This exhibition, curated especially by Japan House London, celebrates the life and works of one of Japan’s most beloved and prolific artists, Anno Mitsumasa, who was best known for his picture books with few or no words.
Anno's Journey: The World of Anno Mitsumasa
3D Virtual Tour
Step into the 'World of Anno Mitsumasa' with this audiovisual, 3D exhibition experience
Take a brief look around or delve deeper into the eight distinct areas of the exhibition held at Japan House London, clicking on artworks and text for further insights into Anno's works. You can see a short video of how to use the tour here.
To get the full experience, click on the full screen icon on the top right-hand corner of the tour. The audio can be muted by clicking the speaker icon.
For a deeper insight into the artist himself and the different themes from the exhibition, see our 'In Depth’ section below.
Who was Anno Mitsumasa ?
Anno Mitsumasa was born in 1926, incidentally the first year of the Shōwa era, in the small town of Tsuwano in Shimane Prefecture in western Japan.
A self-taught artist, Anno expressed in his work a natural curiosity for detail and the unusual. He trained as a primary school teacher in Yamaguchi – a passion that would influence his future illustrations, - and worked in Tokyo for some years before becoming an illustrator at the age of 35, working mostly on children’s books.
Generation after generation of children in Japan have grown up reading his books. Respecting different cultures and the learning of his readers, Anno was awarded the highest honour attainable in children's book illustration: the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration in recognition of his lasting contribution to children’s literature in 1984. He has also been designated a Person of Cultural Merit (2012) in his home country.
Anno was exceptionally well-travelled and his catalogue of works reflects the inspiration he has taken from those journeys. He had a particular interest in European history and culture, but more recently concentrated on subjects from his home country Japan.
Anno had a curiosity, warmth and playful sense of humour which by all accounts made him a popular and engaging primary school teacher. His works often contain hidden twists and jokes, trompe l’oeil, illusion and challenging perspectives, revealing his desire to entice the viewer to learn and explore the subject matter further.
These illustrations are from ‘The A-I-U-E-O Book’ (1976) which depicts each syllable from the Japanese hiragana syllabary.
These images above and below are two of the first five syllables. Hiragana is used to write the Japanese language in conjunction with another syllabary called katakana, together with Chinese characters or kanji, and more and more often, with Latin letters.
Each painting shows the hiragana syllable on one side, and illustrations of things beginning with that syllable on the other. For example, for the syllable「 あ」(‘A’), Anno has chosen anpan (red bean bun) and ari (ant). The line-drawn borders include references to other things beginning with 「あ」: azarashi (seal), ahiru (duck), ayu (sweetfish), azami (thistle), asa-gao (morning glory) and ari-kui (anteater).
Anno’s first book of this type was ‘Anno’s Alphabet’ in 1974. It is interesting to note that his depiction of the Latin alphabet was created before that of the Japanese syllabary.
Since childhood, Anno had been fascinated with the world of fantasy. These early works are the result of adventures with mirrors and lenses. His very first picture book was ‘Mysterious Pictures’, published in 1968.
In Europe, Anno had found a book containing a collection of works by the Dutch artist M. C. Escher (1898–1972). This proved to be the inspiration for Anno to depict his own world where fantasy becomes reality; a world which is distorted, reflected or turned upside down.
These topsy-turvy illustrations were designed to encourage interaction with each book beyond mere page-turning. As they have no text, viewers are free to make their own discoveries and stretch their powers of imagination. These books have the power to open our eyes to new experiences.
‘Fantasy Workshop Picture Book’ is made up of a collection of pictures that Anno created between 1969 and 1980. They appeared regularly in the magazine ‘Mathematical Science (Sūri Kagaku)’ with each illustration expanding on the magazine edition’s particular theme. They reveal Anno’s sense of humour, wide-ranging artistic abilities and unrelenting thirst for knowledge.
In this section you will find a selection of illustrations from a book called in Japanese ‘Tabi no Ehon’, or ‘A Picture Book of Travels’ (1977). This title was later translated into English as ‘Anno’s Journey’. The book shows a lone traveller arriving in a strange land, reflecting Anno’s own experiences as an independent traveller abroad. It presents a fantasy of pan-European cultural references including figures from art, history and folklore and scenes Anno himself witnessed or hoped he might see.
‘Anno’s Journey’ was internationally praised for its wit, originality and painstaking detail. No one foresaw the success that this book would have around the world. As a result, not one of the original drawings still exists, however the original prints do. Anno subsequently produced another eight volumes on this theme, each following a lone traveller’s progress through a different land.
The traveller arrives by sea and then secures transport. Anno has likened his character’s experience of buying a horse to his own experience of hiring a car as an independent traveller. Since childhood, Anno had always been fascinated by the cultural landscape of Europe. He first visited Europe in 1963 and, in the 1970s, he spent 40 days travelling around Britain, France and Denmark; a trip which culminated in the writing of ‘Anno’s Journey’. Within the pages of this book one can find references to great artistic masters such as Manet, Millet, Seurat and van Gogh; figures from folklore and literature such as Don Quixote, Aesop’s Fables and the Pied Piper of Hamelin; and various scenes of the people of Europe at work and play.
It is interesting to note that another famous son of Anno’s hometown Tsuwano was the outward looking Mori Ōgai (1862–1922; born Mori Rintarō), a renowned scholar of European learning: a military surgeon, translator, author and poet. He is considered to have been the first to successfully translate European poetry into Japanese and is known as a pioneer of modern Japanese literature. His most famous novel is The Wild Geese (published in serial form between 1911 and 1913). Having enlisted as a medical officer in the late 19th century, he was sent to study in Germany. It was there that he developed a love of European literature and translated many works into Japanese. These included The Improvisatore by Hans Christian Andersen. Anno has said that if he were to have only one book, it would be this.
As a child, Anno played in the grounds of the Mori estate in the centre of Tsuwano, and there he would have learned of the importance Mori made to the development of modern Japan. It is perhaps no coincidence that Anno followed in Mori’s footsteps, with a generosity of mind, looking to learn from those in lands overseas.
During the 1970s, Anno produced a series of works using Japanese papercutting techniques. These initially focussed on well-known Japanese folk tales which included ‘Momotarō, the Little Peach Boy’, ‘The Sparrow with the Cut Tongue’, and ‘The Tale of the Old Man Who Made Trees Blossom’ (1974).
He also created a set of designs for the Japanese card game karuta and an adaptation of the story of ‘The Little Match Girl’ by Hans Christian Andersen. This he renamed ‘Gama no Abura’ (‘Toad Oil’) (1976) reworking the story to combine European and Japanese artistic and narrative traditions.
With each of these tales, scenes are represented in a way reminiscent of kami-shibai (lit. ‘paper theatre’). This is a form of street storytelling familiar to Anno which was popular during the early and mid-Shōwa era, before the advent of television.
The black and white composition of these works is both striking and nostalgic, making reference to the Japanese mingei - folk crafts - aesthetic. The stories’ texts, rearranged by Anno, incorporate humour and dialect and are often an integral part of the pictures.
The Tale of the Heike Picture Book
In this series (1996), Anno pays homage to Japanese tradition using ink and powder pigments on silk, adopting a form of painting called nihonga (lit. ‘Japanese Pictures’).
The subject is the Japanese literary masterpiece, ‘The Tale of the Heike’, a story about the 12th-century Genpei War (1180–1185 CE) and the struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans for control of the Imperial court, and thus Japan. It tells how the Taira clan rise to, and fall from, a position of supremacy.
Anno’s paintings originally appeared, one by one, in the monthly magazine ‘Hon’ (‘Books’) published by Kodansha. There are 79 works in total completed over a period of seven years. This was the first time for Anno to attempt nihonga, using the materials associated with this genre including gold.
Anno had never been trained in this style, and this was the first time he had tackled a story from Japanese classical literature. Nevertheless, the subject matter was not something with which he was totally unfamiliar. As a child in Tsuwano, he had played at being a samurai with his friends and enjoyed drawing warrior heroes from Japanese history.
The Tale of the Heike was compiled from a collection of stories in the Kamakura period (1185–1333 CE), at the time of the emergence of the samurai. This collection of stories was relayed throughout Japan and passed down from generation to generation by bards who would narrate the epic tale to audiences to the accompaniment of the lute-like biwa.
Children of the Past
After having looked outwards from Japan for inspiration for so long, Anno’s more recent works take Japan as the subject matter. More specifically these watercolours mark a return to his childhood in his native Tsuwano in Shimane Prefecture. These pictures express fond memories of growing up among family and friends in a small rural town at the beginning of the Shōwa era in the 1930s before WWII.
There are scenes of children learning to write at school and playing outside. In many respects, Tsuwano has changed little since this time; a steam train still stops at the station, brightly coloured carp can be found in the narrow streams that flank the main street, and one would hope that fireflies can still be found around unpolluted waters. However, it is a story of a lost, idyllic past.
Each picture is accompanied by text written by Anno as if it were an entry in a diary of his younger self. He describes adventures with his friends around Tsuwano.
In and Around the Capital
These watercolours were all painted in and around the city and prefecture of Kyoto. The title ‘In and Around the Capital’ is a reference to a genre of early modern (c. 16th century and later) screen paintings known as Rakuchū Rakugai-zu, literally ‘Scenes In and Around the Capital’, which depict the city of Kyoto and its environs. Kyoto was, until the mid-19th century, the capital of Japan.
Anno painted these pictures which regularly appeared on the cover of the Sankei Shimbun between 2011 and 2016. In a collection of these works published in 2012, he likened Kyoto to the United Kingdom whose inhabitants, in his mind, cherish the importance of local culture.
Ultimately, these works represent his love of culture and lifelong joy of painting outdoors.
‘Raku’ is the Japanese pronunciation of the first character of「洛陽」Rakuyō, or Luoyang, an ancient eastern capital of China. The layout of the city of Kyoto was originally modelled after the Tang-dynasty (618–907 CE) capital Chang’an (now Xian) with the eastern part of the city known as Rakuyō-jō (lit. ‘Castle of Luoyang’), a reference to another former Chinese capital. With the subsequent development of eastern Kyoto, including the relocation of the Imperial Palace to the eastern part of the city, Rakuyō became synonymous with the capital, and the abbreviation Raku came to mean Kyoto itself. The term rakuchū rakugai refers to the areas within Kyoto (rakuchū, inside the capital) and its environs (rakugai, outside the capital).
Having spent many hours sketching and painting in and around the city, Anno himself wrote that Kyoto is like the United Kingdom and Tokyo is like the United States, comparing ‘culture’ (Kyoto & U.K.) with ‘civilization’ (Tokyo & USA). He suggests that civilization is a global phenomenon that progresses unabashed, erasing local culture. For Anno, culture is to be cherished and nurtured. In the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami which devastated much of north-eastern Japan, he wrote that Japan’s people should pause and reflect on how ‘civilization’ was affecting the country and re-evaluate and recognize the importance of ‘culture’.
‘Anno’s Britain’ (1981) is the third in the series of books originally published in Japanese as ‘Tabi no Ehon’, literally ‘A Picture Book of Travels’. After the worldwide success of the first book (1977) which was not nation-specific, Anno concentrated on illustrating one country for each of the subsequent books.
‘Anno’s Britain’ shows the now familiar lone traveller arriving in a boat near the White Cliffs of Dover, visiting Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral, Stonehenge, Windsor Castle and the Cotswolds among other locations in England and returning home from Scottish shores. Each scene is a mixture of experiences and locations. There are numerous references to children’s nursery rhymes, local customs, folklore, art, literature and architecture.
This is the complete set of the original pen and ink watercolours.
Just like the previous ‘Tabi no Ehon’ books, there are no words to describe the contents. Anno likened this to travelling in a foreign land where there is no explanation for the surroundings in which one finds oneself. Although one might not understand the language, one is still able to interpret one’s surroundings and find a place to eat or a place to stay. Seeing, hearing and feeling things for the first time in an unknown land, is, for the traveller, a joyous voyage of discovery.
While in London, Anno found a book called the ‘Book of British Villages’. Going from one village to the next, he was intrigued by how each village had its own particular story whether it be related to its medieval castle, or its thatching industry or its blacksmith’s forge. He was impressed by how the villagers were in no hurry to spoil their surroundings with ‘development’. As a result, Anno came to the conclusion that Britain’s villages were the most beautiful in the world.
‘Anno’s Britain’ was produced in the same year as the wedding of The Prince of Wales and the then Lady Diana Spencer, hence the illustrations in the frontispiece and end leaves of the Japanese version of the book. Each of the following pages has references to British art, literature, history and folklore. Anno was especially influenced by the nursery rhymes of ‘Mother Goose’. Each time one looks through the book, one can find something new.