Picture poetry


Book review, from Tokyo – What do you get when you bring an illustrator a poem? You might just get a picture book. Apparently, that’s what happened with 『オサム』 (Osamu, a somewhat common name for a Japanese boy or man). On the cover is a gorilla holding a bunch of flowers to its nose, a little bumblebee buzzing near its brow. The French flap offers a hint – “When I tried to draw a good person, I ended up with a gorilla!” Those words belong to Hiroshi Abe, who drew the illustrations to Shuntaro Tanikawa’s words.

Curious, I turned the page.

It begins with a statement that is at once simple and profound.

ほかの生きものと ともにオサムは生きている

(Hoka no ikimono to tomo ni, Osamu ha ikite iru; lit. Osamu lives together with/among other living things.)

The book flips page after page into Osamu’s interactions with the other living things around him – children, other gorillas, neighbours, nature – and his temperament – quiet, gentle, kind, fun. He spends his birthday lying quietly on a shady grassy patch, looking somewhat happily to an owl and a chameleon perched on an overhanging branch. Osamu writes a letter to a teacher who taught him many years ago and bears a contented smile as he stands on all fours eyes closed among a bed of flowers of an ancestor’s grave – Osamu is grateful and respectful of those before him.

The book closes with

オサムは今日も つつましく生きている

(Osamu ha kyou mo tsutsumashiku ikite iru; lit. Osamu lives today (and everyday) humbly.)

Like many picture books, the beauty lies in the collaboration between pictures and words. Abe manages to express what is not in Tanikawa’s words, the interpretation often simple and beautiful. For instance, when Osamu visits an ancestor’s grave, we only see a bed of flowers, and Osamu’s quiet nature is expressed by him looking inquisitively at a bumblebee. There is no extravagant fanfare over a birthday nor tussles for supremacy. Even in action, Osamu imbued a sense of quiet and being at peace with all things around him, a good being enjoying a simple, humble life.

Like many a good book, another twist waited at the end.

There, I found a pleasant surprise – another poem by Shuntaro Tanikawa! In『ぼくのゆめ』(Boku no yume, lit. My dream; boku is normally used by boys but some girls today use it too), a grown-up asks “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The child replies “My dream is to become a good person.” When the grown-up pulls a frown and chides the child for not having a bigger dream, the child’s reaction is,

“I don’t need to be great

I don’t need to be rich

My dream is to be a good person

That’s what I think to myself without saying it out loud”

Trying to put the idea of ii hito or good person into words, Tanikawa wrote Osamu, the poem by the name of the good person he envisioned. And Hiroshi Abe drew inspiration from the quiet, gentle gorilla in Asahiyama Zoo, Hokkaido.

A book that reads from front to back and back again, these two well-loved children’s book creators bring us another precious book, this time a poetic one on enjoying the simple life as a good being.

Title: 『オサム』 (Osamu) text by Shuntaro Tanikawa, illustrated by Hiroshi Abe
Publisher: Dowa-ya Co., Ltd., 2021

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