Book-Paper-Scissors (Japan, 2019) [Nippon Connection ONLINE]

Writer-director Nanako Hirose’s reputation precedes her as she began her career assisting renowned Japanese filmmakers Hirokazu Kore-eda and Miwa Nishikawa. Her directorial debut His Lost Name (2018) does indeed thematically belong to the world of Kore-eda’s and Nishikawa’s cinemas as they all reconstruct the definition of family that goes against societal norms and familial expectations in their films. For her second feature she looks inward, within her own home, interested by her father’s profession as a book designer. She is introduced to acclaimed designer Nobuyoshi Kikuchi, who was born in 1943. Intrigued by his artistic, philosophical approach to book designing, she filmed Nobuyoshi at his work for over three years. This eventually became the 94-minute documentary, Book-Paper-Scissors

Nobuyoshi has been a unique and revered voice in this niche vocation ever since he made his debut in the mid-1970s. A Japanese book designer, once a book is written, artistically creates its packaging to lure potential readers. The jacket and cover, the bookmark and inner cover pages, are skilfully designed, unique to each book and inspired by the author and the subject of the book. This worded description doesn’t capture how creatively challenging and satisfying designing is and it is foremost this that Book-Paper-Scissors fluently conveys. Much of the time Nanako spends in Nobuyoshi’s compact office, it is silent observation of him working even as she uses startling camera positions. Close-ups from just behind his shoulder give a clear view to how Nobuyoshi writes his kanji texts, glues other smaller characters onto papers, draws abstract designs, measuring each in the accuracy of millimetres. She hovers the camera back a few feet when he ponders over his drafts, placing and staring at them on his desk against the wall. Nanako captures these in real time, as if edits would be akin to cutting short the creative thought process running in Nobuyoshi’s mind. As Nobuyoshi’s assistant of over thirty years, Hiromi Jinbo (revealed surprisingly by Nanako in an unexpected camera track and pan to an adjacent room), digitises his hand-drawn designs he goes back and forth with her (“this letter size should go down by 3%, to the left by a millimetre…”), to get every character, every figure perfectly positioned and every colour shade, every paper textured and prepared precisely as he wants. But how does he know what he wants. When Nanako asks him why the colour of the cover band in brown, he says it’s like wood and matches the text of the editor’s note and writer’s extract. He expressively describes how kanji characters and words speak to him, evoking imagery to conceive the graphic and textual textures. Nobuyoshi states the designer ought to have a bond with the author and themes of his book, even though he is aware he is simply an outsider, introducing a way in for the future potential reader. 

Filming the painstaking designing process thus, Nanako makes it clear that the Japanese language offers itself to create this unique artistic vocation, that book designing is intrinsically Japanese. The language uses a combination of kanji(derived from old Chinese characters) and kana (later developed by the Japanese) characters that have multiple meanings. Context of the written words decides which reading is appropriate. Showing Nanako a book jacket cover, Nobuyoshi excitedly explains the paper’s colour grading. Kanji characters from the book description evoked images of heavy rain, settling fog and that is how he created the design. Words for Nobuyoshi exist outside of human beings, are living things with originality and history of their own. Calligraphic flourishes add another aesthetic layer to his texts. 

Breaking Book-Paper-Scissors into seven chapters, Nanako also connects Nobuyoshi’s temperament and work to his authors, publishers, contemporary young designers. Going back and forth interviewing them and filming Nobuyoshi, she surprises, asking questions and cutting the scene to reveal answers provided by someone else. These are sometimes amusing, as designer Isao Mitobe (41 years), once Nobuyoshi’s protégé, moves between reverence and defiance towards his teacher as he compares their works. Younger publishers straddle two worlds – intimidated by the strictly artistic Nobuyoshi and easy with the likes of Mitobe who at times cave in to their clients’ design demands. Older authors rely on maverick Nobuyoshi even though they are taken aback by his final designs. They laugh it off. Rarely, a few change their designers. 

Nanako asks Nobuyoshi about retirement. Feeling professionally content, he wants to retire, making way for new voices he doesn’t understand. Yet, he senses emptiness, having no peak left to conquer. Holding both contrarian views, he laughs at his arrogance. Back at his work-desk, getting excited over ideas, he happily proceeds to wrestle with them, designing his next book cover.

Book-Paper-Scissors is showing at Nippon Connection ONLINE from June 9-14.