Jul 102014

popeye_firstIn 1988 I was living and working in Tokyo, and I had a few steady illustration gigs to supplement my other jobs, which were some English teaching when I first arrived in Japan, and then working at TOEI animation studio when I got better established.  It was a busy time. One of the magazines I did a few illustration jobs for was the men’s fashion magazine POPEYE, which is in a big building in the Ginza district called MAGAZINE HOUSE. When dropping off an assignment, I’d enjoy reading in their big international magazine library, including periodicals from back home in Australia. In the pre-internet years, discovering a resource like that was a real treat when far from home.



The MAGAZINE HOUSE building must have contained production for at least 6 or 8 different magazines, and I did little spot illustrations for a few of them. This article here was about international shopping trips and the various deals that could be had for Japanese abroad. In those fat years of the 1980s, when the Yen was absolutely booming, bargains could be had just about anywhere, apart from at home. The prices in Japan were nutty back then, and the area where MAGAZINE HOUSE had its offices, the Ginza district, was hands-down one of the most expensive. I remember getting a cup of coffee, and a very expensive spit-take ensued when I got the $10 bill. If that sounds steep NOW, it was excruciating for a backpacker 25 years ago.

Jun 102011

More from the archive; a magazine illustration done while living in JAPAN, for a story about the TOKYO CAR SHOW (in ball-point pen and water colour).

The article claimed that the prestigious CAR OF THE YEAR award was won not on the merits of the car itself but on how much money was spent in the media campaign to win the award.


I used to do illustration as a side job while still working in the animation industry and I kept it up for several years, mainly because, back then, I didn’t think my animation career was going to last. Almost from the day I began working in animation, it appeared that the business itself was done for. All the older artists said so, and it was hard to disagree when looking at the quality of the work that was being done; not just by us, but at the best studios in the world.

Of course, a few years later everything turned around. We started to see things like THE FAMILY DOG, ROGER RABBIT and then the renaissance of DISNEY, which led to the founding of Dreamworks, Pixar and a host of other successful studios. But before that happened, I had to think what I would do if, as everyone was predicting, the biz was not going to last. And illustration was my PLAN-B.

I started doing small illustration jobs while still living in Sydney and continued, even when living in Asia. In Tokyo, I had a few magazines that I would do spot illustrations for each month and I really looked forward to those assignments because, as I said, the quality of the animation I worked on back then was not very good. The illustration assignments were my chance to have some fun.

These days I channel most of that extra energy into pottering about with personal projects but I sometimes think about doing some illustration again someday…

Feb 162008

Some more drawings from a old stash of travel sketches. These are from Japan, 1987.

When I did these, I’d not been in Japan long, having just got off the ferry from Taiwan (via Okinawa) where I had been supervising animation layouts in Taipei. After a few hectic months of tropical heat and crazy Saturday-Morning animation production schedules down there, it was actually refreshing to be in the snowy, cool winter of Japan.

It was especially lovely to have arrived to Tokyo in time for the New Year, which the Japanese do very nicely; many beautiful kimonos on display. I had not been prepared for the charming sight of Kimonos in the snow, thinking that was a thing of the past or merely a display for tourism pamphlets, but that’s exactly what I saw when I arrived. It was exciting; I had wanted to visit Japan for years, and in December 1986, I finally did. These first few sketches were drawn while watching a play in Tokyo. A friend I had made on my earlier Taiwan assignment, Sean Newton, was coincidentally working in Tokyo, and more coincidentally still, the studio he was working at was about 15 minutes walk from my guest house.

In a city as big as Tokyo, that was really remarkable luck for me to have a comrade so close by, and especially one who likes sketching so much and does it so well as Sean. We went out drawing the Tokyo sights together several times in my first weeks in Japan.

I was in tourist mode, exploring Tokyo every day while Sean had to work, but we got together sometimes during his down time, for the occasional sketch session at Tokyo Zoo, or in this case, at the Kabuki-za Theatre in Ginza, which I have vivid memories of. We also did some sketching at a Noh play, which I’m told is the more highfaluting theatrical form, but the Kabuki was perhaps more spectacular and colorful, purely from a visual point of view.

Tokyo is one of my favourite cities to explore and get lost in, but eventually even I had to move on. I had a Japan rail pass burning a hole in my pocket, and had to use it or lose it, so I hit the road.


Nov 162007

I’m still scanning and archiving lots of old 1980s travel sketchbooks and doodles.

Here are some of my very rare life-drawings, done on a cold Japanese winter’s day in 1987 at Tokyo’s UENO ZOO. The apes had gone inside to escape the cold, though they couldn’t escape prying eyes, as we human beings could observe them in their little shelter, from behind super-thick plexi-glass. The observation room was relatively warm and a good place to do some sketching. As other visitors came and went, I got to really study the gorilla as he sat in a very relaxed pose apparently not even noticing the crowd. Suddenly, he sprang into a classic SILVER-BACK pose and violently banged his fists on the glass so hard that the plexi-glass pane went BOOM!

This terrified everyone, and sent them running and yelling out into the cold, clearing the observation room, only to slowly fill up again with a new group of people who were unaware of how much jeopardy their underpants were about to be in, because over the course of about 40 minutes, I saw the gorilla pull this move about once every 7 minutes or so. After the first time, it was pretty funny to watch him affecting this “I’m not watching you guys” attitude but then, with a little tell-tale glance at the crowd (just to make sure that the observation room had filled up) he would again unload a KING KONG moment, which was guaranteed to scare the ramen-noodles out of everyone– me included.

I will be posting much more of My Japan travel Sketches

Nov 082007

These are some of the illustrations for an English Language text book for Japanese readers. I drew them many years ago while I was working and living in Japan.

In the early months, my income was mainly from Teaching English, so freelance illustration jobs were a welcome distraction from my limitations as an English Language teacher…. I didn’t teach at a school (if you can call what I was doing “teaching” at all) instead, I put on a tie and an ill-fitting suit (bought from a shady tailor in Bangkok) and went to teach on-site at several businesses around Tokyo (including National Electronics and Toshiba) that had conversational English classes as part of the training program for their employees. I spent a lot of time travelling around Tokyo by train, going from job to job. Using Google Earth and WikiMapia I was recently able to figure out where some of my old teaching posts were.

This was part of a long period in my life where I rarely participated in a fluent conversation. In the evenings, my students mangled my own language (under my earnest direction) and the for the rest of the day I mangled theirs, as I tried to learn Japanese. Though I was a language-teacher at night, in the mornings I was a language-student myself, attending Japanese language classes. I am sad to say that I never got very fluent, despite my very best efforts (a Japanese friend tells me that I speak Japanese like a little girl) but I managed to pick up enough “survival” Japanese to get around, order food and have limited conversations with anyone patient enough to listen to me shred the verb conjugations of their language.

Thankfully, both for me and the well-being of my English-language students, I soon found a job that I was better qualified for; working in animation (at TOEI Studios, on a Superman TV series) and so I quit being an English teacher. Though the full-time job meant that I unfortunately had to give up my morning Japanese classes, it was a relief to be able to take off the baggy suit and neck-tie and draw all day. I continued to do freelance illustration jobs, in addition to the animation work, right up until I left Japan.

Aug 292007

I recently found a pile of sketches that I drew when I was living in Tokyo. Back then I often doodled what I saw, perhaps because everything was so new to me and I had a lot of time on my hands, living in a vast, complicated metropolis where I didn’t know many people and couldn’t really communicate very well with most of those few people who I did know.

My interest in going to Japan had developed without any clear idea of what to expect. When I arrived in Tokyo I was blissfully unaware of anything about the place, including what it even looked like. Arriving with no preconceived notions whatever made those first impressions of Tokyo very powerful indeed. I remember seeing the modernity of Tokyo’s SHINJUKU area for the first time. Like a lot of other Westerners who arrived there in the mid 1980s, the only thing in my experience that I could compare it to were images from Science Fiction movies that I had seen. The density of the crowds, the modernity of the architecture, the visual noise of the neon-lights, the giant TV screens on the sides of buildings and the buzzing efficiency of the place were like nothing I had yet experienced.

It amazed me that I had not heard of this place before I had visited it myself. I had vivid mental snapshots of Times Square, and Piccadilly projected inside my skull before I ever set foot in those places. Impressions formed not only from TV and movies, but also from conversations with friends who had visited them. I knew a ton of people who had been to London but had only met two people who had actually been to Japan before me… and why hadn’t they told me about GINZA? Or SHIBUYA? The first I knew of all these places, I was standing neck deep in their amazing spectacle.


Tokyo is a remarkably ugly city, and especially so given the fact that the people who live there are very much concerned with the appearances of things. But maybe “ugly” isn’t the right word, perhaps “disorganised” is better? But even that word shows up the paradox, because the Japanese are rather concerned with order as well, though apparently not when it came to the building of Tokyo. Right around the corner from where I lived was a bubble-gum factory, which was next to a school, next to an apartment next to a Temple. If there are zoning laws in Tokyo I can’t imagine what the restrictions must be…


For that reason it is a delight for modern architects. A Swiss architecture student I met one day, as I walked about the back-streets, opened my eyes to that fact. He had only come to Tokyo to see the buildings of Kenzo Tange and I used what little language and navigation skills I had acquired to help him find Tange’s church. Unlike me, I don’t think the Swiss guy cared much for Tokyo, other than the buildings. He kept asking me “Vhere are zee prOstitUtes?” I had no idea. My budget didn’t run to such things.

Ugly or not, Tokyo is a fascinating city to spend time in. Its wiggly streets noodle out all over the place, full of little nooks to explore, but newcomers learn the way to and from their daily haunts by rote, afraid to stray from the familiar path that they have hacked through the eccentric and tangled jungle of buildings and lanes. That is how I was at first. Later, I stumbled off the routes that I had known and often discovered that one block over from the path I had taken daily, there was a whole other world. Funny little shops. Themed cafes and restaurants. Weird buildings… and charming juxtapositions of things you wont see in any other city. There isn’t a better metropolis in the world to let yourself get lost in, which is just as well, because getting lost is very easy to do.

It is probably true to say that Tokyo is a difficult city to make friends in, though I did make a few, and acquaintances I made a-plenty. Sadly, I have lost contact with the Japanese people I knew back then, though I’ve managed to stay in touch with one or two of my foreigner pals. The subject of how hard it was to make friends in Tokyo was a common topic of our conversation. Some people would read a lot into it but It didn’t bother me, or even surprise me. I take it for granted that it is difficult making friends in any big city. Add to that a few other factors, such as not being able to speak the language, or the fact that the Japanese don’t traditionally entertain in their homes, and the GAIJIN can feel a bit left out.

In any case, none of that worried me… maybe it would have if I had spent more time living there, I don’t know… The truth is, I never felt connected anywhere, even in the place I had come from. At least in Tokyo I had an excuse for my alienation; I was an Alien! (We gaijin had to carry a finger-printed ALIEN ID card. I wish I had it now; what a souvenir!)

Sketching Japanese life was something I only did in those few still spaces here and there; parks, coffee shops restaurants and trains, but when I was on the move, which was most of the time, I took about a million photographs. I am so glad to have both the drawings and the photographs now, as a record of the the very happy years I spent in Japan. Mostly, it is only after some time has passed that I am able to look back on a certain time and realise how lucky I was to be there at that specific time and place. However, when I lived in Tokyo I was smart enough to realise that I was enjoying myself in the moment. I’ve only had that clarity a few times in my life and perhaps Tokyo was the first time. It is a great feeling to know that you are in the right place at the right time, at THAT time.

I always get jealous when I hear that someone I know is going to Tokyo, in a way that I don’t when people go on trips to other places that I enjoy… I am not sure why that is so… another mystery is why I have let 10 years pass by since I last visited Japan…

Perhaps it is time for me to go back for a visit?
(More Tokyo sketches here)