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Japanese Paper Cutting: Kamikiri and Kirie


Paper and art is hardly an unusual combination. In fact, it is practically indispensable as sketchbooks, prints, construction paper, and so on. That being said, do you know of a Japanese art form involving just paper and scissors?

History of Kamikiri

The characters in kamikiri (紙切り) mean “paper” and “cut”; essentially, paper cutting. It is a traditional performing art in Japan that dates back to around the Edo period. That’s right, not only is the final product put on display, but the entire process is performed in front of an audience, leaving no room for error.

A kamikiri artist performs in front of schoolchildren.

A kamikiri artist performs in front of schoolchildren.

Kamikiri begins when the artist asks for or receives a request from the audience. The artist must then create that image by cutting a single sheet of paper without any guidelines. Since this is all being presented in front of a live audience, time is crucial. No one wants to sit for hours silently staring at someone cutting paper, and so the artists must be both skilled and quick, capable of producing the final image within minutes or even seconds.

Kamikiri that resembles Japanese brush calligraphy by artist Akira Nagaya.

Kamikiri that resembles Japanese brush calligraphy by artist Akira Nagaya.       Image source: Akira Nagaya Facebook Page

Sharp and Cutting

Kamikiri acts are not rehearsed beforehand, and the broad spectrum of potential requests adds to the difficulty. People can ask for anything, from simple objects to complex designs, and even a menagerie of animals frozen in action. Practitioners of kamikiri must have a wide variety of knowledge, including pop culture, in order to anticipate requests.

Paper cutting of Pikachu from Pokemon, by artist Akira Nagaya.

Paper cutting of Pikachu from Pokemon by artist Akira Nagaya. Image source: Kotaro269

To present even more of a challenge, audience members may also ask for vague or unusual images. It is then up to the artist to come up with interpretations, using wit and resourcefulness to produce a clever end product. Being put on the spot is hard enough, but kamikiri artists must also be aware that everything is a performance. While cutting, they continue to engage with the audience, making jokes or singing songs and keeping the mood light.

Paper cutout of a girl with hearts and butterflies by artist Akira Nagaya. Image source: Akira Nagaya Facebook Page

Paper cutout of a girl with hearts and butterflies by artist Akira Nagaya.       Image source: Akira Nagaya Facebook Page

Kirie: Paper Cutouts

What if you want to be a paper cutting master but dislike the impromptu nature of kamikiri? Kirie (切り絵) uses the characters for “cut” and “picture” and also refers to the art of paper cutting, but without the performance aspect. Kirie focuses more on the end product itself; as a result, artists have more time to create pieces, and so kirie images tend to be more complex than kamikiri ones.

Multi-colored kirie by artist Hamsoku. Image source: Hamsoku

Multi-colored kirie by artist Hamsoku. Image source: Hamsoku

An Old Tradition in Modern Times

Kirie is older than kamikiri and has its roots in Chinese paper cutting, which has been around since about 450 A.D. Artists will frequently use fine, sharp knives in addition to scissors to create intricate designs out of thin paper. Traditional kamikiri is predominantly black and white, but kirie comes in a wider selection of colors. Many artists have taken the old art form and given it a modern twist, whether it is through depicting popular icons, being more creative with colors, or turning the paper cutouts into sculptures.

Lively paper goldfish arranged in a circle by artist Akira Nagaya. Image source: Akira Nagaya Facebook Page Be sure to check out the artist's website for more beautiful paper art!

Lively paper goldfish arranged in a circle by artist Akira Nagaya. Image source: Akira Nagaya Facebook Page
Be sure to also check out the artist’s website for more beautiful paper art!

Japanese paper cutting is without a doubt beautiful and awe-inspiring. The audience is kept captive in amazement, watching the scissors flash in rapid, steady bursts, or looking around at enormous installations made entirely out of paper. The amount of time and skill necessary for paper cutting is astounding, evident through the wispy, lifelike tail of a goldfish or the grace of a rider on horseback, cut using a single unbroken line.

Rather than being intimated by these works of art, think of it as a challenge. Kamikiri and kirie can be fun for everyone, and it’s never too late to start. All you need is paper and scissors or small knives. Give Japanese paper cutting a try and see what cool, unique designs you can create.

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