Who is Mitsumasa Anno? Usually we reserve our discussion of the author somewhere at the end of our book feature but for Anno, I thought that we could begin with a description of who he is as an artist – since it is highly instrumental in how these three books were conceptualized in the first place.
I searched the internet for his biography and I found quite a few links. In Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature site where she featured quite a number of Anno’s works, she noted that he was born in 1926 in Japan and was a mathematics teacher for ten years before he turned his attention to creating picture books, which are largely wordless in nature.
In Yamaneko’s website, one can find an extensive interview done with Mitsumasa Anno himself. In the background information provided about Anno, it was noted that he was given several prestigious awards both in Japan and internationally, one of which is the Hans Christian Andersen award. In the jacketflaps of the books I borrowed from the library, I also read that he was the Winner in 1977 of the Golden Apple Award of the BIB (Bratislava International Biennale), the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art/Brooklyn Public Library Citation. I invite you to check out Yamaneko’s site where you would be able to see for yourself how refreshing Anno’s voice is.
Anno’s Travels. What is of significant interest to me though is what Anno has to say about his “journeys” since we are featuring his Britain, USA, and Spain books on this post. When asked whether he ever felt uncomfortable coming into contact with people from other cultures, this is how he responded:
Until I made my first trip abroad, I’d been certain that there would be huge differences in culture. But when I actually visited these countries, I felt there was considerably more that we had in common with these cultures than any differences. In the end, I even came to feel that there were in fact no considerable differences at all. No matter where in the world one is, there are some basic patterns we follow. For example, most houses have a window from which it’s possible to see outside, and roofs are generally pointed so that the rain will run off. Even with food, despite all the differences in taste that there may be, no one anywhere will be feasting on something that we couldn’t possibly digest. From this perspective, although there are differences in language and skin color, these differences in culture aren’t nearly as wide as one might believe. (source: Yamaneko.org interview with Anno)
In the Britain book, there is a relatively lengthy afterword describing how Anno’s journey was like:
In the past few years Mitsumasa Anno has made a number of long journeys, traveling far from his native Japan to see at first hand Europe’s art and architecture and to study its music and its languages, its people and its literature. With sketchbook and camera in hand, he wandered at leisure, observing and recording what he saw along the way from his own unique perspective…
… He sees people working, playing, living; he sees them in quiet country villages or large, bustling cities. Without a word of text, Anno fills each page with life, conveying to the observer his joy of discovery and recognition.
In the interview done in the Yamaneko website, Anno was asked whether he is one of those people who usually plans his trips in advance, and this is how he responded:
Of course I rarely go on a trip without checking up on my destination in advance. But in most cases, once I’m there, I follow my nose. The same goes for my drawings. If I see a scene I want to draw, I’ll just open my sketchbook, plop down on my bottom and go to it. I do take photos but rarely ever make use of them. (source: Yamaneko.org interview with Anno)
Mitsumasa Anno Museum of Art. It came as no surprise to me that there is a museum devoted to Anno’s works in Japan.
Found in Tsuwano Town, this museum showcases Anno’s illustrations as found in his picture books and his landscape paintings.
An ‘Anno flavor’ to wordless book art. Each of Anno’s books are richly illustrated and populated by the people who are living in the country that he is featuring. In Anno’s Britain, he takes it a step further by including scenes from Shakespeare’s plays (Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night’s dream) as well as characters from British books (Mary Poppins, Peter Rabbit, I saw Sherlock Holmes quite a few times, and Robin Hood among others).
As you go through each page, there is just this teeming vibrance and vitality that captures the country’s core and sense of being – as viewed from Anno’s eyes. The people are portrayed to be very tiny, with just dots for eyes and lines for noses – but you see the big bold strokes that make up the architecture, the landscape, the monuments, the market places, the church steeples, the castles, the poultry milling about. You can spend hours just going through each of the pages, it IS that well worth a read, and THAT rich with exquisite detail. My only peeve is that unlike the museum and balloon series done by the sisters Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Preiss Glasser (which we featured here, here and here), there is no detailed Notes at the back which gives the reader clues as to where several scenes/characters/historical landmarks/details were found. Thus, if you are quite unfamiliar with Britain, you’d have to kind of match it with what you know from books, movies, and other sources that you have to more fully appreciate each page.
Afterword. The notes found at the end of the book shared how this particular book came about as based on Anno’s reflections and journeys through Britain. He related:
“On one of my visits to London I discovered a book in which there was a map of Britain that was unlike any I had seen before. Instead of the large towns being prominently marked, it was the small, charming villages that were featured, with the towns shown just as dots. As well as this fascinating map, the book gave details of village work, of thatching roofs, of spinning wool and of shoeing horses. i was so intrigued that I was determined to see these places and activities for myself, and, inspired by the book, I traveled from village to village. The people I met take great pride in their villages, and will protect them against change, particularly against their growing into large cities. They love their countryside and love living there, caring for their surroundings. I discovered that the villages of Britain are the most beautiful in the world.”
A Journey from West to East – Author Introductory Note. In contrast to Anno’s Britain which contains no introduction from Anno, this book has a brief overview as written by Anno himself. He explained that while the history of America has progressed from East to West, he chose to arrive on the West Coast of the United States and journeyed toward the East. He described his trip as such:
Along the way, he stopped in many villages, towns and cities; he saw ghost towns – towns that had been built around now-deserted gold or silver mines; he also visited the scenes of long-ago battles. In Alabama he talked with an elderly man who was working in a cotton patch; in old New Orleans he met some young boys tap-dancing. In the forest wilderness in Kansas and in the deserts of New Mexico he passed by pioneers who were venturing to the West in their covered wagons. In Hannibal, Missouri, he had the good fortune to meet Tom Sawyer and his friends, whom he had been most eager to draw.
I loved how he described himself in the third person. Furthermore, he thanked the ‘kindnesses’ that he encountered from the people he had the good fortune to meet during his travel. Once again, there is no author note in the end explaining what the name of the landmarks are and where we can find scenes from film epics like Gone with the Wind and characters from Tom’s Cabin, Tom Sawyer and Little Women. Anno explained the reason behind this at the end of the book:
“I want my readers to work to discover for themselves as many as they can of the points I have illustrated,” declares Mr. Anno. “And I hope this gives them as much pleasure (and as many problems) as it did me in putting ideas together on the pages.”
City Streets and Natural Landscapes. In the Afterword, it was noted that Anno usually prefers the woods and green fields, the farmlands and mountains to the bustling cityscape. He even managed to depict modern New York City without cars. The streets however are still filled with fictional characters from Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things and the New York Public Library’s Lions among others. See whether you can find them in the image below.
Rent a Car and Paint. Similar to Anno’s travels to Europe and Britain, his original intention as could be seen in the Afterword of this book is to do the following:
… he planned to rent a car and simply drive at leisure from one end of the country to the other, inviting serendipitous views, events and insights. But the immense scale of America’s geography came as a shock, as it often does to newcomers to its shores. Nevertheless, he managed to cover an astonishing amount of territory according to his original plan, exploring bustling cities and quiet country byways at his own pace, savoring the special qualities of each part of the United States and its richly mixed population..
Oh dear. What a life. Makes you want to pack up your bags, rent a car, and be an intrepid explorer like Anno. Too bad I find it hard to read maps. Hahaha. Nor can I paint. Hmmm… will rethink my plan now.
Cathedrals, Castles and Festivals. One of the first things that struck me was how vividly the Catholic Priests, Churches, and Cathedrals predominate in this book. It reminds me of the Philippines’ not-so-distant past with the influences of the prayles and the diverse fiestas that blended seamlessly (but not without difficulties ) with native customs and folk beliefs and traditions.
Anno is said to have visited this beautiful Cathedral with amazing architecture, the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral – where it was an old tradition for Christians from France and Germany “to traverse the Pyrenees in a pilgrimage.” It was his desire to discover how the pilgrims may have felt after they have finally reached the sacred place. He further noted that while it was impossible to capture the whole of Spain in his drawings, he shared that “when I finished this picture book, I felt as if I had reached the holy place too.”
Afterword about Mitsumasa Anno and his Trip to Spain. Similar to Anno’s USA and Anno’s Britain where he populated the present with faces from the past, he also included quite a number of fictional heroes such as Don Quixote and scenes from his favorite opera when he drew pages which depict Seville and Chincon. There are also a few pages devoted to bullfighting and festivals such as Feria de Sevilla (Pilgrimage of Mother Mary) and the Fiesta de San Fermin (Bull Run in Pamplona). The book ends with the following afterword:
In this celebration of historical, architectural, and human moments, Anno blends the liveliness of the present with the power and beauty of the past. He has mentioned many of the allusions in this book, but he has left many others to be discovered by the curious as well as the adventurous and the knowledgeable. The journey now becomes the reader’s.
I would forever be grateful to the fact that we have devoted March and April to wordless picture books. Otherwise I would not have known the genius that is Mitsumasa Anno. If you are a traveler at heart, these books are for you.
Anno’s Britain by Mitsumasa Anno. Philomel Books New York, 1982. Book borrowed from NIE Library.
Anno’s USA by Mitsumasa Anno. Philomel Books New York, 1983. Book borrowed from NIE Library.
Anno’s Spain by Mitsumasa Anno. Philomel Books New York, 2003. Book borrowed from Community Library.