Books | Children's Literature in Japan

For children's book author Mitsumasa Anno, pictures speak louder than words

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Mitsumasa Anno, a veteran of World War II, spent 10 years after the war as an art and math teacher before beginning his career as a painter, children’s book author and illustrator. He is best-known internationally for his wordless “Journey” series, which feature gorgeously detailed, panoramic views of a country; visual celebrations that reveal the cultural and historical importance of a significant place through the artist’s mischievous worldview.

Anno started the series with “Anno’s Journey” (1977) based on his experiences and the drawings he took while he traveled through northern Europe. Anno’s distinctive pen and ink/watercolor paintings draw on his keen sense of detail and educator’s eye to capture not only landscapes and natural vistas but also the art and architecture of the country. He weaves in allusions to history, literature and folktales while also depicting people at work and in leisure. “Anno’s Spain,” for example, includes references to the running of the bulls and Don Quixote’s windmills.

He followed the success of his first “Journey” book with “Anno’s Italy,” “Anno’s Britain” and “Anno’s U.S.A.,” and often returned to the “Journey” theme in the following decades.

But Anno is much more than his “Journey” books. His works for children span a vast range of interests and utilize his background as a teacher and painter to create books that are both educational and visually stunning. From mathematical texts to books on logic or English ABC’s, Anno appeals to a wide swath of the imagination.

He is noted for his playful visual curiosity, and books such as “Anno’s Peekaboo,” “Upside-Downers” and “Topsy-Turvies: Pictures to Stretch the Imagination” wordlessly challenge the possibilities of space, dimension and perspective. In addition to the 1984 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration in children’s literature, he’s won numerous awards in Japan and abroad, including the Brooklyn Museum of Art Award in the U.S. and the BIB Golden Apple Award in the former Czechoslovakia.

Between his international popularity and his scant use of words, Anno’s works are widely available in English and other languages. He’s published over 200 books in Japan and has also widely exhibited his paintings; a museum housing his art in his hometown, Tsuwano in Shimane Prefecture, was opened in 2001.

Long before the internationalization of anime or manga, Anno’s pictorial odysseys gained international fame in the genre of children’s literature. Their beauty, intellect and wit endure, a visual delight for all ages; a true, hand-in-hand journey with a master author and illustrator.

This is the eighth installment of the series “Children’s Literature in Japan,” which explores notable authors and illustrators of children’s and young adolescent literature. Read more at jtimes.jp/childrenslit.