Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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NANAKO HIROSE: BOOK-PAPER-SCISSORS / つつんで、ひらいて [Pinch me, open me] (2019) - JAPAN CUTS 2020



A designer of books who does it the old way

As you all know, in Japan uniquely they can declare a person a "natural treasure." Nobuyoshi Kikuchi, now seventy-seven, may deserve that status - if people still care about books. Sometimes the digital world seems to have forgotten them. To meet a revered book designer is to remember the thing-ness of books, their beauty as objects to be held in one's hands. Here we meet the process, the preparing (his preferred word) of the book, its physicality and its art.

Kikuchi is revered, and he, and the blurb, speak of how many books he has designed (they differ; they say fifteen thousand, he says ten), but though he is still at work, his method is antiquated and has long been so. He designs book jackets' physical layout not unlike the way I saw them being designed at Turk & Reinfeld in New York five decades ago. Like those book jacket designers, but with much more attention to the whole book, a focus on literary works, and a profounder study of the content, he does it all by hand, moving characters around with tweezers, tacking them dow with tape or glue. (They appear to be all, or nearly all, "abstract," without images, like a mosque.) A longtime woman collaborator in the next room (who doesn't always agree) changes the size of the images electronically. A younger designer, his apprentice Isao Mitobe, is at his computer, and says what he does on it to him is "drawing." Kikuchi's work station is simple, with one light but a big window. Outside are beautiful plants that he says grew up from seeds plucked and dropped by birds and fertilized by their droppings. It's wandered over by several ornamental cats.

The essence of this documentary is seeing Kukuchi hold up books he has designed, or the mockups of them and talking about them. When he encountered Tetsuro Komai's design for the Japanese edition of Maurice Blanchot's The Space of Literature, with its flat drypoint images and the gold lettering centered upon them, it was like love, a revelation he still comes back to, fifty years later, and talks about. He explains the feel of a paper (paper itself an art the Japanese excel at), "like a lover's skin," the choice of a color, how he got a certain shade of red by printing it over white, the challenge he sees in having to include a barcode. He reads the most important part of the book and absorbs it. He thinks it out. For a bar across a book on Christianity he chose a certain brown to suggest the wood of the cross.

Kikuchi himself has the mellowness of polished wood. But in his youth he dropped out of art school because he had his own ideas on design, and he points out a jacket with characters all at an angle that shocked the printers. He still seeks to surprise. A bookman points out at times he has "challenged the expectations of bookshops and distribution" with designs that were "boldly defiant" and pointed to his opposition to the way print was going. A poet who's worked with the designer says letterpress - hand type-setting, was wiped out by the Great Earthquake. It destroyed all the small presses where letterpress was still done. Will books in the future only be read? he asks, puffing on a pipe and smiling. Bookshops still survive, at least, he adds, "though we will never know for how long."

All this is about caring about the physical book. There is a sense of life enjoyed through savoring good things aesthetically. With an old friend he celebrates at a favorite ramen shop surrounded by warm wood. At home, as at his favorite cafe, which started when he went freelance and he considers an extension of his office, he enjoys good coffee he has made lovingly with beans he has ground by hand and poured into an exquisite thin white china cup, a masterpiece of another art the Japanese excel at, ceramics. Everything is thought out, savored, contemplated. Relaxing, he winds up a handsome, carefully preserved gramophone and plays a tango. Out the window is a balcony on the sea and the horizon shows small sailboats. Inside the walls are dense with antique baked pots.

Kakuchi does not pose as a man of wisdom. After designing all those books, he says, he only feels "empty." "I've always talked," he says, "about how literature was a tool for nurturing the mind. However, the more I design these books, the more empty I become...After achieving all this knowledge, one only gets confused."

But when, later in the film, Kikuchi is designing a new edition of Blanchot's The Space of Literature, he's excited. He hugs the paper he's chosen that he says is "better than the samples," rubbing it against his face and saying, "Don't tell!" He speaks of Blanchot dating Marguerite Duras in '68 and says the paper is Duras' skin, the color of her lingerie. He's nuts, but it's quite wonderful, and we begin to love the man at last. After the three volumes are done, he is let down and says he will never be so excited again; there is no "next level" he can go to after this.

This documentary at any rate is directed with a sure and steady and modest hand - and with love, and its patience is rewarded. I was reminded of Nicolas Philibert's lovely doc about an elementary school class in the French alps, the reward for several years of patient, loving observation. This film, though it's less detached and more interrogatory, and sometimes engages with Kikuchi, is similarly the result of a three-year passion project by Hirokazu Kore-eda protege Nanako Hirose, whose late father was himself a book designer born in Kanagawa, where Kakuchi lives and works (in Kamakura). This has Kakuchi's contemplative, patient style too in a work that's primarily for "design enthusiasts and bibliophiles." But you don't have to be a "bibliophile" to love books or enjoy seeing them considered as objects of a designer's art. Artists and makers of artist books might also want to look.

Book-Paper-Scissors /つつんで、ひらいて ("Pinch Me, Open me"), 94 mins., Debuted at Busan Oct. 2019 and was released in Japan in December; it has had online releases, nicluding at Japan Cuts 2020 (July 17-30), as part of which it was screened for this review.
The festival is entirely online this year. Anyone in the US can watch it, paying a small fee for each individual film, from July 17-30, 2020. Go HERE to access the films

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