Posts Tagged ‘Chiki Kikuchi’

The Picture Book Art of Chiki Kikuchi

Chiki Kikuchi (EhonNavi)

By Alexa Frank, Tokyo, and Emily Balistrieri, Tokyo

Though his latest book may be titled Shiro to kuro (White and Black), the world of prolific picture book author and illustrator Chiki Kikuchi is anything but. After debuting in 2012 with Shironeko kuroneko (White Cat, Black Cat; Gakken Plus), which won the prestigious Golden Apple award at the Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava (BIB), Kikuchi underwent a major shift in style. Exchanging his sumptuous black lines and white spaces for inventive displays of color, Kikuchi’s books feature animals and children playing amid abstract visions of nature and inner universes. And his words are just as lively as his brushstrokes—Kikuchi’s work gestures toward big questions about loneliness, self-worth, and identity without sacrificing the childlike sense of wonder that has gained him fans all across Japan. 

Art by Chiki Kikuchi on display in Kichijoji, Tokyo, in fall 2019 (photo courtesy Kaori Nagaoka). Click to enlarge.

In fall 2019, Tokyo’s Kichijoji Art Museum held White and Black: A Chiki Kikuchi Picture Book Exhibition, a major showcase of Kikuchi’s original artwork. Longtime fans and Kikuchi newbies alike had the rare opportunity not only to see Kikuchi displays up close, but also to attend Kikuchi-led art workshops and experience live musical and dance collaborations. One of the highlights was a November talk show event that capped off the exhibition: a revealing conversation among Kikuchi, his editor Kaori Nagaoka, and book designer Hideyuki Saito. 

Nagaoka, Saito, and Kikuchi’s relaxed dynamic on stage spoke to the team’s loyal working relationship. They had collaborated on all of Kikuchi’s Kodansha books, and one of the reasons why Kikuchi’s books have been so successful is undoubtedly that this team appears to be on the same creative wavelength. It was Saito who picked the covers for Shiro to kuro and Momiji no tegami (Maple Leaf Letter; Komine Shoten). To evoke the changing of seasons, Saito designed the Momiji no tegami cover with red paper reminiscent of autumn leaves—a choice Kikuchi was very much a fan of. Momiji’s original cover art was notably missing from the Kichijoji exhibit; it had won a plaque at BIB 2019 and was still on display at Bratislava Castle in Slovakia.

Momiji no tegami (Maple Leaf Letter; Komine Shoten)

Kikuchi’s son was born the day of the 2013 BIB Golden Apple award ceremony—and was almost named Ringo (apple in Japanese) to celebrate the occasion. However, Kikuchi instead decided to honor his young son via his next book, Boku da yo boku da yo (It’s Me, It’s Me; Rironsha), inspired by their father and son playtime. 

Boku da yo, boku da yo (It’s Me, It’s Me; Rironsha)

Neko no sora (A Cat’s Sky; Kodansha) was commissioned by Nagaoka. Already a fan of Kikuchi’s paintings, Nagaoka first met him at a gallery exhibition and quickly became a fan of Kikuchi as a person as well. They worked together closely, creating a heartfelt narrative, which Nagaoka describes as “maybe more meta than the other stories about Chiki and his son.”

Neko no sora (A Cat’s Sky; Kodansha)

K: We didn’t decide right away that it was a tree and a cat.

N: But we were thinking it would be good to have a tree.

K: And there was a tree in front of my apartment where I was living, and I thought it was good. The landlord was feeding a bunch of stray cats out there. So the book kind of came together from those images. So okay, the tree will be me and the cat will be my son, I guess? It was all very natural. And when I was writing the scene where the cat takes a step away from the tree, I remember feeling a bit tearful. Like oh, my son will grow up…

When his son was old enough to realize his dad was a picture book author, he requested a book about a tiger, which thrilled Kikuchi. “I was so happy that I wanted to do it immediately!” That became Tora no ko Torako (Torako the Tiger Cub; Shogakukan).

When it comes to Kikuchi and words, Nagaoka says, “Lately, Kikuchi has been writing his text ideas on sticky notes during the draft stage, but maybe he’s always done that in his head. Changing one word in a picture book can change a whole scene. Kikuchi always reads the text out aloud. He thinks so carefully about the number of the characters in a book, what they say and where they’re placed…he really considers every part of the process.” 

The everyday conversations among Kikuchi, Nagaoka, and Saito have often influenced the direction of their books—nothing is ever decided at the beginning, which makes perfect sense for the medium. Words and art in a picture book inform one another: the colorful explosion of Boku da yo boku da yo mimics the way young children can find their own language through exploration. For Shiro to kuro, however, the team strove to strike a balance between black and white and color.

Shiro to kuro (Black and White) on the sign for the fall 2019 exhibition in Tokyo (photo courtesy Kaori Nagaoka). Click to enlarge.

The book stars Shiro, a white cat stand-in for Kikuchi’s son, and Kuro, a black dog, as they explore their surroundings and the complicated emotions we come across as children but lack the words for. Kikuchi has always liked black and white art. Of his earlier work, he says, “I didn’t feel like I was very good at using colors…when you add color, that’s the first thing people notice. But with black and white, I like that people can imagine the colors.” Just as one might when listening to the piano—Nagaoka was studying piano during the initial Shiro to kuro meetings, and lent Kikuchi a CD to listen to. Kikuchi was inspired by Nagaoka describing the spaces between notes as smooth, and wanted to put that feeling into a picture book. 

The making of Shiro to kuro, however, was decidedly bumpy—from the title to the writing to the printing process, the book underwent many changes before it hit the shelves. Kikuchi was unsatisfied with the original title (Ii na Ii na, “I’m jealous, I’m jealous”) and text, and decided to essentially write two books (one starring Kuro, one starring Shiro), and merge them together. This caused the book to undergo a total rewrite, which may have thrown off another editor, but not Nagaoka. She was delighted by the changes. It was only after Kikuchi’s extensive revisions that the book seemed to come together, and Saito, too, was happy to roll with it. Saito encouraged Kikuchi to simplify the cover’s color palette to black, white, and red to create greater contrast between the book’s central characters. The colors also start to thin out by the end of the book, which Kikuchi says mirrors how the sky lightens with the sunrise. “The sky starts brightening because Kuro’s thinking about Shiro. It’s still night, but there are more white scenes because his whole head is full of Shiro…so I used black less and less.” The overall book design was shaped by Kuro’s feelings—a decision Kikuchi credits to Saito. 

Art by Chiki Kikuchi on display in Kichijoji, Tokyo, in fall 2019 (photo courtesy Kaori Nagaoka). Click to enlarge.

Towards the end of the talk show, Kikuchi spoke about his son’s contributions to the exhibition. “Sometimes my son is sensitive and you can really see it in his body language, sort of like Shiro and Kuro,” Kikuchi says. As the opening drew closer, Kikuchi employed his son to help him create a paper sculpture of Shiro. The key to Kikuchi’s picture books really seems to be his son, who influences him so much. As his son and other young readers look at Kikuchi’s pages and imagine a great, big world, adult readers take pleasure in how Kikuchi puts them back in touch with their childhood selves, finding excitement in the small pleasures of the everyday. Just as words and images work together to shape a picture book, that white space between childhood wonder and adult understanding informs how we read them. And the Kichijoji Kikuchi exhibition, happily, gave us much room to dwell. 

Shiro to kuro (White and Black) by Chiki Kikuchi and the other titles in this post have not yet been published in English translation. We hope they will be soon!