book-paper-scissors つつんで、ひらいて Director: Nanako Hirose (2019) [Nippon Connection 2020]

book-paper-scissorsBook Paper Scissors Film Poster

つつんで、ひらいて Tsutsunde, Hiraite

Release Date: 2019

Duration: 94 mins.

Director: Nanako Hirose

Writer: N/A

Starring: Nobuyoshi Kikuchi, Isao Mitobe, Yoshikichi Furui, Hiromi Jonbo,

Website     IMDB

The design and feel of a book is very important. Although it usually takes second place to the ideas in the text when we discuss what we read, elemental things involved in the physical aspects of the book, such as the texture, typography and images, confer a vital character onto the text that captures a reader’s interest by stimulating their senses and placing various demands on their attention. The writer’s intent is being mediated through the perspective of the designers, editors and bookbinders involved in bringing it to the shelf. This is something we might not normally think about but the wonderful documentary book-scissors-paper proves to be an enlightening and enthralling exploration of this part of the publishing process by offering up a portrait of a world-famous book designer and his work to elucidate these ideas.

book-scissors-paper is the sophomore feature of Nanako Hirose, one of the young talents at Bunbuku-bun, the production house set up by Hirokazu Kore-eda. It is where she worked on features such as Like Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister, After the Storm and Miwa Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse, it is also where she made her debut feature, His Lost Name, which recently toured the festival circuit. That she made a documentary about book covers seems like something completely out of left-field until one discovers that her father was a book designer and that the subject of this documentary, Nobuyoshi Kikuchi, was responsible for many of the covers on the books in her parents’ house. From this personal background comes this documentary which is a tribute to the art of book design.

Hirose spent three years (2015-18) following Nobuyoshi Kikuchi around the offices and printers in Tokyo and his home in Kamakura. He has been active for more than 40 years and has designed the covers of more than 15,000 titles and worked with award-winning writers like Yoshikichi Furui. This is a lot of history but it is succinctly covered in montages of private photographs, the metaphorical urtext that inspired his career choice (an edition of The Space of Literature by Maurice Blanchot designed by Tetsuro Komai), and glossy shots of books he worked on. They all provide a sort of “greatest hits” and a sense of destiny as we glimpse him go from baby to book designer and see his covers which give a range of his aesthetic sensibilities. The film goes beyond history as we see what he is working on at the time of filming.

From the very first second of the documentary, we are shown how Kikuchi creates his work. We watch him apply scissors, pens, glue, tweezers, razors, and computer design software to paper. He even goes granular, doing the obi and ISBN as well as selecting the type paper. Sometimes, he just screws the paper up and flattens it to get a specific effect. The sight of him going gaga over the attributes of glassine reveals the boyish delight he takes in his hands-on work but, as flippant as that sounds, it gets across the idea that the tactile and visual aspect of books is important to conveying the idea of the text and influencing how readers feel – a certain typography and blank space to create an explosive effect, paper with the texture of skin for eroticism, the tone of colour for wood for the echo of religious iconography. The more time we spend with him, the more we understand that every design choice stems from experience and a deep appreciation of the text he has read as he explains how the physical techniques and materials he uses for covers reflect some aspect of the story he is trying to convey to the reader to sway their perception. Watching such care and attention is put into consumer products is gratifying and it is absorbing to see Kikuchi’s deep thoughts put into action.

All of this is conveyed for the screen by Hirose’s handheld camera which unobtrusively records Kikuchi and his creativity and fills in wider context with interviews. She opts for direct engagement with her subject and his colleagues, asking perceptive questions to get his philosophy and a sense of the wider publishing industry and we, the audience, naturally come to admire him as an artist but he subverts any lionisation of himself, admitting that he thinks of his role in less romantic terms and even struggles to find meaning in his work after so many years.

The film takes this as a jump-off point to paint a more poignant portrait of a man in his 70s aware he is fading away much like the industry he works in as we see Kikuchi work on his autobiography and him trying to negotiate shrinking resources on some book covers with complex demands. The people on screen working around him are mostly old or middle-aged, aside from an apprentice named Isao Mitobe, and there is a sense of finality in that we see Kikuchi work on a new Maurice Blanchot work which brings his career full circle. Finality? Should that be completeness? A sense of satisfaction that he has achieved his destiny and any creative struggles he has can be eased.

By following Kikuchi and seeing the way he designs books, by acknowledging the power of touch and sight and understanding how they relate to the text, Hirose creates a document of a truly unique artist who is dedicated to his craft whilst also making a film that is a snapshot of the manufacture of books. It is a smooth and enjoyable experience segmented by chapter titles that provide a nice structure and the technical details involved in publishing are explained with notes and illustrations so it is easy to understand. There is room for some poetic imagery such as the music from Kikuchi’s gramophone echoing off into the ether as a bird swoops above the coast of Kamakura and while Kikuchi reckons he will fade away himself, this film will provide a permanent document and his designs will still exist so long as libraries and book stores do and, so long as people make interesting covers that catch attention, physical books will remain and continue to draw interesting people who think deeply about what a reader perceives.

This one is available to watch across Europe as part of Nippon Connection 2020 – here’s a post with more information on the film and other documentaries.

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