getting a curve just right is also challenging at times. But if I make a mistake in my design, I can just go back and fix it until I think it is perfect. Working with iron allows me to constantly start over by just reheating. I’ve gotten used to knowing when it gets soft, just by noticing the right tone of red- I don’t remember the actual melting temperature of iron anymore.
You really developed some kind of relationship with this material…
Other materials like clay or plastic aren’t strong enough, so when you make a large-scale product, the shape bends or the product can collapse. However, iron is really strong so you can make things as big as you want. For me, it’s like iron has two faces: I like how hard it is but at the same time, how soft it becomes when heated.
One thing that gets me once in a while is just that the colour of iron is always black! [laughs] Sometimes it can be boring, so I would rather use wood. My basic material is always iron, but I’ll use other materials as decoration to escape its monotone characteristic. On the other hand, I think the texture of iron is really important in my works so I don’t paint them either. I’ll probably always work with iron — as long as my body holds out! [laughs]
How do you actually start? Do you make scaled down models before getting out the torch?
I don’t like drawing — that’s why I rarely sketch out my designs. Even if I make sketches, my clients usually can’t understand the way I’ve mapped it out. So I just make a mini sample model out of plastic for them to get my idea across.
How, for example, did you work on Seirinkan [pictured above], the pizza restaurant in Tokyo’s Nakameguro?
When I approach an interior project, usually the building or space is already built and I have to figure out how I want to use, or fit, iron in the space. However for this restaurant, I had a say in the design of the building that would contain my installation which made the architecture rather different. It was actually a whole new challenge for me and the project spanned over two and a half years due to a few stops in production.
Another Fiat 500, to be merged… © Kogoro Kurata
… with a caterpillar. Et voila! See another of his Fiat works – combining a Fiat 500 with a mobile over here!© Kogoro Kurata
That’s long! Now, you came up with that glorious idea for the Fiat Tanks?
I’ve always liked Fiats and their design and I guess since I’ve worked on many Fiats mechanically, I ended up converting one of them into a tank. I bought the two main parts, a caterpillar tractor and the Fiat, at an auction. I drove it once in the winter to the convenience store but it actually runs too slow!
Ha! We want to see the face of the clerk! Other than that, we saw that you made a stop-motion animation called HumptyDumpty and Motorcycle, and you seem to be an ardent admirer of the animation filmmakers Quay Brothers. What attracts you to their work?
Kurata’s stop-motion animation features a little egg… © Kogoro Kurata
I watched Street of Crocodiles for the first time as a teenager and it was simply stunning. The images were so inspiring, but I was also influenced by the background of the work like its production process.
Unlike ordinary film-making, puppet animation is produced only by a couple of people, or by the director himself. So, the creator’s ideas are never diluted by other people intervening. To me, Street of Crocodiles in particular felt like the crown of their imagination. It may seem quite introverted, but my production style during my teenage years focused on this. To this day, I still prefer to work on my own but my style has gradually shifted to respecting the areas that I can’t control now. Also, I’m attracted to the Brothers Quay because they are twin brothers. It’s fun to imagine what it might be like to work with someone with an almost identical mind!
[Watch the stop-motion animation Street of Crocodiles over here.]
True. What a weird psychological experience that would be… Is the darkness of their animation world something you have in common?
Perhaps the decadent element coincides a lot with theirs, but I might have just adopted it from their influence. Also, I’m more of an introversive nature so I feel that I have a lot in common with the world of puppet animation.
Kurata at sparkling work. © Martin Holtkamp
We’d bet you would love to work with the Brothers Quay on day!
Of course, but they were like my teenage gods so it might be a bit too august for me. [laughs]
We are still waiting for that! Thank you Kogoro Kurata!
Unfortunately, due to copyright issues we can’t show you, beloved readers, a glimpse of his latest art work yet… But we can tell you it’s a gigantic robot-like creature again… Check out also his company site and his blog for more!
Last but not least, thanks to Wakako Ito for her translation help!