Japan, sense of wonder and future projects: interview with Benjamin Lacombe

Japan, sense of wonder and future projects: interview with Benjamin Lacombe

We interviewed Benjamin Lacombe in Milan.

fantasmi Lacombe 4Hi Benjamin and thank you and all the Ippocampo team for having us. It’s a real pleasure.  Let’s start our chat talking about your latest book Storie di fantasmi del Giappone, published in Italy by Ippocampo.The book collects a series of short stories written by the naturalized Japanese Irishman Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), a pioneer in introducing Japanese folklore to Westerners. This is the first part of your work dedicated to the representation of Japanese mythology through the texts of Hearn: in France Esprits & créatures du Japon (Éditions Soleil, 2020) is already available for purchase, and it will soon be released inItaly again from Ippocampo. How was the book concept born?
Since I was a very young kid I have been fascinated by Japanese culture. I love manga from Rumiko Takahashi and Hayao Miyazaki movies. In both these cases you find some yōkai inside of their works and you can feel that each of these characters has a story. I didn’t know what the story was, so I did some research and I found Lafcadio Hearn’s work, which is amazing and he is absolutely not known in France. – I think it’s the same in Italy, nobody really knows who Lafcadio is. – Sometimes it has been difficult to find the text and some of the ones that are in this and in the upcoming book had never been translated into French or Italian. It was a shame because it is such an important work. Lafcadio Hearn’s work is as important as the one of the Grimm brothers: they took the tales told only in the spoken language and gave them to the world. It was the same of what Lafcadio Hearn has done for the Japanese yōkai Stories, ghost stories, pirates stories, Kwaidan (ghost stories, ndr), Yūrei (ghosts, ndr), all of that.I wanted to know what each of them was and this is something I’ve had in my mind for a lot of time.
When I did the book and a conference on Japanese culture I rechecked all the references to be 100% sure. I’m totally committed to the work I’m doing during the research and the imaginative and creative process. I’ve always loved Japan, I visited it 5 times now, and the very first comic I did when I was 19 years old (L’Esprit du Temps, Éditions Soleil) was a comic book about a little Japanese ghost that lives in a temple and she’s locked there by a demon. I have had this fascination for Japanese ghost stories since I was young.
I did another book a few years after the first one, Butterfly Lovers, also about Japanese culture, death, and what is happening after life, and I did Madame Butterfly. It is a topic that I really love and I’m interested in. I proposed this book  to the publisher because I really wanted to work on all this folklore that is almost completely unknown to Western people and that every Japanese knows.

How did you discover the work from Lafcadio Hearn?
Just searching. I wanted to know about it and, if when you are searching for western fairy tales you find very quickly about the Grimm brothers, Andersen, La Fontaine, when searching about yōkai you find Lafcadio Hearn. The difficulty was that some of the texts, as I said, weren’t translated, so I’ve worked with a specialist in France, Matthias Hayekis, professor at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, wherehe teaches History and sociology of Japanese beliefs and Social history of knowledge in modern Japan (17th to 19th centuries): he translated some of the stories.

How was your path to the graphic representation of his work? Obviously you already knew a lot from manga and anime. Did you search more for Ukiyo-e printings?
For sure, and I made a lot of references about Japanese woodblock prints: I love the Japanese folklore and culture, and I wanted to pay homage to the complete tradition. When I’m working on a subject like this, I want to check every aspect of it.
In Japan, everything has a code: the kimono, for example. A certain type of kimono depends on the time of the year, the print that is on the kimono has a meaning, and even the way you put the kimono has a meaning.
If you wear it in a certain way it means you are leaving, if you wear it in another way it means that you are dead: in the illustration on the cover, I purposely put the right side on the top because she was a dead person. When I did this book, I made a lot of references about Lafcadio Hearn himself, about all the editions he has done and even the cover is a sort of recreation of Lafcadio Hearn. I tried to insert a meaning in every part of the cover: for example the colours I chose for the book, that you have everywhere: blue, pink, purple, magenta. These are the colours of the transition from the end of the day to the night, or from the night to the beginning of the day. This is the moment when the ghosts are supposed to appear. In Japanese culture, they always appear at the beginning of the night, or at the beginning of the day: on a transitional spot, a bridge, behind a door, something like that.
I made a reference also in the texture and fabrication: depending on the way someone looks at the book, you see it in a different way, and if you open the book you see various layers. For example, the layers at the beginning give you access to the ghost stories, give you a way to see the things, and when you have finished the last pages you have another way to see these things. The ghost stories take place between these two layers, and I made a lot of references because I wanted people who know a lot about the Japanese culture – Yōkai, Ukiyo-e, woodblock prints – to understand.
I did a lot of recreation of yōkai: sometimes they are very close to, because yōkai is a sort of cadavre exquis, so you have someone making yōkai and then the other one takes the element of it and reinterpret it. For example, for Noppera-bō, the traditional representation was a simple girl without a face.  In Miyazaki you have a very interesting representation, an empty space: I love that interpretation, so I mixed both of them. You have this kind of quotation, but sometimes I insert explicit quotations about some very famous compositions.
As an example, let’s take  Itō Jakuchū art: I used almost the same way he composed images, so the people that know him will notice, the people who don’t know him won’t know but it is not a problem.
Other references you have are Hasui Kawase and, for sure, Kuniyoshi, where I made a very clear quote. He has illustrated a very very famous story – that almost all of the great artists have illustrated – about an angry witch that sent an army of skeletons to make clear understand that you don’t mess up with her. Gashadokuro [spirits that take the form of giant skeletons, ndr.] has been a recurring reference for years and years: we don’t know why, but Kuniyoshi didn’t want to draw a skeleton army, he drew a giant skeleton, just one. This has been such an iconic image, he created a new iconography for the yōkai Gashadokuro. Since then, everybody is doing their own version of it. This is a way the yōkai art evolves through time: yōkai art is kind of like a giant cadavre exquis through time. Plus, of course you can find Hokusai and Kuniyoshi in the book again – because Kuniyoshi is the man who drew cats.

Les Amants Papillons

Which yōkai do you particularly like to illustrate?
My favourite yōkai, actually, are in the second volume. I love the kitsune and I love the kappa. I love these yōkai: they can be cute and they can be terrible and I love when you have this weird mix of kawaii and frightening things. I put her everywhere. And I love The Story of Aoyagi because the female character is a tree, and all this interesting story is about perception.
If you know Japanese culture, you know that there is something that is not normal, that is: you never see some kodamas on people, kodamas only appear on trees, in forests, and here you have one. Even if you have not read the stories, you would have known that she’s not a human, she’s a tree, that’s the reason why she has the kodamas on her.
What I love about these stories of Japan is not only the actions – you have the girl who is doing that, or you have Urashima Tarō who is going somewhere–, I love talking about your perception of life, and how you deal with the elements surrounding you. In Western culture we dominate nature and animals, we are on the top of the pyramid and the rest has to obey us. Which is completely different from these tales, because yōkai can be anything: they can be the smallest bug or they can be a tsunami, you need to respect everything because you are a part of a big thing and you are not the center of the world. And it’s very interesting especially in the period that we are having, where a lot of elements remind us that we are part of a big picture, we are not the center, and if we mess up too much we won’t be anymore part of a picture.

alice lacombe

What about your relationship with folklore and tales according to the classic fairy tales you drew? And how do you manage the paper goods as in Frida or Madame Butterfly’s leporello?
Every project for me is different. For every one I’m experimenting: I’ve the idea to do the book and sometimes it takes me 5 to 8 years to do it. That doesn’t mean that I take 5 years to do only one book (as I published more than 40 books and I’m not 100 years old). I’m thinking about it, I have it on my mind and everything I see is on purpose.
As for the book about Japanese ghost stories, everytime that there was an exhibition about yōkai or a part of Japanese culture I went there to learn more about the topic, because what I love is to know a lot of what I’m talking about. I love to learn, because if I learn, maybe, the people that will see the book at the end will learn something as well.
It is the same thing for the classics. It’s amazing how much you can learn if you dig deeply on a subject, if you try not to be superficial. Alice in Wonderland, for example, is the most illustrated book, more than the Bible, but it doesn’t mean that you cannot do something interesting with it. I have loved the story since I was a kid and when I started to illustrate it I wanted to know where I was going. I had all an idea about Alice because of the movie, all the books that I saw, but you can still have a very superficial perception of it.
[For example] some people say that the real Alice was this little girl called Alice Liddell, and that Carroll created, wrote and even illustrated the story manuscript for her. But if you look at the manuscript and at some of the diaries of Lewis Carroll what do you see? At the very end of the manuscript that he gave to her, you have the photos of Alice Liddell: under this photo you have the representation of Alice by Lewis Carroll himself. And you have the representation of Alice inside the book. You can clearly see this is not the same girl, meaning that the real Alice wasn’t Alice Liddell: it was a sort of a mix, his dream child. When Carroll asked John Tenniel – the first illustrator – to work on the book, he gave him a Beatrice Hatch photo. You can clearly see she was the muse, graphically speaking, of Alice and she wasn’t at all this little brown girl he drew, she was another one but he named her Alice and he did this story for Alice Liddell. For me it was pretty clear he gave to his character the personality of Alice and the look of Beatrice Hatch. There was stuff that everybody forgot but that was already in the manuscript. If you dig a little more you go through the surface and you discover stuff, even in a sculptural way.
You asked me about the leporello and the cut paper: all that was done on purpose because of the story. Alice’s story is all about changing, being an adolescent, growing, having part of yourself constantly changed. That’s the same reason why you have to repaint the flowers to red: there is something that happens to girls, and also she’s constantly growing and not knowing who she is anymore.  The book has to show the same travel, it changes the size at the same time she does. When I designed the book I thought: it has to follow this transformation.
For Frida it was different. I wanted to do that book for so long. She was such a specific artist deep to my heart and when I did it, there weren’t so many books about her at all. She wasn’t trendy, there wasn’t the “Me too” movement yet. But I knew what I didn’t want to do about her. I didn’t want to make a story of her life: “she was born here, she did that” because she was an unconventional person. She integrated her work into something very deep, very personal, very connected to her life but also very connected to her roots. She also had very good knowledge of the Mayans culture and she put a lot of references on her work.
When you see the first painting of Frida, the first thing you notice are the colours: very vibrants colours and a big colour palette. The second thing you notice is the one related to her story: she had her spinal column broken, she wasn’t able to have kids, so you know that the paintings have completely different meanings. And then you have a third reading, if you know all the references she’s talking about and you say: “Oh my god this is super clever”, because there is the criticism of society, she was very politicised. I knew I needed to talk about these three themes, and it took me time and time because for each chapter I needed to have three layers. And then you also have the laser cut paper: I found the idea when I was at Frida Kahlo’s museum, the Casa Azul. I was there to do a promotion and I saw one painting that gave me the key to the book. I didn’t know all the self portraits she did. Once I saw that one, I thought: “now I have my book”, because she represents her heart on her chest cavity and is cut and you see through it. That’s exactly what I did for the book: you go through it, you go through artistic resilience and artistic creation. So how the book is made is because Frida, and because her specific story’s references. It has to be meaningful, each time.

Frida lacombe

And what about the sense of wonder in your work?
There are different types of books, the ones we talked about take a lot of life out of you: you try and try for a long time, you are experimenting, you are pushing the boundaries at maximum, you talk with the printer about what is possible.
I remember when I did the book about Carmen, not available in Italy: Carmen is the representation of the femme fatale, she’s perfect. At the time not everyone understood her character, they were afraid of her because she was powerful, and they constantly said bad things about her. Instead, when you read it you say “Oh my god she’s so great because she’s so free” and it’s something that a guy from the 19th century could not understand. For that period, she was the expression of evil.
The book is about the spider and the web, the transformation, and from the very beginning I wanted the cover to have this web and filament, so I embroidered it myself because nobody would have done it. This is time consuming and you need to convince everybody.
Let’s see for example this other book I’m working on –I think that will be out in autumn because in 2022 there is the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, and will be published by Ippocampo. As I told you I love the fact that the book transforms itself :it is all about the transformation. The text has 300 pages and it wasn’t possible to put a big pop-up, but the idea of having something that transforms kept on in my mind and I wanted to do something more, I wanted to express it somehow, and so I did myself, by hand, this prototype I’m showing you – the final product will be full colours and perfect.
Here you have all the layers and you have this 360° transformation, and that is very important because Alice in wonderland is a 360° story. She starts getting asleep and she wakes up at the same exact place and during that time the entire story takes place, so it made complete sense to me to make it like this. Again, all of the creativeness leads to something new: a mix of a carousel book – normally flat – and a popup book. This technology to make it openable is difficult to explain, but you have the star inside that keeps it straight. As you can imagine, to get this I made two or three tests before and we are still finalizing it. It might change again. The cats and dogs books [for example Facéties de chat or Destins de chiens, ndr] are much easier. I love cats and dogs and I wanted to make a cool book about them but also not all the books can be that complex.

fantasmi Lacombe 1

Going back to the two Japanese books, at the end you thank Barbara Canepa for her suggestions. How did you meet her?
I met her a very long time ago, when I did my first comic book when I was 19. We had the same publishing house at that time. I loved her work with Alessandro Barbucci, Sky Doll and W.I.T.C.H., so I was so happy to work for the same publisher: we became friends very quickly. When she decided to create her collection [“Métamorphose”, at the Éditions Soleil publishing, ndr.] she asked me if I wanted to be part of it and I said yes. And I also added “Let’s make a book that nobody has done, that is absolutely not a trend that is illustrated books for adults”.In 2009 in France there was no illustrated book for adults, and it was very difficult, everybody thought that nobody wanted it and also the bookstore said “Where do I put that? I don’t put that among illustrated books, I don’t put that in the comic part, so where?”.  But finally we did Les contes macabres with Clotilde Vu – she’s co-directing the collection – and it found a very good audience. It has been a very successful book and thanks to that I can still do books like this one. So with Barbara it’s a relationship that has been lasting for almost 20 years.

In the second part of this project, is there a tanuki?
I would have loved to, but Lafcadio didn’t write about it. But you know, you have a lot of types of yōkai: first step yōkai is ghosts (the first book), second spirit and creatures (like nature and its elements, and they are in the second book), third gods and I hope to find a story about tanuki for the upcoming books.


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