Yôkai! A journey to the heart of Japanese supernatural world with Sandrine Thommen
Sandrine Thommen was born in 1986 in the Cevennes (French mountain chain). After a short period at the Estienne School in Paris, her feet leads her at the School of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg where she graduated in 2010. Her many trips to Japan from which she draws her inspiration, among other things, have given rise to works where the fine lines of her drawings fit closely the writers’ stories.
Yokai ! Le monde étrange des monstres japonais (The strange world of Japanese monsters) is an album published in 2017 by Actes Sud Junior in which Sandrine Thommen collaborates with Fleur Daugey. The collective imagination of the Japanese is full of these creatures, used to materialize all the little weird events of life that are difficult to explain.
Can you tell us about your career as an illustrator?
Let’s say that my « career » started with my first album released in 2009 at Actes Sud Junior. I was still a student at the School of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg. This book was La Fleur du Mandarin (The Mandarin’s Flower), a story with Persian and Chinese influences written by my English teacher at the time, the Iranian-born novelist Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. The bond between us formed thanks to my very recent discovery of Persian miniatures for which I had a real love at first sight. Their detailed observation had allowed me to find a style of drawing which finally suited me particularly. The success of this first album allowed us to create a second one La Sœur du Soleil (The Sun’s Sister), a story which this time had been inspired by a Japanese ballet. Following these two published books, and my meeting with Picquier editions at the Montreuil Book Fair, I received several album orders related to Japan, and my fascination for this extreme and artistic geographical has grown steadily. After this, I started to receive different types of orders, for youth magazine, documentary albums, museums, magazines or collections of illustrations… I hardly had any « respite » in my career as an illustator, orders and projects having multipllied since 2009 ! Back when I started,,when I was not making enough money, my generous entourage allowed me to devote myself continuously to this passion-carrer.
What are your working tools? Your stages of illustration?
I choose the technique according to the project. At the beginning, I use gouache, this medium is the one that I had chosen to have the closest possible depiction of Persian miniatures. With this technique I have painted the Yokai. For other projects, depending on the time I have and the result I want to reach, I sometimes use the graphics tablet ant the computer, and some other times the colored pencils. To understand an illustration, I always start by doing an iconographic research : old works of art, photos, in order to inspire and enrich my “vocabulary” of shapes and colors, in relation to the subject being worked on. Then, more or less with the editor, I decide the format of the book and the division of the text over the pages. Only then I start my sketches, often longs and laborious, because I am not a drawing virtuoso!
When the sketches are approved by the editor, I transfer the drawings on a quality paper, which I fix on a rigid support with craft tape so as not to have crinkles, and I start the final realization. It often happens that I don’t find the right color balance the first time, and what is good with gouache is that I can wet and mop up the paint if I ever want to correct a color. This is what happened on many pages of Yokai ! For the record, the cover illustration is the image I painted first, and which, thanks to the notable author of the great artist Kuniyoshi, appeared to me almost directly without any corrections: a rare and enjoyable phenomenon!
How did the album Yokai! was born? How was your collaboration with Fleur Daugey?
First, it was the Actes Sud Junior editions that put me in contact with Fleur Daugey, to illustrate a first project which was a documentary on migratory birds ( Les Oiseaux Globe-trotters, published in 2014). This album had some success, it won 3 awards, and I met Fleur at several book fairs. We got on very quickly, and since we both shared a strong interest in Japan, Fleur told me about an idea she had of making a book on yokai, these strange creatures of Japanese folkore. It’s a hazy side of Japan that I didn’t know well yet, and I immediately got excited about this book project. Luckily, the Actes Sud Junior editions were also directly excited by the idea. Fleur Daugey first did all of her research, reading everything she could on the subject in French and English. Once the text was written and pre-draft by the editor, my work started. I conducted it alone and I regularly sent a preview of the finalized images to Actes Sud Junior and Fleur Daugey. Thanks to their glance, always enthusiastic and encouraging, some adjustments were made on some images, but on the whole my choices were approved!
Most of your drawings for this album take both human and animal forms, how were these creatures described to you, on which supports have you been based on to realize the aspect of the Yokai?
Concerning the description of the creatures, I based myself on the text of Fleur. I did however a very detailed iconographic research in Japanese images, preferably old. I could see at the Petit Palais (Paris) in the exhibition “Fantastique!” the works of Kuniyoshi, which strongly marked and influenced me. Also, I was based on drawings, found in books or on the Internet, of other great artists like Sekien, Kyosai, Hokusai, Hiroshige and Shigeru Mizuki. From the top to the bottom, I rummage through the web, and the cucumber kappa for example is very inspired by an anonymous drawing found in the depths of Internet…
What did you want to convey through your illustrations in this album?
What has left a mark on me when I discovered all this creatures was the breadth of imagination they displayed. Well… imagination, or just a fine observation of the strange Japanese reality? From the ridiculous to the terrifying, passing by the sly, I wanted my illustrations to transcribe this mental energy, this outburst of spiritual creativity… but also, as much as possible, the refined beauty of traditional Japanese aesthetics.
Where does this love for Japan that we can see in your illustrations come from?
It came to me in a radical way when, during my research for the album La Sœur du Soleil, I looked at Japanese prints, lacquers and screen in a different way, impregnated with my study of Persian and Chinese art. I then had the feeling of discovering a higher step of refinement and beauty. But I wonder if this love of Japan doesn’t come from further alfield. As a child, I had no particular fascination with Japanese animes, but on the other hand my parents gave my twin sister the name of Cosima, a possible Japanese translation meaning “small island” (Kojima). The idea of this little Japanese island at the end of the world made me dizzy. I also had in my early childhood, in a valley near the Cevennes where I lived, a very good friend as shy as me, Kenji, whose mom, Kagumi, was Japanese and fascinated me by the sweetness she exuded. One of the first things that seduced me in Japanese prints is the delicate and grandiose representation of nature, and lost in these immense landscapes that exceed a thousand times little men often a bit ridiculous . The Japanese have always been subjected to strong and uncontrollable natural outbursts such as earthquakes and typhoons, and they undoubtedly therefore have a sense of humility which touches me a lot.
You seem to travel a lot, how do you live the difference in cultures that may exist between your country and the one you are visiting? Does this cultural difference feed your inspiration?
It’s a vast topic! I mainly traveled in Asia, including China in 2014 with my former partner whom I followed for his work, and a year in Japan in 2018-2019, alone this time! I also made two shorter trips to South Korea, the second time being for my Japanese study visa. I find a particular appeal to this Korean culture, but Japan always tend to draw my attention! I met people there who were both curios about foreigners, open to differences, and eager to transmit their own culture. I made some good friends, through acquaintances and through my illustrations. If Japanese people keep a relative prudishness in conversations, I find that this reserve is very nicely balanced by the culture of public baths, which I adore, and which, it seems to me, contribute to forge a very beautiful bond between people.
Another big cultural difference that fuels my imagination is the Japanese language and its writing. The ideograms, as well as some aspects of grammatical constructions, are a source of immense inspiration from an aesthetic and semantic point of view.
And then there is the Japanese relationship to the spiritual, the supernatural. Japanese people of all ages regularly go to Shinto or Buddhist temples to pray. I also got the habit of doing it. I was touched by this somewhat « lightly » manner of going to pray the « Kamisama », those gods of which there are many different types. It seemed to me to be the expression of an idea shared by all the Japanese, an idea that everyone can intimately appropriate as they like, that there are forces above us exceeding us…
There a so many cultural differences in Japan that feed my inspiration… I didn’t talk about the particularly careful attention to the four seasons, the sense of aesthetics in every detail of daily life…
I did not stay long enough to come up against annoying cultural differences, except for the surabundance of plastic waste. I was also not confronted with the working world in Japan, which undoubtedly also saved me some disappointments…
What is your feeling on the yokai? Are these creatures benevolent or evil?
In a society where the rules of life are very strong, both imposed by society and the many typhoons and earthquakes, the yokai have probably a little outlet temper… And then, I have the feeling that the Japanese particularly accept that some things cannot be explained. In other words, from a general point of view, a legendary absurd explanation of a strange event probably suits them much better than we do, tending to look rather for “rational” explanations… Yokai can be benevolent, evil, even a little of both, things are not so simple!
What upcoming projects are you working on?
I am working on a very old project, of which I am both the author and the illustrator, which has fallen behind enormously: it is an almost silent album, very contemplative, about a piece of my life in Japan, with large, very detailed images which I draw with colored pencils. This project goes back to my first trip to Japan in 2013. This project will hopefully be enriched by the experience of the past 7 years, as well as some yokai hidden here or there…
Then, among other things, I also have a brand new drawing commission for a Japanese hard rock group, and I’m thinking about new ideas born during my stay in Japan, especially about a very intense matsuri (japanese rite festival), or a painting project on screens or sliding screens…
Sandrine Thommen website: www.sandrinethommen.com
Images: © Sandrine Thommen © Actes Sud junior
Yôkai! Le monde étrange des monstres Japonais
From 9 years old
Texts: Fleur Daugey
Illustrations: Sandrine Thommen
Publisher: Actes Sud Junior
Date of publication: October 2017
Format : 25 X 32 cm
Pages amount: 56 pages
ISBN : 978-2-330-08659-6