Mitsumasa Anno opened our conversation by producing his visiting card. It was Japanese on one side, of course, but one had the feeling that this was no ordinary card; that it might read both ways up or, if a mirror were applied, some other dimension might be revealed. Indeed, he has about him more than a touch of the genial magician, a flamboyant westernised style combined with the formal politeness of his fellow country-men; he is quick, observant and very, very intelligent.
The mathematical element in his work, the fascinating with optical illusion, paradox and logic is famous. It is also, surprisingly, rather an unusual quality in an illustrator of children’s picture-books. Illustrators in this field tend to see themselves as connected to a literary narrative form one way or another. In England, where mainstream painting has always had strong (one might almost say romantic) literary connections, this is particularly so. But mathematics has always been a vital element of graphic art, and it is an equally important way of stimulating a child’s imagination through the printed page.
Anno explains that he saw no European art as a young child. He had no picture-books either, they simply weren’t around. But he had a very clear idea of what a picture was. He had seen them in illustrated magazines. Later, in adolescence, he studied books of paintings and determined to become an artist. He was the son of an inn-keeper in the old town of Tsuwano, in a mountainous region of Japan. He began full-time art education early, and later, when working in Tokyo as an illustrator and book designer, embarked on his first picture-book. He shows a similar brilliant sleight-of-hand with perspective as the artist he is sometimes compared with, M C Escher. They both play on the way our eye perceives three-dimensional form on a flat surface. But Anno is the more humanly fanciful and, unlike Escher, works in colour which he uses with stunning fluency. He is not, one senses, particularly drawn to the role of interpreting other people’s texts. Responding very strongly to poetry, he feels (as many writers do) that a good piece of literature needs no further illustration to enhance its meaning. His books explore the converse of this reaction; that a visual medium doesn’t need words to explain the story.
For us, it is the cross-fertilisation with a European style which characterises Anno’s work that is particularly fascinating. But all his ‘Journeys’ through Italy, Britain and the USA are in sense a journey through Anno-Land. There is the quirky, bird’s-eye perspective and placing of buildings, many of which are as famous as the Houses of Parliament or the Salute Church in Venice, in a totally new and surprising relationship with their surroundings. An inexhaustible game for the older reader is spotting the references to painting and literature;
Seurat’s bathers in a stream, Millet’s reapers, the Baptism of Christ, Constable’s haywain, Whistler’s mother. Literary allusions range from Sendak’s Wild Things to Hamlet. Most of all, one sees work and activity. Everywhere people are making things; craftsmen of all kinds, farmers, fishermen, entertainers, hucksters and marketeers team through the pages. There is a love of pageants, races and parades. And, amongst it all, people are eating meals in the open air, playing games, falling in love, gossiping, getting married and generally being at large and enjoying themselves. The figure which most often recurs, apart from the little equestrian Traveller is, of course, the ubiquitous artist at work at his easel.
Anno describes how he has travelled extensively in Europe and the USA armed with a sketchbook. A prodigious worker, he does many drawings on the spot before working them up later in the studio. At this stage the drawings are in pen or pencil. He also carries a tape-recorder for noting his reactions. I asked him how he fared with that perennial artistic occupational hazard, the curious by-stander; a chatty onlooker who, in peering over your shoulder, inadvertently manages to jog your elbow and who always initiates a conversation at the moment when concentration levels are at their height. Anno at work is often recognised, sometimes besieged. But it is only when the crowd starts to form in front, between himself and the subject, that things really get difficult. Once, in Germany, he was driven to perching on the parapet of a bridge so that the onlookers couldn’t get in between himself and the mediaeval castle he was drawing without falling into the water.
Anno carries out the finished artwork for his books back in his studio in Japan. He has a prolific output for one who works so meticulously. His colour work is done with a pen and water-colour washes laid over. Recently he has evolved a way of doing the basic drawing and having it reproduced in five or six separations so that he can relax about putting on the colour. If a mistake is made he can start again without losing all the underlying drawing. Anno reacts with great animation when brushes are mentioned. He likes English brushes. (His command of our language is not extensive but the words ‘Winsor and Newton’ get an immediate response.) He even seized my note-pad and drew, to exact scale, the different pens he uses and went on to explain, also, in drawings, how good and bad brushes behave.
The design of his pages is always beautifully paced with plenty of breathing spaces for the eye. This is particularly important in the double-page spreads of his ‘Journey’ books where the tumultuous activity of the crowd scenes and detail of the buildings (every stone, tile, beam, window and corrice carefully drawn) could become oppressive if not tightly controlled. The white road winds off through trees and grass, drawn in that highly characteristic style of subtley-graduated hatching.
His figures, however tiny, have a real sense of form and the grouping is impeccable. Above all, the line is always clear, sprightly and full of vitality. The unfolding of these narratives depends on an over-head perspective in which the reader can pick out the little Traveller as he rides through the changing landscape (a device which some might find a touch repetitive). In real life, an aerial view from which it is suitable to draw isn’t always easily come by. But Anno seems to find no problem in transposing a drawing done from ground elevation, into a bird’s-eye view in his head; no mean feat, especially with a famous building which is easily verifiable.
It is this natural and seemingly effortless grasp of three-dimensional spatial relationships which is one of Anno’s most striking gifts. In Anno’s Alphabet, as with other visual surprises, the objects are totally convincing, so beautifully crafted, jointed and bolted together that you feel you could easily reach out and handle them. Sometimes there is the shock of seeing a familiar object made in a totally surprising material. All this enhances the fun of realising, as you look and slowly perceive the cunning tricks of perspective, that it couldn’t possibly exist at all. In his fable The King’s Flower the fun is all in the ludicrous comparisons of scale. Giant pincers are specially constructed to pull out the King’s tooth, huge knives and forks are lowered from the palace ceiling by a complicated system of pulleys. But here also we feel we know exactly how everything is made, from the scaffolding and buckets to the King’s extraordinary wooden tricycle. When asked if he himself was a good craftsman Anno answered (and it came as no surprise) that he had a fairly high degree of confidence in working with his hands, three-dimensionally. But, interestingly, he feels some reserve in moving in that direction; a fear, perhaps, that if he did it would all become so fascinating as to seduce him away from pure draughtsmanship. So, for the present, he is staying with the printed page.
Anno has sometimes collaborated with his son, Masachiro, in making books. I asked him (thinking not only of the visual arts but of all those talented young Japanese instrumental players) whether he thought that skills were more readily passed from one generation to another in his country than in ours; if Japanese children were more prepared to accept the disciplines of an artistic apprenticeship within the family. He replied that he himself taught his son to be a mathematician.
We touched on the impact of the ‘new technology’, the complexities of which, so readily mastered by the very young, hurtle ahead at a rate which leaves their middle-aged parents totally bemused. Was it perhaps the case that the traditional skills which older people had to offer were being somewhat devalued and crowded out? Anno compared some of the ‘computer freaks’ in both his country and ours to drivers who can do anything with a car except open the bonnet and understand how the engine works. It is more important than ever, he thinks, that basic mathematics should be taught and clearly grasped by children before the somewhat mesmeric effects of experimenting with computers takes a hold.
Looking at the way his work has developed over the years, critics may suspect that Anno, like some other highly gifted makers of picture-books, is moving away from a child-centred idiom altogether and indulging in ever more complicated and sophisticated games and fancies of his own. How many children, they may ask, however intelligent will be able to pickup a reference to Courbet’s roadside meeting with his patron, or Seurat’s park on the Isle de la Grande Jatte? But the answer to this one surely lies in the sight of all those parties of schoolchildren (and adult tourists too, for that matter) being shepherded through great national art collections and past magnificent architecture and being, in spite of the gallant efforts made by teachers and museum service alike, simply overwhelmed and even dispirited without a single familiar peg on which to hang the experience. Anno is in the business of providing pegs. In the pages of his books adults and children can pick them out as they wish and use them together in many ways. One of the highest aims of an artist, after all, is to make complex ideas, symbols and the workings of his imagination clear and as universally accessible as possible, as well as giving visual delight. Speaking for myself, and remembering the impenetrable fog through which I failed to approach an understanding of mathematics, I wish like anything that Mitsumasa Anno’s books had been around when I was a child. But meeting the magician himself has gone a long way towards making up for it.
Some of Anno’s books
All published in hardback by Bodley Head
Anno’s Alphabet, 0 370 01275 5, £5:95
Anno’s Journey, 0 370 30094 7,£4.95
Anno’s Britain, 0 370 30916 2, £4.95
Anno’s Counting Book, 0 370 30009 2,£4.95
Macmillan Picturemac, 0 333 37147 X, £2.25
The King’s Flower, 0 370 30182 X, £4.50
Anno’s Mysterious Multiplying Jar (with Masaichiro Anno), 0 370 30958 8, £5.95
Hat Trick (with Akihiro Nozaki), 0 370 30849 2, £6.95