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Some pictures worth 1,000 words

by Mark Brazil

I take my hat off to those folk who can draw and paint. What a wonderfully inspiring skill. And when they can illustrate living creatures in lifelike form then I am in awe. What has prompted this outpouring is the fact that I am currently at work on a new field guide, so I am heavily involved in both writing text and reviewing others’ illustrations.

Since medieval times — when illustrations of birds in Europe were barely distinguishable in terms of their species — Japanese bird illustrations have been so detailed as to make it easy to identify not only the species, but also the age and sex.

Alas, the skills of the artist have now been substituted by those of the photographer — and what a dull comparison that makes.

Photographs merely represent a captured moment, which, in a sense, is like comparing a butterfly grasped in the hand with the sense of buoyant freedom experienced when watching one floating on a breeze and in search of the next flower. The skilled artist can capture that subtle spirit of life, just as an accomplished poet can mold words into fresh life.

Years ago, on the evening I saw my first Lapland bunting in Japan, I was sitting around the main table in a cozy minshuku in eastern Hokkaido. Flushed from spending the day out in the cold, I was reveling in the warmth, the smell of good food being prepared, and the friendly ambience. Then, while I was writing up my day’s notes, I found that the illustration in “Field Guide to the Birds of Japan” didn’t quite match the plumage of the bunting I had seen, so I played around with my pen altering it to fit.

Now, I am no artist (though I did for a year or so amaze myself by illustrating this column when it started in the early 1980s), but the gentleman sitting opposite me was clearly entranced by my alterations to the guide’s artwork, and so I explained to him the differences between the bird I’d seen and the picture in the book.

Our host then formally introduced us, and I nearly fell of my chair. I was sitting opposite the artist himself, Shinji Takano, who had been beneficently watching me altering his very own artwork!

As we talked, though, it seemed that photography was Takano’s first love, and somehow he had been persuaded to illustrate one field guide with artwork — and then another.

From such an embarrassing introduction grew a brief but wonderful series of meetings with the charming naturalist, who everyone talked of lovingly. Sadly, he died of cancer not long after, but only after he had done an incredible amount to foster a love of birds in a new generation of young people. With his various books he established the modern field guide tradition in Japan, giving those who came later something to base their work on.

Looking back today on the artwork that adorns Takano’s field guides, it may seem wooden and lifeless, but at the time it was groundbreaking and novel, being part of a great stride forward for Japan to have a multilanguage field guide in which all its bird species were illustrated.

By contrast, the current trend toward photo-illustrated guides means that unphotographed species cannot appear, while many of the photographs used are taken outside Japan.

Back in the minshuku, meanwhile, the main wall of that room where I first met Takano was decorated with an extraordinary, lifesized mural of a magnificent Steller’s sea eagle in full flight — the work of another artist I was to meet there several times.

Masayuki Yabuuchi came from a very different mold; an artist through and through, he lived and breathed wildlife, including birds. His career had included time spent illustrating skeletal collections for museums, hence his ability to see not just the outside of the bird, but also exactly where the frame was on which the creatures’ beauty was hung. He was a master of movement, accessing the quintessential feeling of the species in full flight, or even in the process of catching a fly in the case of one of my favorite illustrations of his, of a Japanese paradise flycatcher.

Yabuuchi was not a field-guide artist; not for him endless rows of similarly posed illustrations. He was an artist whose work was worthy of a place on any living-room wall. He was a charming man, with a witty smile, and powerfully strong fingers with which he kneaded my knotted shoulders on more than one occasion, to the point where I felt my muscles were being squeezed to liquid.

However, those strong hands held a brush gently, and he was gentle, too, in his dealings with an ignorant foreigner. I expressed my delight at his Steller’s sea eagle mural, and how much I craved even a postcard-sized field sketch for my very own, at any price. He demurred and I was disappointed, not knowing his intention. Then, shortly after, a splendid line drawing arrived in the post, signed and framed and dated March 1985.

I was more than astounded at his unanticipated generosity, and was inspired to do what I could to spread word of his art further afield.

Yabuuchi had become famous in Japan primarily because his work had been chosen to illustrate a Suntory campaign called Love Birds, and though the calendars are now long out of date, I still enjoy having and viewing the ceiling-high posters he illustrated of various species, including the Japanese crane and Blakiston’s fish owl.

In fact, though, I needn’t have worried about Yabuuchi’s wider acclaim, since his charming illustrations for children’s books here in Japan were to become international favorites. Search for his name in English on the Internet and you will find links for “Whose Baby?” “Whose Footprints?” “Sleeping Animals,” “Animal Tails” and “Animal Mothers.” He illustrated all of them in a style that has appealed to young readers and watchers around the world.

But back then, in the mid-1980s, I had just embarked on a major project to outline the status and distribution of all of Japan’s birds. It was to be, in effect, a supplement to the Takano-illustrated field guide, and hence did not need to be fully illustrated.

Nonetheless, I felt that line drawings and a few color plates would enhance its usefulness, and immediately thought of Yabuuchi as the artist. Fortunately for me, he agreed, and so began our one and only cooperative work.

Although he was a busy man and lived in Honshu, I mostly met Yabuuchi in Nemuro, Hokkaido, though once I was fortunate to visit his book- and sketch-lined studio. Were he alive today, I would be asking him to illustrate the cover of the new book I am working on. But alas — he, too, was taken by cancer, in June 2000, at the very youthful age of 60. His ashes were scattered at his three favorite places — Irago Misaki in Aichi Prefecture, in Nemuro and in Fiji. Yabuuchi was especially fond of birds of prey, and at Irago the annual migration of raptors passes overhead.

Thankfully his work is not forgotten, as the books he illustrated — including ones on dinosaurs, baby animals, birds and sleeping mammals — will long outlive him.

This month, the hard work of his son, who has painstakingly cataloged all his father’s works, has been rewarded with the opening of a fitting memorial to this charming man. If you are visiting Yamanashi Prefecture, head for Shirasu-cho and look for the Yabuuchi Masayuki Bijutsukan (Masayuki Yabuuchi Art Gallery) — it will be well worth the visit.

Mark Brazil welcomes readers’ comments or questions at mabrazil@rakuno.ac.jp