Art

Shaun Tan's glimmers of hope in somber times

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

Shaun Tan’s mildly surrealistic painting “A Bear and Her Lawyer” (2016) was conceived as one of his double page illustrations for the 25 modern-day animal-themed fables comprising the book “Tales from the Inner City” (2018).

In the picture, a diminutive lawyer and bear ascend the deserted gray steps leading to a courthouse. In the story, bears seek judicial redress from humankind for a list of complaints stretching back 10,000 years. Humanity, however, determines not to recognize the ursine judicial system, shooting the bears and their lawyers. Then the tale fills with an air of pain and persecution as a convoy of trucks pulls up, laden with damning documentation detailing humanity’s other crimes: The cattle have arrived and, as the exhibition explanation menacingly puts it, they are “lawyered up” and determined to have their hearing.

This one episode is among the 130-odd illustration-related exhibits in “The World of Shaun Tan” at Museum “Eki” Kyoto. The exhibition shows how Tan, an Australian graphic novelist, illustrator and filmmaker, took his ideas from an initial concept to the book page and, more recently, into animation.

Tan’s imaginative worlds are usually a little dark, carrying generalized unnerving undertones and featuring dystopias, alienation, suffering, disaster, bureaucracy and monsters. All this is punctuated by the cutesy and homely camaraderie between family, friends and strangers, and they mostly have happy endings. Though he is frequently pigeonholed in the children’s literature category, Tan’s audience is far broader, and it is much devoted to its favored storyteller’s tales of pleasurable uncanny.

Tan’s first picture book, “The Lost Thing” (2000), began as a sketchbook doodle that ended up as it is through a series of drawings and paintings, designs and drafts. In the tale, a boy finds a giant mollusk-type creature inhabiting a potbellied stove on the beach and tries to return it to its proper home. It’s a tale about seeking a place in the world to belong, a theme that so resonated with contemporary audiences that Tan’s original 32-page format was adapted into an Academy Award-winning, hand-animated and CG, short film (2010).

Tan spent five years completing the 128-page graphic novel “The Arrival” (2006) that this time forewent a textual narrative. He developed sketches and storyboards, took snaps of himself dressed as the story’s principal unnamed protagonist, made floor plans and models of an imaginary residence, and conceived a strange creature “indigenous” to that residence. Minutely conjuring and detailing his storybook world, Tan’s visual narrative tells the story of an immigrant fleeing a land populated by monsters for a new domain to which he could bring his wife and daughter. Learning to deal with odd behaviors and accepting new environments, even as these are not fully understood by the main character, is part of the thrust of the story.

The exhibition is rounded out with other preparatory book sketches and notes for “Tales from Outer Suburbia” (2008) and “Rules of Summer” (2013); some of Tan’s small suburbia-themed paintings of his Australian environs; and a mock-up of his studio — all of which take the audience further into Tan’s creative processes and, indeed, his “world.”

“The World of Shaun Tan” at Museum “Eki” Kyoto runs through Oct. 14; ¥900. For more information, visit kyoto.wjr-isetan.co.jp/museum/.