Sometimes it takes a foreign-language author or illustrator to redefine what a children’s book can be. The Barber’s Dilemma And Other Stories From Manmaru Street, written and illustrated by Japanese artist Koki Oguma, and here translated by Gita Wolf, is one of the strangest, funniest and most beautiful picturebooks I’ve come across. It comprises a series of vignettes, each accompanied by its own illustration, allegedly concerning characters from the artist-author’s neighbourhood in Tokyo.
This is a book in which people munch on shadows, build houses on their heads, dress up as mushrooms or imitate the ‘language’ of streams (thus enticing fish into their mouths). Oguma’s art is integral to each story. In fact, you get a sense that the two develop in unison, each reinforcing and legitimising the conceits of the other. The spreads, resembling semi-abstract, out-of-control doodles, have an aesthetic that’s closer to children’s art than the tidy finish of much anglophone children’s book illustration – think a Japanese Picasso, Hockney or Dubuffet – and it’s this primitive vitality which is both welcome and breathtaking. The overall effect is wildly surreal, sweetly innocent, funny as hell.
A unique concoction that’s to be truly cherished.