|Illus by John Shelley, |
from 'The Month Brothers' (Miki House)
That’s what people usually say when I mention my 21 year long career in Tokyo. Often followed by “you must love drawing big bug eyes” or some such. But in fact, perhaps surprising to some, I don’t draw manga, nor have I read much manga, although you see it everywhere in Japan. Attempting to draw like that would be very much like taking coals to Newcastle anyway, but I’d already established my illustration style before I moved to Tokyo, and illustration in Japan is an entirely distinct business from the world of comics and animation.
|Cover illus by John Shelley,|
'The Month Brothers' (Miki House)
Japan on the whole is a highly graphic aware society, and often delightfully escapist - images are everywhere, most children have a natural understanding of graphic imagery, whether through comics or other media. Anthropomorphised characters are used to personalise everything. Even the police departments have their own mascots.
Japan has a long heritage of children’s books, it remains today one of the strongest markets for books in the world, though like everywhere else the children’s market is suffering. Before WWII children’s literature thrived and was largely modernistic and cosmopolitan. At the forefront was the children’s magazine Kodomo no Kuni (Children’s Land)
One by one these outgoing publishers were censored, retired or imprisoned during the militarised period, but saw a strong resurgence after the War. Japan’s biggest publisher Kodansha expanded into children’s books in the 1950’s. Fukuinkan Shoten developed from the embers of Kodomo no Kuni, reviving the trend for subscription children’s magazines that continue today. After being imprisoned by the military government for pacifism, the owners of Iwasaki Shoten revived the company after the war.
|Illus by John Shelley. From Hans Andersen's |
'A Story of a Mother' (Hyoronsha, 2005)
Japanese children’s books are often strong on fantasy, some inhabit a fairy-tale escapism described as meruhen, from the German word ‘marchen’. Western editors are sometimes at a loss to understand these books, as, compared to UK titles, they seem to be slower-paced, ‘quiet’, or lightweight, are less driven by plot, and more about space and atmosphere.
|Cover illus by John Shelley of |
'Hoppy's New House'
(original magazine edition,
Fukuinkan Shoten 1996)
As mentioned, a lot of mid-range Japanese publishers are family businesses with long heritages. Unlike the West, staff on the whole do not switch companies, however they’re often rotated around their company, which can be very confusing. Last year’s editor is now working in the publicity department etc. The new picture book editor may have just been re-assigned from the magazine section.
|'The Elves and the Cobbler', illus by John Shelley, |
Picture-book magazine (Ookina Pocket, 2007)
On the down side I personally find Japanese editors often commission me with an agenda - they have very clear ideas what they want their book to look like, and thus can be quite demanding to the point of stifling. Patience is a necessity. Some editors like to take things very slowly at planning stage, but then ask for unrealistically short final artwork deadlines.
|Illus by John Shelley. |
From Hans Andersen's
'The Shadow' (Hyoronsha, 2005)
One thing you never see though is discounted books. One price only. Another thing you don’t come across so much is outright humour. I mean belly-laugh funny books for kids. Humour when used is mostly very gentle, readers are encouraged to dream, but not so much to laugh! But then there’s also the comic and anime industry....
|Many thanks to John Shelley for|
being our February Guest Blogger
at the Picture Book Den, 2012
John Shelley Illustration