Kintsugi: Transformative Repair (A Meta)

A few months ago, there were Episode IX leaks in the Star Wars community about the return of Kylo Ren’s helmet which have since been proven true through the mural that was unveiled at Star Wars Celebration Chicago, and subsequently through the teaser trailer itself. This was an interesting development because the last time we saw Kylo’s helmet in The Last Jedi, Snoke was ridiculing Kylo, telling him to take that “ridiculous thing off.” Kylo proceeds to smash the mask inside the turbolift, where we last see it in pieces on the ground as he storms away. Rian Johnson has stated that it was actually quite difficult to destroy the mask because its design was so integral to the character’s development in The Force Awakens. He felt it was necessary though as his film sought to begin to understand what was behind the mask.

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“Kylo Ren” as an identity, and subsequently his mask as well, has been described by both Snoke and Luke Skywalker as a shell around Ben Solo; implying that Kylo Ren is not Ben Solo’s true identity or name.

“Luke sensed that Kylo Ren was just a shell around the same broken boy he had tried too had to reach,” The Last Jedi, by Jason Fry (page 297)
“He called himself Kylo Ren, but as with so much else about him, that was more wish fulfillment than reality,” Snoke on Kylo Ren, The Last Jedi, by Jason Fry (page 222)

Kylo’s mask, just like Vader’s, is a pretty obvious symbol of each character using the mask to hide their true feelings and emotions and even their true identity. For fans who see Kylo Ren as being redeemed by the end of the sequel trilogy, seeing the destruction of the mask in The Last Jedi seemed like a step in the right direction. However, through both leaks and the eventual reveal in the teaser that the mask had been reconstructed in The Rise of Skywalker, there was some worry that by bringing back the mask, it was a step away from redemption and towards damnation for Kylo Ren.

As has been talked about in our teaser break down of The Rise of Skywalker, the specific design (repair) of Kylo’s mask in the teaser appears to be a direct link to the Japanese art of repair that is called kintsugi. Kintsugi translated literally means “golden joinery”. The art form uses a type of naturally occurring adhesive called urushi to adhere broken pieces of ceramic together. As the art form developed, the urushi would be painted over with silver or gold dust as a way of illuminating the cracks. In historic Japan, and today, kintsugi has developed as an art form but also a philosophy that relates back to ideas of self-care, self-improvement, and the acknowledgement of the hardships, or scars, that we all experience throughout life.

I have a degree in art history, and even though I spent most of my art history studies in the ancient Mediterranean, I remember briefly covering kintsugi, enough to the point where I immediately related it to Kylo’s mask when I first saw the poster. However, I certainly didn’t know much about it, other than it was an art form based in Japan with ties back to self-improvement. Since the mask has been confirmed and publicized, I decided to do a little more research on the topic and share that here and extrapolate how it might relate back to Star Wars and Kylo Ren. The sources I consulted will all be listed at the bottom.

Development of kintsugi

As discussed above, kintsugi is a form of ceramic repair that uses the naturally occurring urushi as an adhesive. Using gold and silver paint to illuminate the urushi would not come into practice until the sixteenth century, but the use of urushi as a type of glue has been discovered in repaired ceramics as early as 2500 – 1500 BCE. It is worth noting that urushi is a renewable resource, much like the theme of hope throughout Star Wars is a mainstay in our characters’ hearts and motivations. The urushi lacquer comes from the aptly named “Chinese lacquer tree”, or its scientific name, toxicodendron vernicifluum.

Kintsugi-ware (pieces that have been repaired in the kintsugi method) were generally associated with and used in tea ceremonies. Tea ceremonies in Japan are very ritualized with specific choreography, types of tea, and teaware being used at certain times throughout the year. You can find lots of examples online of contemporary Japanese tea houses still performing these tea ceremonies. The few that I have watched have all emphasized that the tea ceremony is an opportunity to leave your life outside, practice meditation, and find an inner quiet or peace.

One example (of many) of the ritualistic nature of tea ceremonies.

There are many theories and histories about where and how exactly kintsugi developed. One of the most popular ones is the story of how an emperor’s favorite tea bowl was broken. He loved the tea bowl enough that he had it sent to China for repair (importation of ceramics from China to Japan was historically frequent). When it came back, fused together with metal staples, a popular repair technique in China, he was very displeased. From there, kintsugi developed as a way to ensure the repaired ceramic could still be used. As far as I can tell, the story has never been definitely proven. As with most fables that have travelled down to us through time though, there’s always a bit of truth in legends.

Some scholars, like Guy Keulemans, an artist, researcher, and designer who has studied kintsugi extensively, links the art form back to an early tea master, Sen No Rikyū (1522 – 1591). Rikyū is remembered for the heavy influence he had on the “Way of Tea”, which is basically a blueprint for the different types of tea ceremonies in Japan. It was around this time that tea ceremonies began to have an aesthetic quality to them. It is noted that Rikyū had an affinity for broken and repaired things. This is an interesting fact about a well-regarded tea master because, elsewhere, it was seen as poor taste to serve guests with broken or repaired teaware. Visitors and guests of Rikyū though have been documented as purposefully breaking things in order to gain the affections of the tea master.

Another tea master with a similar predilection towards imperfection was Murata Juko (1423 – 1502). Both tea masters were active during the Sengaku period (1467 – 1603), a time in Japan that was marked heavily by war and bloodshed and political upheaval. The connection between kintsugi and warfare seems almost heavy handed; these tea masters began to put value on things in need of repair — because they lived in a time where politics, society, and people were in need of constant repair themselves, both physically and emotionally. Furthermore, the tea ceremony was supposed to be a time when you could forget the tragedies that were waiting for you on the battlefield. For Rikyū, the “gap between the vanity of pristine appearance and the fractured manifestation of mortal fate deepen [the ceramic’s] appeal” (Keulemans). Rikyū and Juko’s affinity for repaired things would lay the foundation for kintsugi a few decades later.

The horrors of the Sengaku period lasted over a century, with generations of people being subject to the the demands of dictators, emperors, and vassal leaders. Or, in the case of Star Wars, generations of people being subject to the Galactic Senate, the Separatists, the Galactic Empire, the Rebellion, the First Order, the New Republic, the Resistance, the Jedi, the Sith, Emperor Palpatine, etc. Years of all these factions trying to gain the upper hand with many innocent planets and peoples being affected in the end.

Regardless of who was on the “good” or “bad” side, no one was really winning in the grand scheme of things. This is has been pointed out multiple times both within the Clone Wars as well as being a heavy theme of The Last Jedi, where Rose and DJ both educate Finn on how the wealthy benefit from both sides of the war, “good” and “bad”. This notion has never been more true though with the return of Emperor Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker. Kylo Ren himself points out how he wants to get rid of it all, “Snoke, Skywalker, the Sith, the Jedi, the Rebels; let it all die.” What Kylo doesn’t know though (yet), is that he would just be repeating the same cycle and even if Rey joined him, he wouldn’t be healed of his bad deeds or forget his own past. This is, after all, only the second chapter of a three-act story. When we meet Maz Kanata in The Force Awakens, she reminds us of the cyclical nature of time, and subsequently of war as well:

The foundations of kintsugi relate back to not just a cultural period of war and hardship, but also to an ecological phenomenon: earthquakes. The Japanese people and landscape were often subject to the effects of earthquakes as Japan sits on multiple fault lines from where tectonic plates meet (I did not do extensive research on this fact, but Wikipedia noted that there was an excess of earthquakes during the Sengaku period in addition to the warfare. All in all, sixteenth century Japan was not a fun place to be). Rodney Bamford, an artist and expert in ceramics, writes that kintsugi is a craft “directed by an ecological” sense of responsibility to care, in which expression of repairs functions as a “powerful attractor”.

As the people were impacted by the literal and often devastating cracks in the earth around them, this was translated into the repair of ceramics. Where perhaps the land itself cannot be healed, the ceramic can be. (As a fun aside, in Keulemans writings, he often writes about the cracks in earthquakes and in ceramics mended with kintsugi as “force expressions”.) This notion of earthquakes being a factor in the development of kintsugi is especially interesting when one considers this scene:

The Force Awakens

In this scene from The Force Awakens, the earth is split apart. Many speculate, and I tend to agree, that the Cosmic Force purposefully drove Kylo and Rey apart in this moment because they were not ready yet to fight as one. This scar on the earth is mirrored by the physical scar that Rey gives Kylo’s face just moments before. These scars will then be further paralleled in Kylo’s newly-repaired helmet in The Rise of Skywalker. Cracks and scars, however, are meant to be healed; even still, as Rumi wrote, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” But the defining factor of a scar is that even though it may be healed, it is still visible. Kintsugi is this concept realized in art form. In fact, the next time we see Kylo, he is in the process of being healed; his wound his being stitched, but it is still visible, as I predict, it always will be.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” – Rumi

Kintsugi and tea ceremonies

Christy Bartlett, in her book FlickWerk: The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics, details the relationship between kintsugi and the specific tea ceremony that happened during the time of year that is referred to as nagori. Nagori-no-chaji is a tea ceremony that is held specifically at the end of autumn, around the last two weeks of October. This specific tea ceremony is when pieces of kintsugi-ware were brought out to be used. Historically, this is the time during the year when communities were preparing for the winter months. According to Bartlett, this usually involved community members coming together to perform activities that required group effort, such as repairing roofs.

The word nagori itself means, “remains, traces, or memory”. As the time of harvest comes to a close, the nagori-no-chaji tea ceremony involves savoring the last of the tea leaves that were picked the previous November. The ceremony is a time when “we feel sadness from parting (nagori) with this tea. It is also the time of nature’s seasonal decline, letting go of the old in anticipation of the new” (Bartlett). But it’s not about completely letting go though, because Bartlett also details that in some nagori-no-chaji tea ceremonies, writings from family or members of the community who have passed on are brought to the ceremony to be read and honored as the year comes to a close.

This tea ceremony is one of the most interesting points I think where kintsugi is specifically used. It is used at the end of the season, in anticipation of the new year, a new spring, a rising season, rebirth. This ceremony is often marked though with remembrance, a reminder that even though time has passed, no one is ever truly gone. As Luke also mentions in the The Rise of Skywalker teaser, “We have passed on all we know”. Bartlett notes that the “scrolls [of passed on family or community members] set the tone” for the tea ceremony. It is fitting that we see Rey take the Jedi books from Ahch-To, as I think they will be used in The Rise of Skywalker as a way of remembering and honoring the past, as our characters and the galaxy as a whole come together in order to finally vanquish Palpatine and move into a new period of hope and freedom.

In his research, Keulemans writes that the suffix of kintsugi, –tsugi is the Japanese word for “connection, joinery, successor, patch, or next”. In relation to the physical mending of ceramics, this makes sense. Keulemans continues by writing that the word is also used to “describe family bonds in regard to inheritance, succession, and the continuation of family traditions or craft”. To be honest, when I tried to do more research on this specific usage of the word, I could only find literal translations before I was being directed to sites in Japanese that I wasn’t 100% certain if I was getting quality translations.

Regardless, though, it’s an interesting thought to spin out with Star Wars in mind: tsugi, referring to the continuation of family traditions (the Jedi, the light side, Force capabilities, etc.), also used as a connection (the Force bond, or connection, between Kylo and Rey). Kintsugi-ware is frequently used in a tea ceremony that honors the passage of time while also remembering those who have come before.

For The Rise of Skywalker, I see Rey and Kylo taking the writings and knowledge of Luke, and others, and using their connection to defeat Palpatine and move into a new period of freedom. They accomplish this with the scars of their past: Their own marks of kintsugi.

Affects and accidental fractures

The use of kintsugi-ware in tea ceremonies is particularly meaningful as it also relates to the Japanese mindset of mushin, which is translated as “no mind”. Mushin though is more complicated a word and carries “connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachments, of equanimity amid changing conditions, of removal from the desire to impose one’s will upon the world” (Bartlett). Mushin starts to sound a lot like the Jedi mindset before things were muddled and manipulated by Palpatine.

Bartlett has a lot of good things to say about the philosophy behind kintsugi and mushin, but one of my favorites is this: Accidental fractures set in motion acts of repair that accept given circumstances and work within them to lead to an ultimately more profound appearance.

Rey is the “accidental fracture” in the Skywalker Saga. She started this journey, created the first visible crack on Kylo Ren’s face that will lead us through to the end of their story. Throughout The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, Kylo and Snoke express their surprise that a mere “girl” has caused so much upheaval. Snoke takes time in the Throne Room scene to tell Rey just how surprised he is that it was her all along that was destined to be the light that met Kylo’s darkness. I believe this surprised Palpatine as well. The Force awakens in her and sets in motion all kinds of acts and events that will ultimately lead to a more profound existence for her. My belief though is that this profound experience and existence extends to herself and Kylo. They represent a balance, or as Rian Johnson says, two halves of a whole, the two halves of a protagonist. Rey scarring Kylo’s face is a physical symbol of their connection and of her role as a “fracture” to his current existence.

Image result for rey

The forces that act upon ceramics to eventually break them are called “affects”. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari discuss the difference between “affects” and “affections” in their book What is Philosophy?. Affects are forces that flow through materials. When looking at ceramics, affects are the pressures that work against the ceramics to eventually break them. Keulemans takes Deleuze and Guattari’s work and applies it to the affection, or attraction, that people can feel towards kintsugi-ware. “Materials present a composition of forces, which pull us into relation with objects” that have been affected by different forces (i.e. broken).

The phrase I think can be altered to apply to the real world too: people present a composition of experiences or influences which pull us into an attraction with them. But all of these people and experiences and influences can eventually exert enough pressure to crack the facade, or person, they are influencing. Bartlett describes the cracks in kintsugi-ware as a “diagram of the point of impact”. When it comes to Kylo Ren, I think you can infer a lot of points of impact: himself, Rey, Snoke, Han, Luke, etc. are all placing emotional pressure on him which leads him to destroying the mask in The Last Jedi. Snoke’s comments act as the “last straw”, but everything has been building to that moment for Kylo.

Deleuze and Guattari also discuss the different types of affects: vibration, distension, and clinch. The way that Keulemans writes about the “clinch” as a type of affect against ceramics (or people) is fascinating when thinking about it in comparison to Rey and Kylo. He writes:

“The clinch is a compound sensation that arises from the transmission of force through material, but with its own unique, affective capacities. When a clinch in material is perceived, it is not a passive sensory experience of materials bonded together, but an active becoming in which the viewer is drawn, and bound to the sensation itself.”

In this metaphor, Rey is the clinch. She transmits force, cracks, into Kylo just as Kylo also cracks himself when he kills his father in The Force Awakens (“the deed split your spirit to the bone”). But just as Rey participates in the physical wounding of Kylo, she is also bound to him, as he is bound to her.


Kylo Ren and The Rise of Skywalker

All of this leads us back to Kylo and his mask. If Kylo is to be redeemed, why bring it back at all? As the art form of kintsugi developed it was inherently tied to seeing beauty and value in broken things. Above all else, in my opinion, Kylo’s mask is a metaphor for there still being value in Kylo — Ben Solo — as a person. A character that is continuously drawn to the light, a figure who is literally cracked, and now the mask that he used to hide his face for so long has become a “diagram of the points of impact” in Kylo’s life and a symbol for his own transformative repair.

Having visible cracks, scars, is essential in Kylo’s healing. Hiding his face behind the mask allowed him to conceal (don’t feel…!) the doubts and fears he felt with Snoke. An important aspect of kintsugi is that not only are the cracks in ceramics visible and highlighted with gold and silver, but they are tangible as well. The urushi stands out on the vessel, the brokenness is tactile to the user. This means that the user is able to interact and relate to the brokenness and repair of the ceramic. Kintsugi is seen as a way to “champion cracks and damage as expressions of a dynamic life” (Keulemans).

Historic and contemporary users of kintsugi-ware, or those who use it as an art form, all comment that through the breaks and subsequent repair, the piece is given a new life, a rebirth, and a chance to move forward, scars and all. It is a practice that wholeheartedly believes in the concept of “precious scars”. For those that predict, and want, redemption for Kylo, this is a big part of his character arc. Redemption for Kylo is not about erasing what he has done in the past. It is not about taking to heart Kylo’s decree of “let the past die” (he’s wrong, by the way). I think, at this stage in his journey, Kylo would like nothing more than to throw away everything about his life, both as Ben Solo and Kylo Ren, and start completely over with no past (whether this is on the light side or dark side is a separate conversation), but, in general, Kylo is not at all pleased with his current situation at the end of The Last Jedi. Redemption for Kylo, for Ben, really means picking up the pieces of his past, good and bad, putting them together and using what he has learned and overcome in order to step forward into the future.

In life, we are often taught to hide our tragedies, bury our pain, and smile more. Through that process though we often don’t allow ourselves to confront our painful pasts and experiences, to really process them, learn from them, and begin to heal from them. Kintsugi allows one to “convey […] a sense of rupture and of continuity”, it is an “expression of frailty and of resilience, life before the incident and life after[,] in its rebirth [the object] assumes a new identity that incorporates yet transcends the previous identity” (Bartlett). We discuss a lot the theme of belonging within the third trilogy. For many of our characters, belonging is directly tied to a name and to an identity. Finn received his name in The Force Awakens, Rey discovered that she doesn’t need one in The Last Jedi. As our final main character, Kylo will have to reconcile with his name and identity in The Rise of Skywalker. The fact that kintsugi is so closely tied to ideas of rebirth and renewal of self and is a clear connection to Kylo’s mask is telling. In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin lost his name and was trapped within the identity of Darth Vader. Return of the Jedi saw Luke triumphantly claim his identity as his father’s son despite the sins of Darth Vader. Kylo, I think, will do much of the same: lose his identity as Kylo Ren, accept his place in the Skywalker family, and adopt a new name.

Kylo’s redemption doesn’t mean destroying the mask, because he can’t actually destroy or get rid of the sins he has committed in the past. I still think there’s a lot up in the air about who repaired the mask (and who wanted it repaired), and if Kylo will wear and keep the mask throughout the film. Since we see the mask presumably *on* Kylo’s face in the mural, I think we can assume he will wear it at least once (or people will assume it is him wearing it) in the film.

Image result for kintsugi

I think it is good that the mask was brought back into The Rise of Skywalker because Kylo has not been redeemed yet. And even with his redemption, the life he lived as Kylo Ren is not erased.

One thing I love about the design of the kintsugi-mask is how it is repaired with the color red. Red is of course a color within Star Wars associated with the dark side and dark siders pretty much exclusively use red lightsabers. Red was also the most prominently used color in The Last Jedi. Using red for Kylo’s mask makes us think of Kylo himself, and of the use of the color throughout the previous film. The Last Jedi though heavily hinted at the themes of “the red string of fate”, which Rian Johnson tweeted about multiple times during production of the film. The “red string of fate” is an idea often used in storytelling in which character’s fates are inextricably intertwined. The idea behind the string is that it may tangle and knot, but the connection, the destiny, between the two characters can never be erased. Many have tied this back to Rey and Kylo’s force bond in The Last Jedi, implying that their connection will still be accessible in the next film.

The red cracks on Kylo’s mask are all reminiscent of these different uses of the color red throughout the films. I interpret the color choice of red in the kintsugi-mask as not only reminding the audience of Kylo’s current place on the dark side, but also his connection to Rey. It is also worth noting that perhap Rey and Kylo’s most important scenes in The Last Jedi feature a lot of red tones and warm colors (the hand touch scene and the throne room scene). The connection back to Rey is imperative, because as mentioned above, she was an essential “point of impact” for Kylo when she first scars his face. As their connection appears to be destined by the cosmic force, she is a part of his transformative repair, just as Kylo was a part of hers in The Last Jedi.

Conclusion

Kintsugi has been used as inspiration for many different types of art forms. One of my favorite ones that I came across was from a book of poems entitled The Price of Scarlet: Poems by Brianna Noll from 2017. This is her poem entitled “Kintsugi”:


Kintsugi

It is inevitable
that porcelain
will crack, that
the crack will fork
and rend pieces
from the whole.
This is the law
of odds, the nature
of time, that no amount of lacquer
resin can reverse.
Imagine instead
a chronicle of change:
for even the crudest stone cups,
cracks can be seamed
with gold, glorifying
the break. Golden
joinery: aesthetics
of repair. A trace
of the mender and the mending.
You might call this imposition,
but what does it matter
who is first, what
is original? Fill
a kintsugi teapot
with matcha and water –
the tea will brew
a vivid green and taste
sweet and astringent,
like gold.

Kylo’s kintsugi-mask is not about him putting it back on to be The Most Evil, it’s a connection to the “art of precious scars”, a connection to notions of “transformative repair”. A connection that implies that even though so much has gone wrong, so much has been lost, there is still hope. That even with our scars, with our tragedies and sadness, we can still be put back together again. We can still be valued.

I don’t know if Kylo’s mask will be still be intact by the end of the film, but I am confident that its relation back to kintsugi is substantial and meaningful for where we should anticipate his character to go in The Rise of Skywalker.

Sources

  • Bamford, Roderick, “Ecology and the aesthetics of imperfect balance” (2011).
  • Bartlett, Christy, “FlickWerk: The Art of Mended Japanese Ceramics” (2008).
  • Brown, Evan Nicole, “The Art of Repairing Broken Ceramics Creates a New Kind of Beauty” (2019)
  • Carnazzi, Stefano, “Kintsugi: the art of precious scars”
  • Japanese Tea Ceremony
  • Keulemans, Guy, “The Geo-cultural Conditions of Kintsugi” (2016).
  • Noll, Briana, “The Price of Scarlet: Poems” (2017).
  • Scherb, Hideki Kealoha, “The kintsugi metaphor to conceptualize healing and repair after torture and trauma: A training program”. PhD dissertation (2018)
  • Witt, Andrew and Tobias Nolte, “Kintsugi ++ Exhibit with Certain Measures” from Issues in Science and Technology (Summer 2018).

4 thoughts on “Kintsugi: Transformative Repair (A Meta)

  1. Thank you for this intelligent, well thought out piece of writing. It was fascinating to learn about kintsugi and the relevance to Star Wars. I enjoyed it immensely and it gave me hope for Kylo’s redemption.

  2. This is fascinating. One small correction: it is the Sengoku period, not Sengaku.

    Sen=war, koku=country.

  3. Very interesting. One small correction: it is the Sengoku period, not “Sengaku.”

    Sen=war, koku=country

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