Book: Tokyo at Night by Mateusz Urbanowicz

Cover of Tokyo at Night, art book by Mateusz Urbanowicz

Tokyo at Night (translated Japanese title: Tokyo Night Train Works)
by Mateusz Urbanowicz
published by MdN Corp, Tokyo, Japan
2019

This is a beautiful book of NIGHT TIME contemporary, urban watercolors by a professional artist/illustrator for Japanese animation films. If you have ever wondered what animation artists do in their spare time, the answer is: they create MORE ART!

You may find this book review inevitable, between my fuss over ordering books from Kinokuniya Books in San Francisco, my background in architecture, and my appreciation of the background illustrations in Japanese anime I caught up on during the pandemic. Kinokuniya featured Urbanowicz’ other work, Tokyo Storefronts, prominently in its windows, and those are great, but night time watercolors are definitely within my special area of interest!

There is a lot to appreciate here.

First, Urbanowicz has some conflicted feelings about contemporary urban surfaces in Tokyo. There are a plenty of hyper-modern concrete facades, overhead wires, metal roll-up doors, overpasses, and other functional urban shapes, all of which are both a great visual challenge for an artist AND a sort of painful visual blight for someone who appreciates historic/traditional Japanese design more generally. I like that Urbanowicz embraces this hypermodern chaos, accepting it for what it offers visually, and sharing some of his feelings about it.

On a related note, Urbanowicz isn’t choosing beloved landmarks that would already have a warm place in your heart: he is choosing ordinary urban scenes that you wouldn’t ordinarily go out of your way to glorify. As so many people favor conventionally pretty, “popular” scenes to benefit from existing affection for a subject, I’m all the more impressed for his originality and effort to make remarkable work about ordinary locations.

As a professional illustrator, Urbanowicz takes a very practical approach to these works. He uses waterproof ink where that benefits the work; he uses opaque white paint when that creates an effect he wants; he uses masking fluid; he uses an airbrush when he wants to soften something. He uses watercolor for its strengths, and uses other tools when they contribute. He also revises compositions when the real life arrangement wouldn’t make a great image. He offers and illustrated guide near the end of the book to share his techniques, so we’ll appreciate the human effort that went into doing all this work by hand. It’s quite refreshing that he is so skilled with many tools, and isn’t unduly strict about single tool purity.

I’m especially impressed that he created all of this work on light paper. That required laying down a LOT of pigment, and he chose his materials and approach carefully, so that his washes remained clear and smooth. (My own washes get very grainy in unfortunate ways when I try to work this this kind of saturation, so I really appreciate his fantastic washes – I appreciate just knowing that this kind of saturation is possible!) Many painters render night scenes in opaque paints, especially oils, so seeing this work done in watercolor expands my idea of what is possible in watercolor.

This is an impressive and enjoyable book of great watercolors for fans of watercolor painting, hard-edged urban details, night scenes, Tokyo, Japanese urban environments, and any of Urbanowicz’ other work.

Bookstore: Kinokuniya (San Francisco)

Photo from the Kinokuniya website for the great store in San Francisco’s Japan Center.

Oh, how I have missed browsing in bookstores!

While I have been vigilant about ordering books I want online from my local booksellers, visiting an actual bookstore is a very different experience. I go in wanting something in particular, but usually find something within each local shop’s speciality that also interests me, and so I expand my worldview by another, unexpected book.

My first physical visit to a bookstore since restrictions were lifted was to Kinokuniya. I went in to order an illustrated book published only in Japan, and came out with an armful of other books and a box of (intimidating) Japanese kanji flash cards. I have been shopping at Kinokuniya since the 1990s (!), when it was my go-to source for Japanese architecture books, and always find something I enjoy.

Most of my purchases are from their design section, which is what I go to them for most. There is something about the collection that they stock, beyond even items that are specific to Japan, that really aligns with my photographic habits, my ‘collectors eye.’ Many of the books they choose to stock have a savvy, design-documentary bent with great photos/illustrations.

It is the sort of bookstore where you would go if you were looking for a heavily illustrated book about a certain coat, a certain kind of door, a certain font, a certain COLOR. There are entire books that are just about logos that are rendered in metallic silver; there is another book in that same series for logos that use neon colors…

While their collection of Japanese language magazines is impressive, they also stock design-savvy US items, such as the stunning coffee culture magazine, Drift (driftmag.com). A magazine exclusively about one beverage, where all of the urban photography and writing centers on the theme of coffee. Do you see how this fits?

Depth, specificity, great photography, a nearly obsessive focus…

It’s also great to see what is popular for Japanese readers, whether or not those items are ever translated into English. (My Japanese is very basic, but I am someone who periodically buys foreign language publications for the photography.)

While ‘western’ publishers love to publish books about exotic details of Asia, ‘eastern’ publishers put out the exact same books on the exotic details of Europe. I saw great examples here. I love the idea that everyone can find someone else’s location and culture exotic & stylish, and then photograph them in a way that glorifies those other cultural touchpoints. Pale children in chunky-knit sweaters sit on oatmeal colored chairs while holding eggshell textured ceramics to set a Scandinavian tone – this is a design fetish perfectly rendered, with the sort of freshness that we all hope for when documenting for our home audiences. I love it, love it, love it.

I am happy to be able to visit bookstores in person again, and felt delighted (and safe!) during my visit to Kinokuniya. I am looking forward to my order arriving, so I can return to pick it up – and browse again.