Japan Entry No.3: The Uesugi Evening
He arrived at the station to meet us on a Tuesday afternoon, December 7, 2004. Enrico and I had been musing in the minutes before that the designated time, 4 p.m., didn't seem conventional as dinner invites go. Then again, it's not conventional for us to be invited to the home of a world-class illustrator from Japan either and neither of us was questioning our lucky stars at this point.
He wore a black long sleeved crew neck shirt, unfazed by the fall weather. Boyish looks and easy demeanor, he gestured us to the exit where apparently a car was waiting. Hikaru Takahashi brought his car and we were introduced, then we were off on my first private car ride in Japan. I must mention that I love all the tiny cars of Tokyo. They fit the place. No need for muscle cars in a city webbed with subways and trains and the likely travel you're faced with could be done as easily with a bicycle if it weren't for the occasional need to ferry large groceries or visiting starry-eyed artists. The streets were always amazingly clean and somehow pedestrians, bicycles and mini-cars avoid collision routinely in the narrow streets.
A small van variety I keep seeing all over the place.
We were surprised to know that Hikaru we’d met already online when we were invited into a web community of artists in Japan called Mixi. We loved the idea but found that we couldn’t navigate the pages, unable to read Japanese. He drove and tried not to turn his head back to us to converse. Shortly we file out of the car and briskly make our way into the Uesugi condo, where the warm air had the unmistakable aroma of home cooking. And then we were introduced to the lady of the house, Kuro. The table at the center of the living area is already laden with small plates and food, she’d been in the middle of completing the evening's repast and welcomed us gracefully with such a open smile that one would think we were long lost relatives. I must admit I was very taken by this reception. We were home its seems, after a fashion, and no thought was given to the fact that this was the very first time we are meeting or that we could be very unpleasant folk. I was amazed and felt very honored--it was the first of many that evening when I felt I was going to lose it.
We stood around the table and met Aoi, Hikaru's daughter, and also a puppet (in the Charlie McCarthy style), a clown which Hikaru proceeds to bring to life. Kuro had been busy all day apparently making the dinner and was almost ready, now just awaiting a pork roast, "Is pork okay?" thinking now that perhaps one of us might be vegetarian. Lucky for us, we're dedicated carnivores of opportunity, and believe me that would’ve been the wrong time to become vegetarian—the roast was deeeeelicious.
Throughout dinner Tadahiro would be talking to us through Kuro, who was pulling double duty as chef and translator. His hands would move expressively about while he talked, head nods punctuating every line, then he'd point to me meaning that it was to be phrased now in English for me to hear and then Kuro would then translate. One would think that this could be cumbersome as conversations go, but surprisingly enough communication through one's gestures and inflections carry a whole lot of information and with the help of conscientious Kuro and Enrico the night was lively and full of information.
Books. I had gifts for them, t-shirts and copies of Paper Biscuit, Fragments. We also had a copy of the Art of The Incredibles for Tadahiro and he immediately commented on the retro style of the imagery. Then it was their turn and the deluge of books didn't seem to stop throughout the evening. As topics bring something to mind Tadahiro would bolt up and disappear into his office returning soon after with a book. Before dinner we had stood around his office around the bookshelves filled with books and more than a few had his familiar illustrations on covers. He lifts a book from a shelf, “This is my teacher” he says, pointing vigorously at a drawing book. Setsu Nagasawa. I saw it right off, the influence. A fashion illustrator in the classic sense. Very expressive, wildly gestural and with attitude. I shift to documentation mode and was snapping pictures and Enrico was taking down notes. Tadahiro would point to another book that I had just bought earlier at Kinokuniya, an illustrator of the UPA/Sasek mold, Ryohei Yanagihara. Unmistakable again—and now an even closer influence in a Japanese Sasek hero. All this was making my head swim. There was going to be more.
Later, other folks were showing up we were told. Tamami Yamakado, who was in movie distribution, is a friend of Kuro’s and had been enlisted to help in translating since she had studied in the U.S. and speaks fluent English. Although Enrico and Kuro had a good handle on the conversation I was relieved to have another English speaker to keep me in the mix. The conversation soon got to comics and Tadahiro was off again. He hands me a book by Jiro Taniguchi and proceeds to explain that he was an apprentice to Mr. Tanaguchi once back in the early nineties. What’s this? Tadahiro in comics? An apprentice, no less. He points to the cover of “The Walking Man” and says that he drew the houses and stone walls and steps. “Did not do the color,” he quickly points out. I can see why since it was less than exemplary.
Well, fancy that? He’d done comics. Hikaru too, I gather, was also an assistant at one time (He now is on his own. I have a book of his now). Then Tadahiro announces that one of the phone calls was from the studio of Mr. Tanaguchi and he is sending an assistant to hand us copies of his books. Whoa. Now, I know that I must have been good in some lifetime but this just bust loose from its moorings. Yoichiro Hiroki, the assistant, did arrive within the hour and our party was in full flight. The books were impressive. All this time I was also trying to eat everything in site. Tadahiro even broke out the vintage sake for the occasion (I didn’t know what good sake tastes like, but I do now).
The night was moving apace and Tadahiro was curious about Enrico and I, asking questions about where we studied, “how did you fix your style?” “Do you know of artist, Alex Nino?” Apparently he was struck by the unique brushwork by the legendary artist from the Philippines. I never met Alex myself but do know of Gerry Alanguilan’s website and the Philippine Comics Art Museum. I promise to send him a link. Then he disappears again only to return with an envelope. Enrico opens it. It was a stack of bond paper doodles. That’s too simple. They really weren’t doodles. Not the kind us humans know to do. I’m handed another stack and I must have quite the expression on my face because Kuro was smiling and looking to her husband as if to say, “This one’s really having a blast with that, isn’t that sweet?” Well, I was. My jaw was agape the whole time and I sneak looks at Enrico’s stack and they were even more stunning. By the time I finished looking through both stacks, Hikaru would add that there were boxes and boxes of these in the office. Tadahiro brings out a pen, “The only pen I use.” I look at it and see that it looks like a lot of the pens one could purchase in the U.S. and not forged in Asgard. He promptly offers it to me, “Keep!”
Okay, I’m the modest sort and given to demure in the face of generosity, a cultural reflex learned from boyhood in the Philippines, but I wasn’t going to pass this up. He brings out a brush. A Japanes fine hair one, for detail work from the looks of it. He offers that to me as well. Now, I can’t very well turn that down, are you kidding? I inquire about a drawing of a lady curled up onto her self in full dress and the ink line. He brings out the brush he used, the kind that has it’s own ink reservoir in the handle. He gestures for me to have it as well. I feel like I’ve received enough and laugh out to decline. If I thought more about it…
The conversation was lively and everyone was having a good time but it was getting late. Hikaru was trying to call for a sane regard for how Enrico and I were to get back to our hotels. Tadahiro talks to Hikaru and at the end of the exchange he waves his hand, “No problem.” Earlier in the evening Tadahiro had sounded out that he was going to give a demonstration of how he worked. I know I heard that wrong and it sure is easy to do that here. But here was Kuro again reminding him that he has yet to show us. I’m not really understanding this right, am I?
What followed was the act of a man comfortable with is craft and generous as any child welcoming a friend to see his toybox treasures or simply a more evolved being in a selfless act of inclusion. He shared his procedure with us and we looked, marveled at how simple it was. To answer just this much because I promised not to divulge any of it…it’s all Photoshop. And to tell you honestly, I didn’t get all of it because his Mac had all the menus in Japanese.
When it was time to go the trains were down to the last trips and my hotel was the farthest point. Enrico and Tamami can catch their train it seems but I was going to be driven personally by Hikaru and Hiroki. I felt bad that we might be putting him out. The Uesugi’s walked outside to see us off and we shook hands, I wish I had said that night that is was quite an honor to have met him and that I will never forget this evening for rest of my life. Instead I may have said, “I now have bragging rights! Wait ‘till the boys back home here about this!” I don’t remember. But I do know that everything else is going to be told over and over again. You can ask me and I can rave about that evening on cue, in chronology and never tire of telling it. That is, until the next time this happens.