Particularly at the present moment, it’s near impossible to ignore the fact that we live in an increasingly digital world. We value speed and convenience, and perhaps we’ve begun to lose a sense of aesthetic pleasure in the objects which we consume and then all too often discard. When we think of a book, then we think of the words and words do not necessarily have to be attached to any one thing to have meaning. But a book is also an object, it can have weight and import entirely separate from the words which it contains and, indeed, perhaps some of us are guilty buying them especially for their aesthetic qualities with little to no intention of ever opening the covers. 

The subject of Nanako Hirose’s documentary Book-Paper-Scissors (つつんで、ひらいて, Tsutsunde, Hiraite), Nobuyoshi Kikuchi, is now in his 70s and over the last 40 years been one of Japan’s premier book designers. You could say that his is a dying art, at least we’re always hearing that traditional bookshops are struggling and e-books are on the rise (though the trend seems to have reversed in the last few years), but Kikuchi finds himself still very much in demand working with some of Japan’s biggest publishing houses as well as smaller indie endeavours producing more esoteric affairs such as poetry, philosophy, and religion. 

An old soul, Kikuchi frequents the same Showa-era kissaten he’s patronised for most of his working life the advent of which coincided with its opening, joking that he treats it almost as an extention of his office. He favours pour over coffee even at home where he pays close attention to the quality of the cup to enahance the flavour while playing records on a vintage windup gramophone. Which is all to say, he values the totality of experience above that of the essence. For him, words are living things which exist outside of human beings and the book is their physical body. 

His approach is as much tactile as it is visual. He describes the feeling of the book in the hand, reminding us that this is an object intended to be held and read and that the design must contribute to the experience. In this case and others, the intention is sensual, Kikuchi wants the cover to mimic the texture of human skin. He selects his paper with the utmost care not only for its quality but its effect. When technology limits his first choice he finds another, but we are reminded once again that this is a dying medium in the need to conserve materials because this kind of paper is about to be discontinued by its manufacturer. 

Kikuchi offers the fact that he has no successor as one reason he has no intention of retiring, but there are those coming up behind him such as a young man, Mitobe, who was inspired by one of Kikuchi’s books to become a book designer himself. Kikuchi’s own editor on a collected edition of his writings for magazines suggests that his aestheticism is in itself a kind of reaction to the death of print, whereas Mitobe suggests his generation is also operating in opposition. Design should be simple he admits, but his generation favours the elaborate. To contradict himself, he pulls out a book which has no jacket at all, its design is fused to the endpapers, prompting Hirose to ask from behind the camera what the point of the jacket is at all. And as for that, what about the ubiquitous obi which is attached to every book. Isn’t the band there for the soulless purposes of advertising and marketing? Does it too serve an aesthetic purpose or will the reader simply dispose of it as part of the wrapping?  

Even after so much success and a decades-long career, Kikuchi claims he has no real sense of accomplishment. He thought of literature as a tool for nurturing the mind but after so many books is more aware than ever of a sense of emptiness. In any case, he prefers to think of himself not as a “creator”, but as someone who “prepares” because his is an art which necessitates interraction. His design is for others, not for himself. He has no desire to retire, but is preparing to simply fade away, feeling a responsibility to create a space for the next generation while insisting that his is a connected existence, that it’s all about the people rather than the art. Will books survive? Who can say, but they are more than just words on a page and have their own vitality thanks in no short order to Kikuchi and his expansive artistry.

Book-Paper-Scissors is available to stream in Europe until June 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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