Tracking Yoshitoshi

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Well, that's one more thing I can cross of my list of things that have to be done right now: the cover art for the kaiki anthology series is finally settled, and well on its way toward completion. It took quite a while to get here, and I thought you might find it interesting. Solving problems like this is always interesting, true, but usually far more enjoyable after solving them than while you're trying to figure out what to do next...

We've always tried to use artists from Japan to illustrate books translated from Japanese into English, and foreign artists on books in Japanese (like our Mayumura Taku books). Our first book cover was really on Administrator, and we wanted it to be a good one.

I've always had a thing for Katō Naoyuki, and really wanted to ask him to handle it. Fortunately, he has a website, and that made it pretty easy to get in contact with him... Turned out we knew a number of people in common, and in fact I'd already worked with him, indirectly, about 25 years ago. A few emails later we had a deal, and a copy of the book was winging its way to him to read. (He returned the book months later, and I was fascinated to discover that he had read through it, inserting Post-Its on pages with highly visual scenes... it had never occured to me, but he had clearly read through it to capture not only the story, but the imagery of the author!)

It wasn't as clear-cut when it came to picking a cover artist for kaiki, though. We talked about having a cover set made especially for the book, like we did for our Lairs of the Hidden Gods series, and spent several weeks scanning through websites and checking likely cover artists on horror and weird story books at local bookstores. I really didn't see too much that thrilled me; most of it was either black on black or manga, but there were a few very nice ones. A painting by Uemura Shōen (上村松園) was perhaps the best of all.

It was used on the cover of on a book of weird stories on a theme of hair... and the cover suggested long, black hair. The collection was edited by Higashi Masao, who is also putting together our kaiki collection.

I spent a few days Googling and visiting local bookstores and libraries. His work is easy to find, but unfortunately I couldn't find three pieces that were suitably weird, or at least suitable for our anthology. A lot of very beautiful stuff, though, and I certainly don't regret the time spent looking.

While at Junkudō, though, I also looked through their bookshelf full of art books in the genre, and found a few more exciting artists. I'd run across many of them before, but never really sat down and looked at a whole book of pictures at once. Figuring I could justify the expenditure by claiming we might use them again in the future, I snapped up a few books featuring some really great artists:

  • Itō Hikozō (伊藤彦造), a truly outstanding pen-and-ink illustrator. Most of his stuff is black-and-white and may never end up on one of our covers, but I sure enjoy looking at them. You can find samples here and there online.
  • Kawanabe Kyōsai (河鍋暁斎), another outstanding artist who lived through the tumult of the Meiji Restoration. Incredible color and imagination. I was lucky enough to find an art book just packed full of his color work.
  • Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳), a famous woodblock print artist who died just before the Meiji Restoration. I'm sure a number of his works will be known to many readers in the US and Europe already.
  • And several collections of prints by multiple artists on weird themes.

I looked through all this material, passed it around to other people, and came up with a few ideas. One of the most promising was this delightful piece by Kawanabe Kyōsai, a superlative work of a beauty and her dancing skeletal friends. Unfortunately, a fair amount of detective work failed to find other pieces to make a set of three. Wouldn't mind having it over my fireplace, though. If I had a fireplace... The same artist also had this delightful cat piece, but it is in landscape mode and just won't work on a bookcover, unfortunately.

This meant that I'd used up most of my options. While debating whether I should go back to the bookstore or just leap off a bridge somewhere, I happened to remember a book I had gotten as a gift years ago, featuring all sorts of bizarre Japanese woodblock prints. I dragged it out and leafed through, and was delighted to discover Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (月岡芳年). Not only were they great prints, I recognized the name because my father had collected over half of his famous One Hundred Aspects of the Moon series.

The prints that interested me were from his New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts series of prints. They are all available online here.

Now, Yoshitoshi himself died in 1892, so his works are all public domain, but since I don't own any I'd have to locate someone who had high-resolution photographs, and could sell me rights to use them. I called the (Japanese) publisher of the book I had, explained that I wanted to contact the photographer, and was delighted when they gave me his phone and fax. A detailed explanation of what we wanted went out shortly.

After giving them a few days to read it, I phoned. His wife answered, explaining that he was in his nineties and hard of hearing, but they did indeed have the photos. She said they would cost about US$800 apiece for usage, that she would loan me color prints (not negatives or files), and that I would have to come pick them up and return them in person. She didn't trust parcel delivery, and added that if I should happen to lose one it would cost me US$5000.
Well, that's a fair chunk of change, and when you add in airfare for two round trips to Tokyo it was pretty hard to accept. Especially for a color print.

But he wasn't the only photographer in print. I noticed that several books on Yoshitoshi had been written by John Stevenson, but couldn't locate the man himself. I did discover that he had served as curator for exhibitions of Yoshitoshi's prints in a few places, and sent e-mail off to an art museum, asking them to forward my letter to John. I had a response from the man himself within 24 hours.

Even, better, I had permission to use the art on my covers within a few days after that, along with rough scans. High-res scans are coming later. Everything went amazing smoothly once I decided to go with Yoshitoshi!

Now that that's all settled (well, we still have to do the detail design on the covers, and figure out what to say where, but that's all minor stuff...), I can get back to work on finding a cover for Crystal Silence!

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Kurodahan Press

Kurodahan Press
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3-9-10-403 Tenjin
Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
810-0001 JAPAN

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