Zun Zun Pion Pion

Excursion to Shinta Cho

Shinta Cho is not a place, and yet the word excursion seemed appropriate. I did not come to Shinta Cho as the traveller that apparently every reader has inside, but as a tourist who has only been able to contemplate partial and superficial aspects of a character and work that appear to be much more interesting.

As someone who is curious about books, I have the habit of visiting libraries and bookshops in every city I visit. Just as botanical gardens, museums, or temples, book houses are small spaces that encourage introspection and, as a gift, provide abundant information about places and people.

In 2003 we found ourselves in Tokyo and I suggested to Begoña that we go check out a bookshop. In that jungle of vertical signs, undecipherable for us, what combination of signs would mean ‘bookshop’? The tourist’s 24h guardian angel came to our aid and it did not take us even three minutes to detect, on a building resembling Scrooge McDuck’s money warehouse —with perfectly recognisable and large letters—, the word ‘BOOK’.

However, it was not in the Ikebukuro bookshop in which I discovered Shinta Cho, nor in the nearby Junkudo, our favourite. The first time I saw his books, and recognised them as related to each other but different from the rest, was in one of the Kinokuniya bookshops in Shinjuku. At the back of the children's books section I noticed a group of strange books. Actually —needless to say— almost all books seemed quite strange to us, since we do not understand a word of Japanese, but these were particularly strange. One had a pink and yellow drawing on its cover; another was blue, green, and yellow. Who uses these colours in a book? A colour-blind person, a madman, a child? I had never seen such combinations. Most books consisted of sequences of large images with little text and, yet, after having spent quite some time ‘reading’ them, I was still extremely confused. How could books with so few words be so hard to understand?

In Shinta Cho’s book collection there are books of all sizes and formats, aimed at all ages. Sometimes the drawings are made with gouache, crayons, or coloured pencils; other times with Chinese ink, pens, or felt-tips. Some have such vivid colours they look like silkscreen prints. And yet, one can believe they all come from the same hand.

Begoña and I learned to recognise on covers and in book credits the three signs that compose the name of Shinta Cho (or, more accurately, Cho Shinta, since they write names in a different order); this way we could be sure when we were unsure of his authorship.

Kiyoko Matsuoka, director of the Itabashi Museum in Tokyo, and Kiyoko Sakai, our translator friend, provided us with some information about Cho. Thanks to them I know some things that were not easy for us to find out through books. Although I must admit that most of what I know, or what I assume about the character and his work, comes from contemplating his Japanese books and what I have fabulated around them.

I know that Shinta Cho was born in Tokyo in 1927, and that he passed away in June 2005. He trained as a graphic artist working for press, and the earliest works I saw of his were comic strips and covers of children’s publications. In 1950 he illustrated his first book, which narrates how newspapers are made, and from 1958 onwards, he mainly focused on children’s albums, although he continued to draw comic strips and write ‘light essays’. As is mentioned repeatedly in his biographies, he published more than 400 children’s books. Among these books are original stories and stories of others illustrated by him. He illustrated, for example, a Japanese edition of Platero and I! Many of his titles received important accolades, and, in 1998 and 2000, Shinta Cho was the Japanese nominee for the Andersen Award.

One of Shinta Cho’s books that Kiyoko Matsuoka told me about: A man sets up a tent by the Loch Ness with the purpose of getting a picture of the famous monster. He waits, waits, and waits; always with the camera at the ready, mounted on a tripod. A camera, we suppose, of sophisticated Japanese technology. Something emerges from the water: a shape similar to a foot that resembles the most famous photograph of Nessie. The photographer wonders what will the whole body look like once it finally emerges, and imagines all types of monsters. This foot-like shape, is it a horn? A nose? The end of a long tail? The figure rises above the water and, indeed, it is a foot. Now the entire leg is visible. Then, another identical leg appears and both intertwine in a beautiful ballet. Finally they submerge and the lake’s waters are still again. The photographer, who has attended this unique performance with his arms folded, does not pack up his tent or his photography equipment. He says firmly: ‘I am not leaving this place until the monster appears.’

In June 2006, a year after his death, an exhibition in homage to Shinta Cho inaugurated at the Chihiro Museum outside of Tokyo. Kiyoko Matsuoka came with us to see it. Chihiro was a very famous illustrator and her home-studio holds a permanent exhibition of her work and also organises temporary exhibitions on illustrators. The one dedicated to Shinta Cho was exemplary. In a secluded space surrounded by a garden, more than 120 works from various books were exhibited next to the corresponding printed works for visitors to consult and read. In display cabinets, they placed several logbooks, open and unfolded, with the artist’s notes. Shinta Cho, like many of his fellow countrymen, was a big on travelling; or he was at least during 1961, when he travelled across Europe and led him to visit Italy, France, Greece, and half a dozen Spanish cities. I remember being amazed by a drawing, perhaps made in a beach in Portugal, which revealed the possible influence of Saul Steinberg.

In the museum’s bookshop, located near the entrance of the building, most of Shinta Cho’s titles, if not all 400, were available to purchase. When we went in, there were several copies of Platero and I on a table, but on our way out, they had already sold out. I asked myself, as I ask myself now: how many readers will know Juan Ramón Jiménez’s work thanks to the Japanese artist’s drawings? Could it have been a desire of his to illustrate this book, or had it been a commission?

The organisers of the exhibition had transformed the last room into a replica of Cho’s study. They had photographed his desk with all the papers and objects on it at the time of the owner’s death, as well as the library behind the desk, and had made a 1:1 reproduction which they installed in the middle of the room next to a grand piano. On top of the piano, which was authentic, they had placed some music discs, presumably the artist’s favourites; all jazz and from North American musicians. The photograph that reproduced the bookshelf was so clear that it was even possible to read the titles of the books. Kiyoko pointed out: ‘Many are encyclopedias of all kinds’. Attached to a shelf was a card that showed a face and a name. The name was Thonet; I copied it in my notebook. Those who have the same curiosity I had in that moment can find out who this character that interested Shinta Cho is by using Google Images. Thonet is a beautiful bearded man who cannot be missed.

Shinta Cho is considered a cultivator of nonsense by Japanese specialists of children’s and young adult literature. Of all the labels one could give to an author, this is one of the most unsettling. From Edward Lear to the present day, many books have been published that supposedly respond to this genre and, long before Lear, there had been an entire repertoire of rhymes and absurd stories that had travelled the world a few times. What is nonsense all about? It is neither good nor bad, nor does it mean anything at all. Often what it wants to say is that someone’s books are incomprehensible, or that they are not made to be understood. I am not saying anything groundbreaking when I state there is generally a prejudice against children’s books in which imagination prevails. If we take a look in any library or bookshop around us, we will see that most books are ‘realistic’; there are a few that are, in any case, characterised as ‘magic realism’ (labels, labels, labels!), but there are very few which are pure fantasy.

In Japan this is different. In Japan, Shinta Cho, famous, beloved, and widely read, is the example of an author who works with the utmost freedom (not only formal) and who has explored in children’s albums the visual juggling and the humour resources as only Buster Keaton has done in cinema. However, if we search for Shinta Cho’s name on the Internet —written with our Latin alphabet— the information on most of his entries correspond to a book published by the North American publishing house Kane/Miller. The titles is The Gass We Pass. The Story of Farts. A great success in many countries, but, in reality, is only another title in the vast bibliography of the author. (By the way, what would have Juan Ramón thought of this illustrator’s book about his Platero?) In the Western World, as lacking as we are in books that treat everyday things without importance, from their most ordinary angle, and tackle fantastical things from their most sublime and abstract side, this eschatology draws our attention. Of course, this is also the case in Japan, only that they have more examples there. Perhaps the variety that Japanese production offers might only be comparable to North American or French markets.

Thanks to the interest in manga, many Japanese authors have become known in Europe in recent years. The increasing number of readers can finally appreciate that under the name manga, which simply means ‘comic book’, vastly different books circulate. And while the market for manga tries to be distinct from the market for children’s books, the truth is there are inevitable cross-contaminations. Any manga reader, for example, will become familiar with Japanese onomatopoeias, so rooted in their cultural tradition and popular literature, and so surprising and different from ours! Some of Shinta Cho’s works are resolved as a catalogue of noises, to the point of being able to confirm that the onomatopoeias are the real protagonists. By the way: Glenat has recently published one of Cho’s books originally published in Japan in 1976, the title of which is Goro Goro Meow. ‘Meow’ is clear, but ‘goro goro’? Is it a purr, the sound of plane engines, or both?

I am convinced I would need many more pages to recount everything I do not know about Shinta Cho, but I prefer to stop here and say my farewells with a zun zun pion pion.

Vicente Ferrer

Text published in the magazine Educación and Biblioteca number 163 (January/February 2008), special ‘Black belts of their inks’. Illustration by Shinta Cho from the book The Bus to Where-You-Need-Not-Know (Holp Shuppan, 1991).