HAT WEEK: An interview with Satoshi Kitamura

posted in: Satoshi Kitamura | 10

Next month one of my all-time favourite illustrators will be visiting the UK, and in a dream come true, I’ll be getting to meet him. I’ve even bought a special hat for the occasion. (True! I’ll be sharing a photo after the event…)


Satoshi Kitamura will be in UK with the Children’s Book Show, talking all about his glorious, imaginative and utterly beautiful book Millie’s Marvellous Hat, one of the first books I ever reviewed on Playing by the book (and recently included in The Sunday Times 100 Children’s Modern Classics list).

He’ll be at the Oxford Playhouse on Friday 14th November and later that day he will be doing an event with the Japan Foundation in London. You’ll also get a chance to see Satoshi at the South Ken Kids’ Festival in London the following weekend, where he’s running a workshop, and engaging in a Drawing Duo with Aurélie Guillerey.

Even if you can’t make any of these events, please do join me today as I interview Satoshi, about hats, Japanese illustrators, and how his work has changed over his career so far.

Zoe: Millie’s Marvellous Hat is the most playful and wonderful of picture books. Millie can’t afford to buy a hat but she can imagine the hat she’d like to wear. Your book is full of incredible hats, each of which somehow reflects the character who is wearing it. I’d like to start by asking what hat you are wearing today? Is it a hat you often wear? What does your hat tell us about you?

(I can easily imagine you wearing a hat mixing your beautiful blues, plenty of cats and lots of music escaping into the air. In my head I’m wearing a hat with a peal of brightly coloured books cascading open, with lots of characters and sparks escaping from the pages.)

Click to view a larger image.
An extract from Millie’s Marvellous Hat

Kitamura-largeSatoshi: At the moment I’m listening to wonderful jazz music on the radio and my musical hat is becoming bigger and more colourful. I love all sorts of music. I wish I had some musical talent myself but unfortunately I have none. So I often put on my imaginary musical hat that makes interesting melodies and harmonies.

Zoe: I love the look and sound of your hat, Satoshi!

Can you share 3 or 4 key points on your journey to becoming an author and illustrator – key people, special books, serendipitous meetings, that sort of thing? What books did you enjoy as a child?

Astro Boy
Astro Boy
Satoshi: When I was a child I spent lots of time reading comics. Astroboy (Tetsuwan Atom) by Osamu Tezuka was my favourite and Shigeru Mizuki’s little spooky comics were excellent too. My elder brother influenced me a lot. He was keen on painting from an early age and by four or five I had started to draw with him. In our early teens we often went to art galleries together. The first one we went to was a big exhibition of Pierre Bonnard, the French painter.

I started making a picture book in my twenties. The most important person in my journey was Klaus Flugge, owner and publisher of Andersen Press. He gave me the story Angry Arthur by Hiawyn Oram and published it with my illustrations. That started my career. Klaus and I have been good friends ever since.

An illustrated envelope sent by Satoshi Kitamura to Klaus Flugge.
An illustrated envelope sent by Satoshi Kitamura to Klaus Flugge.

Zoe: I read that you once said “I like to ‘read between the lines ‘. It’s the same with poetry — it’s in that space between the lines that I find things to illustrate.”  You’ve illustrated several volumes of poetry (my girls favourite is John Agard’s Goldilocks on CCTV) – how is illustrating poetry different to illustrating a short story, a picture book text (if at all)? Do you go through a different process?

Satoshi: Illustrating short stories or picture book texts are narrative illustration in which you illustrate scenes that progress the story. Illustrating poetry is like answering a letter: a piece of fine poetry is a letter written to you and you answer it by showing what kind of image, feeling or sensation the poem created in your mind. You answer it with pictures.

Zoe: I understand that at the time of the 2011 earthquake and Tsunami you were working on a sequel to Millie’s Marvellous Hat. Is that sequel still on the cards? Or has its association with such a devastating event made it hard to finish?

Satoshi: The earthquake in 2011 was the most crucial incident in the recent history of Japan and we still live in its aftermath. Unfortunately since then the country seems to be heading in the wrong direction. The very right-wing government is becoming more aggressive and relationships with neighbouring countries are deteriorating unnecessarily. On the positive side, the earthquake made many of us more concerned about politics and about the technology our society relies upon.

However, these things do not affect my work directly. I have written a couple of stories for Millie but they are not as good as the first one. I’d love to do another book about Millie one day. I’ve done two short graphic novels recently. One is an adaptation of a Leonora Carrington short story and another was my own story inspired by one of Charles Simic‘s poems. I enjoyed working on them very much and would like to tell more stories in this way.

Zoe: You’ve been illustrating for over 30 years – what have you learned about illustrating in this time and how do you think your style has changed since you illustrated Angry Arthur? Have you changed the materials you use for illustrating?

Satoshi: I hope my illustrations are getting better, although I always feel that they are not quite good enough. Probably lots of artists feel this way – that life is too short, and they need two or three hundred years to develop his/her skills to the full. Or possibly I am a little immature!

9781783440429I’ve never consciously changed my style. The changes come naturally. In terms of materials, I sometimes use new materials – for example, I paint with acrylics more often these days. In Beetle and Bug in the Grissel Hunt, written by Hiawyn Oram, I made a top using a biro and drew spiral patterns by spinning the top across the paper.

Zoe: In the past you lived for an extended period in Britain, but I believe you are now based back in Japan. How is the picture book landscape different in these two countries? What do you find works well in one place but not the other? What do you think each could learn from the other?

ufo-dSatoshi: I’m a bit of an outsider in my own country, probably because I lived in UK for about 30 years. Strangely, my books are most popular in Latin America. I don’t know why but I see more books of mine in bookshops there than anywhere else. I have been invited to many book festivals in Mexico, Chile and Colombia. My books are not particularly popular in Japan but Millie’s Marvelous Hat will be a set book for second year primary school students in Japan from next year. Many years ago UFO Diary was in the English textbook for Japanese secondary school students.

Zoe: Could you recommend some Japanese illustrators we should look out for (whether or not they are available in translation)?

Satoshi: Ken Katayama is the most outstanding artist alive in picture books in Japan. Suekichi Akaba was another brilliant artist.

Two books illustrated by Ken Katayama  (1940–)
Two books illustrated by Ken Katayama (1940–)
Two books illustrated by Suekichi Akaba (1910–1990)
Two books illustrated by Suekichi Akaba (1910–1990)

Zoe: Many thanks Satoshi – I’m really looking forward to meeting you next month!

You’ll have to wait a year for this, but November 2015 will see a brand new book from Satoshi:

Shh! Here’s a sneak peak from inside the pages…
An illustration from the forthcoming 'My Hand' by Satoshi Kitamura

10 Responses

  1. Polly

    We saw a show based on ‘Me and my cat’ a couple of weeks ago and it was one of the best kids shows I’ve been to. I recommend if it comes anywhere near you.

  2. Marjorie (MWD)

    Thank you, Zoe – another great interview. I love Satoshi’s books. My children’s singing group love Igor: The Bird Who Couldn’t Sing.

    And I really recommend Suho’s White Horse, highlighted as illustrated by Suekichi Akaba (I included it in a reading list for Mongolia here – http://www.papertigers.org/personalViews/archiveViews/MCoughlan5.htmlhere – ) – I think it’s only available second-hand now – but make sure you get it with the CD, as the music is integral to the story!

  3. Jojoebi

    Great interview, interesting views about the difference between here and the UK and that his books are popular in Latin America.

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