Illustrating Japan’s top cover star

by Edan Corkill

For more than 30 years, Masamichi Oikawa has drawn the cover art for Pia magazine, reports staff writer Edan Corkill

Masamichi Oikawa is an important man. Far more so than his leprechaun smile and electric-blue aloha shirt let on. If something were to happen to him — an injury or, heaven forbid, something worse — over 170,000 Japanese would be lost. Lost, that is, for something to do on the weekend.

Without this 68-year-old’s illustrations, Japan’s infotainment bible, the weekly magazine Pia, would be without a cover. And, even if the magazine had a backup cover to run, chances are that without a picture penned by Oikawa, no one would recognize it, let alone buy it.

Oikawa’s illustrations are “absolutely indispensable” to the magazine, says Tsutomu Noguchi, its executive editor in chief, when The Japan Times spoke to him at his Tokyo office. And to tell the truth, he says, laughing at the recklessness of his own words, “there is no contingency plan . . . in case Oikawa gets sick or something happens (to him).”

This lack of preparation no doubt stems from the fact that few Pia staff has even any knowledge of life sans Oikawa. After all, he’s been drawing humorous illustrations of celebrities for Pia’s cover since 1975 — well before many of them were born.

Last week Oikawa clocked up his 1,184th consecutive cover, and in July this year his feat was recognized by Guinness World Records as the “longest career as a magazine cover designer for the same magazine.” A Guinness representative contacted by e-mail thought it was the first record of its kind.

Oikawa’s achievement is mind- numbing for not only its tennis-elbow-inducing continuity (one illustration every week for the last 17 years, one every two weeks when the magazine was fortnightly between 1979 and 1990, and one every month when it was monthly before that) but also for the fact that his accumulated labor constitutes an unparalleled record of Japan’s popular culture.

Leafing through the piles of drawings at his studio is like viewing three decades of popular culture in a fun-house mirror.

Gene Hackman, gun drawn and teeth clenched, jumps from a fire — perhaps a metaphor for his leap to stardom in “The French Connection” (the cover was run in 1975). Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is pictured as an appendage to his girlfriend, whose dreamy face hovers above a boxing ring (1977). Stevie Wonder’s passion for music (or is it the strawberry on his tongue?) emanates from his ears like steam from a gasket (1981). A wobbling Mick Jagger is given chicken legs and a beaklike pout (1983). Crown Princess-to-be Masako is laden with groceries (1993), Junichiro Koizumi leads Japanese celebrities to the batter’s box (2001) and fitness freak Billy Blanks is booted by an unidentified assailant (2007).

It was Blanks, or Billy as he is usually known, who stared up from Oikawa’s desk as the illustrator spoke to The Japan Times in his studio last month. With radiant eyes, an infectious smile, and a small frame — like many of his portraits — Oikawa is slightly dwarfed by his long desk and broad window overlooking a neighboring park.

“I like to think of myself as a contemporary ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artist,” he says, adding some dots of shade to Billy’s bald head.

He thinks that he shares a “lightness of footwork, a complete lack of scruples” with Kitagawa Utamaro, Utagawa Hiroshige, and the other ukiyo-e artists of the Edo Period who depicted courtesans, actors or landscapes.

“Theirs was a world not concerned with the pursuit of artistic ends. All that mattered was what the masses thought of the pictures.”

Oikawa’s ability to capture the spirit of the day has also been compared with that of iconic American illustrator and painter Norman Rockwell, who made 321 covers between 1916 and 1963 for the weekly magazine The Saturday Evening Post. When contacted by e-mail, leading Japanese magazine designer Yasushi Fujimoto — whose clients include magazines Brutus and Vogue Nippon — said, “Pia carries cultural information, so it is vital that the cover express the mood of the day in a timely and accurate way. While different in style, Oikawa’s covers achieve this as effectively as Rockwell’s.”

Whereas artists of yesteryear had to find topical subjects by getting out and beating the streets, or from looking at other artist’s illustrations, Oikawa’s method of keeping up with the times is slightly more modern.

“The television is always on when I’m working. It’s my only window onto society,” he explains.

Through the 40-inch flat-screen TV that sits to one side of his desk, Oikawa keeps constant tabs on who is in the news. Armed with that information he is able to choose his weekly subjects when the Pia editors approach him — each Thursday — with a list of candidates.

“First, I wonder whether the person is ‘pop’ or not,” he says of his selection criteria. “How much is this person really recognized by the public? I draw with a touch of parody, and so it’s more interesting if more people know the subject.”

Oikawa first took on the Pia work in 1975, when its founder — a 25-year-old named Hiroshi Yanai (now the company’s President and CEO) — approached him with what was then just a handful of staple-bound sheets listing entertainment options for the young and hip. At that point the magazine was just three years old, and no one dreamed it would become one of the most recognized magazines on the domestic market (with over 500,000 readers in Tokyo in the late 1980s) and then diversify to become the publishing and ticketing agent monolith that it is today. The three regional editions of the magazine — Tokyo metropolitan area, Kansai and central Japan — currently have a combined circulation of 170,000, but Pia also enjoys over 2.6 million page views per day on its Web sites.

Oikawa, who was 36 at the time, happily agreed to do the cover artwork for Yanai but was experienced enough to know he should reserve the right to choose his subjects.

Once Oikawa has decided who he will draw, the next step in the weekly routine is for the Pia staff to obtain the consent of the subject-to-be. While not a legal necessity, experience has taught them it’s best to ask, though requests to vet the illustrations are refused. Then the Pia staff collect and deliver all manner of reference material — “mostly pictures of the subject’s face” — to the illustrator.

As far as Pia is concerned, explains editor Noguchi, the “most time-consuming” step comes next: waiting for Oikawa to be struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration.

“Like with this Stevie Wonder picture,” Oikawa explains, dragging out a piece of original artwork from 1981. “There was a photo of him holding a harmonica. If I just drew him like that it would be boring, so I was thinking and it occurred to me to replace the harmonica with a piece of cake. There’s no deeper reason to it, really.

“Once I have an idea like that I usually chuckle to myself. That’s when I know I’m on to something.”

While Oikawa plays around with props — and also the proportions of his subjects’ bodies to their heads — he is sure to maintain a degree of reality.

“I usually make the faces — the eyes and nose — as realistic as possible, just to ensure people recognize the subjects,” he explains. He also complains that “the most difficult people (to draw) are the celebrities who appear overnight and have nothing going for them but ‘cuteness.’ I always end up regretting it when I choose people like that.”

One celebrity who presented no such problem was Marilyn Monroe, who was on the cover in 1992.

“She’s my favorite (cover),” he says. “She was such an icon that she didn’t require any parody.”

Up until about 10 years ago Oikawa drew his pictures in black ink and then added the color with an airbrush. These days the airbrush has been replaced by a computer (and an assistant to operate it), but the artist says he still keeps a close eye on the coloring process.

Oikawa earned his illustration stripes in the ’50s and ’60s when there was no separation between the jobs of illustrator and designer, meaning he could do it all. Growing up in the seaside town of Yokosuka in Kanagawa Prefecture — home of a major U.S. Naval base — he entered the advertising section of a local department store when he was 16.

“But I used to work nights too,” he says, doing murals and signs (“lots of Marilyn Monroes!”) for sailors’ bars. “Sometimes I’d go on the stage and sing too,” he laughs.

He also remembers fondly working in the late ’60s and early ’70s for the avant-garde playwright, film director and poet Shuji Terayama. Pointing at a gnarled, Hobbit-like creature adorning a 1969 poster for one play, he says, “I made up this character myself, and then Terayama wrote him into the play.”

While Oikawa now calls himself an illustrator, he still keeps close watch on the design of each Pia cover.

“I give them instructions about where the magazine logo and accompanying text should be positioned,” he explains. Of course, such instructions can only be given after the drawing has been delivered. “In theory my deadline is Wednesday. Well, I can tell you, they still haven’t got it on Thursday. I usually have at least one all-nighter (which, for the nocturnal Oikawa, really means an all-dayer), and then hand the drawing in on the Friday or Saturday” — less than a week before publication on the following Thursday.

By then the subsequent week’s subject is waiting to be drawn and it’s time for the whole process to begin again.

But Oikawa does keep one day open: Sunday, for golf. In fact, the most striking thing about Oikawa’s studio is not the hundreds of books, LP records, cassette tapes, videos and DVDs lining the shelves. Nor is it the enlargement of his Willie Nelson drawing (from 1984) signed by the country singer himself. No, it is the 15 or so golf clubs — mostly woods — that stand like sentinels next to his desk. (“Willie, apparently, has a beautiful golf course,” he deadpans.)

How much longer is this collaboration likely to continue?

“As long as Oikawa is able to do it,” says Noguchi, noting Pia is still unsure what it would do post-Oikawa. “In reality I don’t think there’s an illustrator out there who could fill his shoes,” he says.

“I’m still interested in what’s going on,” Oikawa says. “So as long as I am still curious, I think I can continue the work.”

Perhaps it is this untiring curiosity that is Oikawa’s greatest asset.

“The effort required to keep up with popular culture for 32 years is awe-inspiring,” says Brutus and Vogue Nippon designer Fujimoto.

However, it seems the biggest threat to the Pia-Oikawa collaboration may lie elsewhere.

“At the moment I don’t have time to do any other work, and there is one last job I really want to do,” says the illustrator. “I want to make a big panorama — a series of maybe about 30 drawings — depicting my life story, starting from my birth and continuing through to my dreams for the future.

“And in those 30 pictures, I think it would be interesting to include all the people’s faces that I’ve drawn before.” Utamaro and Hiroshige, who are also known for their series of pictures documenting actors or famous views, would have been proud.