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Lodestars Anthology: Picturing the world

In conversation with Anno Mitsumasa...

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Picturing the world
The imaginative adventures of Anno Mitsumasa

According to the French novelist Gustave Flaubert: ‘Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.’ In his intricate drawings, Japanese artist Anno Mitsumasa affectionately observes his subjects from a bird’s-eye perspective, capturing Lilliput-tiny figures going about the minutiae of daily life across the globe. 

These images echo Flaubert’s sentiments, while hinting at Anno’s own world view: places change, but people don’t. Or, as the artist more poetically puts it: ‘People think that Europe and Japan are so different, with their different languages, alphabets and customs. Yet I perceived no difference in the hearts of people crying as they said goodbye.

British Countryside (Igirisu no inaka) © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Mu

The artist’s popular ‘Journeys’ picture books wordlessly depict an ant-sized lone explorer sojourning through different countries, encountering scenes that riff playfully on each nation’s cultural identity. These illustrations reflect Anno’s own solo globetrotting, and his humorous impressions of what he encountered along the way. In ‘Anno’s Britain’, published in 1982, eagle-eyed readers will spot Shakespearean characters, fairy-tale favourites, the Queen and her corgis, the Beatles, Peter Pan and more – backdropped by British landscapes. 

Anno’s illustrations reveal his curiosity, imagination, wanderlust and love of nature. It’s an informed perspective, hinting at the artist’s previous career as a primary school teacher. An interest in sparking minds – young and old – colours Anno’s work, starting with his early papercuts exploring Japanese folklore and his first success: ‘Topsy Turvies: Pictures to Stretch the Imagination’, starring small characters in gravity-defying positions. The Anno Mitsumasa Art Museum in Tsuwano shares this rousing manifesto from the artist: ‘When you’re young, draw pictures, read books! If you only wake up to this once you’re a grown-up, it’ll be too late!’ Proust’s famous words feel equally pertinent: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’

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Although Anno often looks abroad for inspiration, Japan is another muse. In a series of accompanying illustrations to the Japanese epic, ‘The Tale of the Heike’, he imagines his homeland’s 12th-century Genpei War: a bloody struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans. Humanising history, the award-winning artist adroitly uses minute splodges of ink to give each figure’s face a distinct, recognisable personality amid the cinematic grandeur of these monumental scenes.

Anno’s latest work signals a cyclical return to the artist’s Tsuwano childhood: the evocative watercolours of ‘Children of the Past’ feature nostalgic mock sword fights, schoolrooms, leaf boats, fireflies and more, with deliberately naive, diary-style entries from the artist. Like all the best explorers, Anno never forgets his roots – however far he wanders from them. 

With thanks to the Anno’s Journey: The World of Anno Mitsumasaexhibition, held at Japan House London from 22 August27 October 2019.