As my goddaughter’s 5th birthday approaches, I have had an excuse to find myself in the children’s books section at Barnes & Noble. Truth be told, however, I love having a look through illustrated story books, both old favorites and new titles. I was disappointed on a recent visit however, to notice the absence of any works by the great Japanese illustrator Mitsumasa Anno. While in certain quarters, I have no doubt that he has never gone out of fashion, Anno’s work seems to be in need of a revival among the general reading (and viewing) public. Though he has written many different types of children’s’ books, it is his travel series that deserves renewed attention.
The world of Mitsumasa Anno is a glorious one, full of beautiful countryside, charming towns and villages, and great buildings populated with tiny figures, from peasants in traditional costume to characters from history, literature and even opera. “Anno’s Journey”, “Anno’s Britain” and others in the series take a similar format: a small figure in a stocking cap arrives, usually from across the sea by rowboat, purchases a horse, and begins to ride across the land he happens to be visiting. There are no words whatsoever to tell us what our wayfarer thinks of what he sees, for he is generally an observer rather than an actor in the stories that pour out of the densely populated pages.
Wherever the journey takes him, Anno’s ride traces an arc of human development. He usually starts in a small settlement, and as his ride continues, the towns become larger, grow into cities, and then shrink again. By the end of the trip, Anno finds himself once more at the sea, sells his horse, and rows off to another land in search of adventure. Part of the fun, as in the later (but poorer) imitation “Where’s Waldo?”, is to find Anno in the delicate watercolor and ink illustrations. For small children, this is an engaging task and not always easy, particularly as the scenes become more populated.
For older children however, and, frankly, for adults as well, the real fun is in recognizing things of which we only become aware as we grow older and become more knowledgeable about cultural history. In “Anno’s Journey”, for example, a careful eye spots the two central figures from Millet’s painting “The Angelus” standing in a field at prayer in one illustration, while characters from Sesame Street march in a parade a few pages later. In “Anno’s Spain”, we see a completed Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; Bizet’s Carmen dancing for Don Jose in Seville; and Cervantes’ Don Quixote tilting at windmills in La Mancha. Time, history, and real/unreal are all intermingled in a feast for the eye and the imagination.
Anno’s interest in subjects such as landscape, architecture, and local customs is both his own and a product of centuries of illustrative art in Japan. Scenes of tiny figures going about their activities can be found on everything in Japanese art from prayer scrolls to woodblock prints to hand-painted porcelain. For those of us in the West, Anno’s work inevitably reminds us of the minutely examined worlds shown in illuminated manuscripts produced in Europe during the Middle Ages. Anno falls neatly into a line of artistic examination which, in Europe, reached its height in the glorious Books of Hours produced for notables such as the Duc du Berry.
While ostensibly books for children, Anno’s travel books truly are for all ages. Their delicate touch and fine detail speak to those of us who appreciate artistic illustration, but they also remind us of the past, make us smile, and juxtapose elements of history and the imagined that give us a broader view of culture and civilization. Whether on a child’s bookshelf or on an adult’s coffee table, Anno’s work should be a part of a good book collection.