Picture books

25th May 2001 at 01:00
Through Eastern Eyes: the art of the Japanese picture book Birmingham Central Library (touring): Illustration for children is a grown-up art in Japan. Joanna Carey studies a sample on show in the UK

British picture-book illustrators such as Quentin Blake, John Burningham, Anthony Browne and Brian Wildsmith are well known and highly regarded in Japan, but it's a sad fact that contemporary Japanese picture books are hard to find in this country. This touring exhibition, mounted for Japan 2001 by the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature, offers us a valuable opportunity not just to see original artwork, but also to experience hands-on the books that children in Japan are currently enjoying.

The first of its three venues is in the heart of England, on the sixth floor of one the largest libraries in Europe. Here, between the maps department, the genealogy enquiry desk and a photographic exhibition of "Green Men in Central Birmingham" (of whom there are a surprising number), we get an excitingly kaleidoscopic view of Japan "through Eastern eyes".

Even before you reach the artwork displays you are welcomed by a pile of almost 200 Japanese children's books: books by all the artists in the show and many more. The pile includes the wonderful Anno's Alphabet, although sadly its creator, Mitsumasa Anno, has been unable to take part in the exhibition.

The 11 featured illustrators, representing a wide range of styles that show not just the extent to which the Japanese approach to picture books differs from ours, but also the many areas where East and West converge. Most texts are published solely in Japanese; the titles are translated in the exhibition catalogue.

Japanese picture books address themselves to a much broader age group than their British counterparts; indeed, the picture book is taken much more seriously as an art form than it is here, and many of these artists work simultaneously as sculptors, novelists and musicians, moving freely between the different worlds without any sense of having to "talk down" to children.

Generally speaking, the characteristics of Japanese illustrations include a generous use of white space, an eloquent economy of imagery, a shifting viewpoint and a use of perspective that flattens the picture rather than giving it depth. But stereotypical preconceptions are best put aside if you want to make the most of this intriguing exhibition. Apart from Daihachi Ohta, who has two titles on show, each of the artists is represented by a single book from which six illustrations are shown; instead of looking at isolated examples out of context, you get a good feel not just of the artist's style, but also of the rhythm of the book and the pace of the narrative. And once you've got your eye in and have become more familiar with a particular illustrator, it's very rewarding to go back to the pile of books and seek out other work by that artist.

The diversity is impressive. Take cats, for example: in The Cat that Lived a Million Times, Yoko Sano tackles life, death, reincarnation and the power of true love. Her grief-stricken tabby cat, expressively portrayed in watercolour with free spontaneos brushwork, is in striking contrast to Eleven Cats in a Bag, in which Noboru Baba uses a controlled lithographic technique, combining a manga cartoon style with subtle finesse, full of action and mischief. In Sunday, however, a richly contemplative, closely observed tale of a toy train making its way across a room, Kota Taniuchi's cat is magnificently static, both naturalistic and other-worldly in its mesmerising stillness.

There are fewer naturalistic portrayals of children than you might expect, though in Ton Kotori, Akiko Hayashi, like a Japanese Shirley Hughes, creates enchanting images of real, believable children. (In Japanese, "ton kotori" is the sound of a letter dropping into a letter box. Alas, it's not translatable; the book was published here in 1987 as Anna's Secret Friend.) And in Sleepless, Shuhei Hasegawa uses astonishing surreal imagery to conjure up the hallucinatory anxieties of a lovelorn teenage boy; his girlfriend is seen wreathed in flames as he inhales herI Environmental concerns and stories of the natural world abound. There's an uplifting spirituality about Susumu Shingu's beautiful acrylic paintings for The Little Pond, in which the artist takes unusual, often aerial, viewpoints to explore the abstract qualities of reflected light and colour in the landscape. In Fly Grasshopper!, Seizo Tashima zooms in with ferocious honesty on cut-and-thrust survival tactics in the world of nature. Against a plain white background, snake, grasshopper and mantis are dramatically brought to life with huge, bold, swooping shapes and slithery brush strokes of a mud-coloured "natural paint" which the artist mixes himself.

Satoshi Kitamura's work defies any traditions of minimalism and economy. His pictures sizzle with detail and his hilarious detective story, Sheep in Wolves' Clothing (published in Britain by Andersen Press), has the excitement and the energetic unpredictability of a pinball machine.

His work is further distinguished by the eloquent angular quality of his line and a use of perspective - combining both Eastern and Western ways of seeing - that makes even his most complex illustrations easy to read. He also has an exquisite watercolour technique, and in the luminosity of his subtle twilit scenes he seems able to invent colours you simply don't find anywhere else.

More good news: he lives and works in London, and you can catch a retrospective show of his work at Thomas Williams Fine Art, Old Bond Street, London WI, today and tomorrow.

Through Eastern Eyes is at Birmingham Central Library until June 16, at the Royal National Theatre, London, July 9-August 18, and at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, September 29-November 1. In the autumn term, the Centre for the Children's Book, Newcastle, is running Eastern Puzzles, an eight-week outreach programme, which includes work in schools throughout the north-east, public gallery events and artists' and musicians' residencies. There will also be an Inset day based on the exhibition on July 5 in association with the Tate galleries' Visual Paths programme. For details telephone Carey Fluker Hunt on 0191 274 3941, or email info@ccbook.freeserve.co.uk

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