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Mitsumasa Anno (1926-) - Sidelights

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Japanese illustrator and author Mitsumasa Anno has been praised as one of the most original and accomplished picture-book artists in the field of children's books. Using pen-and-ink and watercolor, as well as collage and woodcuts, Anno is known for creating highly detailed illustrations that display his love of mathematics and science, as well as his interest and appreciation for foreign cultures. His drawings, which have been compared to those of Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher, abound with visual trickery and illusions, and also display the artist's playful sense of humor.

Many of Anno's books contain hidden jokes and pranks that are intended to amuse and lead readers into imaginative thinking about numbers, counting, the alphabet, or more complex concepts involving time and space. Addressing readers of various levels of sophistication, Anno's books appeal to both children and adults, and his universal approach has made him popular around the world. He has received numerous awards, including the Kate Greenaway award and the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal for illustration, the latter awarded every two years for the most outstanding accomplishment in international illustration.

Born in 1926, Anno grew up in western Japan in the town of Tsuwano, a small, isolated community located in a valley surrounded by mountains. As a child he had a strong desire to experience places beyond the mountains surrounding his village. "On the other side of the mountains were villages with rice fields, and beyond these rice fields was the ocean, which seemed to be very, very far away," the author/illustrator recalled in an interview with Hisako Aoki for Horn Book. "When I reached the ocean for the first time in my life, I tasted it to see if it was really salty. Because my world was cut off from the outside world, first by the mountains and then by the ocean, the desire to go and see what lay on the other side grew stronger." Anno began drawing as a young boy, and also showed an early aptitude for mathematics. From a young age onward, as he explained in the Fourth Book of Junior Authors, he "earnestly desired to become an artist."

Anno finally had the chance to leave Tsuwano when he attended a regional high school. In addition to studying art and drawing, he also became an avid reader, and was influenced by German author Hermann Hesse. Anno described to Aoki his return to Tsuwano after graduation: "I got off the train at the station, feeling happy and proud and a bit shy at the same time, thinking how much I had matured being away from Tsuwano but that the town would accept me as I was. . . . When I read how Hermann Hesse, as a student, went home to Calw, getting off the train at the end of the town, walking by the river, and crossing the bridge, my heart ached because everything was exactly the same with me." Years later, when Anno traveled to German and sketched scenes in Hesse's home town of Calw, he was startled to discover that his renderings were very similar to sketches he'd made of his own home town of Tsuwano. He maintains that his sketches of the two places represented "the world as seen through my eyes, and they are my own compositions—which other people may see differently. I believe that this is one of the reasons for . . . expressing oneself in any form. Through a creative work, people may experience something which they may not have experienced before."

During World War II Anno was drafted into the Japanese army; following the war he earned a degree in 1948 from the Yamaguchi Teacher Training College. Before engaging in an art career, Anno taught mathematics at an elementary school in Tokyo for several years. As he commented to Aoki: "As a teacher I tried to present material to pupils so that they could widen their scope of understanding and self-expression. At the same time I learned a lot from them. Children's way of seeing is actually different from that of adults. . . . For example, children's sense of perspective is different from ours, partly because their faces are smaller and their eyes are closer together. In addition, their experience is more restricted, so they have less to base their judgement on."

Anno's first two picture books reflect his love of playing with visual perception. Topsy-Turvies: Pictures to Stretch the Imagination, was published in Japan in 1968, and was followed the next year by Upside Downers: More Pictures to Stretch the Imagination. Topsy-Turvies plays visual tricks on perspective and logic, while Upside Downers contains illustrations that convey different images depending on the angle or direction from which they are viewed. In presenting such illustrations, Anno hopes to stimulate the powers of young people's imaginations. He wrote in a postscript to Topsy-Turvies: "One professor of mathematics claims that in a single picture he has found twelve different 'impossibilities' . . . . Nothing is impossible to the young, not until we become caught in the problems of living and forget to make-believe. Perhaps these pictures of mine will keep all of us young a little longer, will stretch our imaginations enough to help keep us magically human. I hope so, I believe so—for nothing is impossible."

Anno's more innovative picture books include Anno's Alphabet: An Adventure in Imagination, which features "impossible" wood-grain letters that are framed within decorative borders containing objects beginning with each letter. Interestingly, the book was in the running for the 1974 Kate Greenaway Medal until the judges of the British award realized that the author was Japanese, and that the book had originally been published in Japan, not Great Britain. Although the publishing history disqualified it for the Medal, the judges were so impressed with the work that it was awarded a special commendation. Anno provides the illustrations, while his son, Masaichiro, adds the lettering in another imaginative alphabet book, Anno's Magical ABC: An Anamorphic Alphabet, in which letters and their corresponding objects are viewed through a reflective cylinder that is provided with the book. Many of Anno's books illustrate abstract mathematical concepts for young readers. Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar, also co-written with son Masaichiro, demonstrates the concept of factorials through a series of interconnected illustrations that make the ever-expanding quantities concrete: one island contains two countries, each of which contains three mountains, each mountain being divided into four kingdoms, and so on until ten factorial is reached. In School Library Journal, Janet Dawson Hamilton praised Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar for "cleverly" portraying factorials in what the critic described as "deceptively simple" and "meticulously detailed" artwork by Anno.

Focusing on the mathematical discoveries that have advanced scientific knowledge, Anno's Medieval World chronicles the discovery in Western Europe of the fact that the Earth is a round planet that revolves around the sun. Leonard S. Marcus, writing in The Lion and the Unicorn, noted that the book, like Anno's other works, demonstrates the author/illustrator's belief that "an interest in science and mathematics is compatible with an interest in art" and that "art and science represent different approaches to the common end of exercising human perception beyond known limits."Another history lesson of sorts is related in Anno's Magic Seeds, which Ann A. Flowers praised as a "charming story" that presents the history of agriculture and basic conservation while engaging readers in math games, thereby creating "a tour de force from a most original author-illustrator." Told in folk-tale style, Anno's story of a young man who is given two seeds by a wizard and increases his annual yield of seeds by planting more than he eats was praised by a Publishers Weekly contributor who dubbed Anno's Magic Seeds as "another worthy addition" to the author/illustrator's "collection of playful stories with mathematical themes." Anno published the first in a series of acclaimed, wordless "journey" books in the mid-1970s, and has since taken readers on picture-book travels throughout Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. The first volume, Anno's Journey arose from travels the author made in 1963 to Scandinavia, Germany, and England; it has been followed by Anno's Italy, Anno's Britain, Anno's U.S.A., and Anno's Spain; a sixth volume, Anno's Denmark, was planned for 2005, to honor the 200th birthday of Hans Christian Andersen. Anno's Journey features "a mass of colorful detail, a picture narrative, and a poetic meditation in narrative form," wrote Marcus, adding that "without a written text as a guide, readers are left to invent stories of their own, which may or may not concern the little man whose journey by boat and on horseback forms the one narrative lifeline or thread running through the book." Calling Anno's Spain "a voyage to savor—and embark on again and again," a Publishers Weekly contributor noted that the artist's "innovative, often playful presentation, every spread tells a story—and encourages readers to interpret it for themselves." Throughout each of his "journey" books, Anno continues this technique: communicating wordless, universal messages that can be understood by people of many cultures. In his postscript to Anno's Italy, he comments: "Although it is difficult for me to understand the languages of the western world, still I can understand the hearts of the people. This book has no words, yet I feel sure that everyone who looks at it can understand what the people in the pictures are doing, and what they are thinking and feeling."

While Anno most frequently illustrates his own concept books, he has also provided illustrations for works by several Japanese authors, including the award-winning poet Michio Mado. Featuring English texts translated by Japan's Empress Michiko alongside Mado's original Japanese verse, The Animals: Selected Poems and The Magic Pocket both feature Anno's artwork, and both proved to be somewhat of a challenge, despite the artist's extensive experience as an illustrator. "It's very difficult to draw illustrations for poems," he explained in an interview for Japanese Children's Books Online. "For example, [Mado's] . . . elephant poem goes 'Little elephant, little elephant what a long nose you have.' You can't just draw a picture of an elephant with a long nose for a poem like that. I think descriptive illustrations for a poem would really show a lack of taste." Reviewing The Magic Pocket in Booklist, Carolyn Phelan noted that Anno's "artwork never overwhelms the verse, but instead softly reflects it and makes it more accessible."


In addition to writing and illustrating picture books, Anno is also an accomplished painter and graphic artist known for creating images that challenge the visual and cultural perceptions of the viewer. His work has been honored in his native Japan, where the Mitsumasa Anno Museum was established in the author's home town of Tsuwano. For fans unable to travel to Asia, The Unique World of Mitsumasa Anno: Selected Works (1968-1977) includes forty of Anno's most acclaimed works of graphic art. In a postscript to the book, Anno comments: "Once someone said, upon seeing my pictures, 'You amuse yourself by fooling people; you can't draw without a mischievous spirit.'. . . My pictures are like maps, which perhaps only I can understand. Therefore, in following my maps there are some travellers who get lost. There are those who become angry when they discover they have been fooled; but there are also those who enter into the maze of my maps willingly, in an attempt to explore their accuracy for themselves."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Anno, Mitsumasa, Anno's Italy, Collins (London, England), 1980.

Anno, Mitsumasa, The Unique World of Mitsumasa Anno: Selected Works (1968-1977), Philomel (New York, NY), 1980.

Anno, Mitsumasa, Topsy-Turvies: Pictures to Stretch the Imagination, Walker/Weatherhill (New York, NY), 1970.

Children's Literature Review, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1976, Volume 14, 1988.

Fourth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, edited by Doris de Montreville and Elizabeth D. Crawford, H. W. Wilson (Bronx, NY), 1978.


PERIODICALS

Bookbird, Volume 2, 1984; Volume 4, 1984; October, 1987.

Booklist, April 1, 1995, Carolyn Phelan, review of Anno's Magic Seeds, p. 1394; February 1, 1999, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Magic Pocket, p. 977.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1983; June, 1984; December, 1984; December, 1987; May, 1988; June, 1988.

Horn Book, April, 1983, Hisako Aoki, "A Conversation with Mitsumasa Anno," pp. 137-145; September-October, 1995, Ann A. Flowers, review of Anno's Magic Seeds, p. 585.

Lion and the Unicorn, Volume 7-8, Leonard S. Marcus, "The Artist's Other Eye: The Picture Books of Mitsumasa Anno," pp. 24-46.

Publishers Weekly, December 5, 1994, review of Anno's Magic Seeds, p. 76; November 23, 1998, review of The Magic Pocket, p. 65.

School Library Journal, September, 2004, Janet Dawson Hamilton, review of Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar, p. 57.

ONLINE

Japanese Children's Books Online, http://www.yameneko.org/einfo/mgzn/ (May 5, 2005), interview with Anno.*

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