In October last year, when Japan House London began taking panoramic photographs of “Anno’s Journey: The World of Anno Mitsumasa,” its gallery exhibition of the award-winning picture-book illustrator Mitsumasa Anno, little did it know that its plan to turn those images into the institute’s first virtual tour would become so relevant just six months later.

“The tour was created when the exhibition was in situ at Japan House London, but we were waiting for the right moment to launch it on our website,” says Simon Wright, the U.K.-Japan cultural hub’s director of programming. Now, with the institute temporarily closed in the midst of the nation’s COVID-19 lockdown, he says that “it seems like the most appropriate time to welcome visitors ‘virtually’ to our space.”

Launched on April 24 and hosted on the 360-degree virtual tour platform Kuula, “Anno’s Journey” is an immersive audio-visual experience. It invites viewers to pan and glide through the exhibition’s striking black-and-white display space, while listening to the whistle of a passing steam train, chirping crickets and the buzz of cicadas, a soundscape designed to evoke the childhood experiences of Anno, who grew up in rural Japan during the early Showa Era (1926-89). The works and display texts, all neatly arranged on white walls, can be enlarged with the click of an icon, while supplementary background information about Anno and his work can be found elsewhere on the Japan House London website.

Illustrator Mitsumasa Anno  | © ANNO ART MUSEUM
Illustrator Mitsumasa Anno | © ANNO ART MUSEUM

The exhibition itself begins with Anno’s early achievements, including depictions of hiragana characters from his “The A-E-I-O-U Book” (1976); trompe l’oeil illustrations from his first picture book, “Mysterious Pictures” (1968); and prints of the internationally acclaimed 1977 “Tabi no Ehon” (published in English as “Anno’s Journey”), a fantastical interpretation of his personal travel experiences. Other less well-known works round out the showcase, such as his stunning 1970s papercuts of folk stories, a selection of Japanese-style paintings on silk from his historical “The Tale of the Heike Picture Book” (1996) and a number of recent works. It ends, aptly, with the entire set of pen, ink and watercolor originals from Anno’s 1981 travel picture book, “Anno’s Britain.”

As a pictorial storyteller, known for scant use of words in his works, Anno explores these subjects through visual details, often using bird’s eye views, tiny motifs, puzzles, humor and optical illusions to captivate readers and viewers. Online, these meticulously executed artworks can be magnified for close-up viewing, perused at a leisurely pace and revisited countless times from the comfort of home.

“There is no replacement, I believe, for the emotional response to the physical encounter of a work of art,” says Wright. But the nature of Anno’s illustrations, “with so many stories to uncover and tell,” he says, lends itself particularly well to the digital format.

“Anno is eager to entertain and instruct, yet he allows viewers to discover the details in the works for themselves,” explains Wright. “This is key. Again and again, one can discover something new in the works each time one looks at them.”

The COVID-19 crisis may prevent any on-site Anno exhibition from being held in the near future, but the now permanent virtual tour of “Anno’s Journey: The World of Anno Mitsumasa” is introducing his work to a global audience. All you need is an internet connection to enjoy it.

“Anno’s Journey: The World of Anno Mitsumasa” can be viewed online at bit.ly/JHLanno.

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