Many people must have seen the airbrush illustrations of anthropomorphic animal characters with cute eyes and pop color in commercial advertising and logos. The man behind those creations is Susumu Matsushita, who for over 35 years, has been a leading illustrator in Japan -- since even before the terms “illustration” and “graphic design” existed in the lexicon in Japan.
Born in Nakano Ward, Tokyo, in 1950, Matsushita has been proactively creating characters, illustrations and logos for his clients. His representative works include the image characters for the am/pm convenience store chain, Japan's national football team as well as the 70th anniversary poster for Mickey Mouse and Minnie and the Nagano Olympic Bidding committee.
Japan Today reporter Taro Fujimoto visits Matsushita at his office in Omotesando to hear more about his illustration business.
When did your interest in illustrations begin?
My mother says I used to make drawings on the road when I was small. She says I got angry when people walked on my works. I went on to a private 5-year specialized vocational school to study industrial design after I graduated from junior high school. My teacher at junior high school introduced me to that school but neither he nor I knew the difference between graphic design and industrial design at that time. I found I wasn’t so good at it and started devoting myself to music.
How did you start your career as a professional illustrator?
After I finished studying industrial design at school, I joined a small design production company to study graphic design from scratch in a practical environment. It was when I made cover illustrations for Popeye magazine that major companies started to get to know me and my work. I made illustrations, using animal characters, for the first time for the comic magazine Young Jump Magazine. I really appreciated the editors of Popeye magazine letting me make illustrations for rival publishers.
Why are your illustrations often animal characters?
I think that stems from the opening of Tokyo Disneyland in 1983. Through Disneyland, Japanese people started to get exposed to anthropomorphic animals as characters whom we can interact with. Since then, my clients started requesting characters based on animals.
Don't you feel like creating non-animal characters?
Yes, of course I do. I actually create lots of monsters and grotesque characters.
Your illustrations have an American-comic style.
Yes, I think I'm strongly influenced by American comics. This is because my aunt married an American solider in Japan, and I often visited their house on a U.S. Army base to read her husband's comics. He loved American comics and character items.
You're also a music producer for your wife and professional singer, Naomi Grace.
I don’t mean any offense to professional musicians, but music is a sort of hobby for me. When I was young, I was almost about to debut as a professional musician but it didn't eventuate. Now, I just enjoy creating music together with my wife, which is a source of happiness for me. I, however, try not to be pushy about it because my wife is a professional and other staff might feel awkward since I am her husband.
Do you think illustrating and music producing have something in common?
Yes, I really think so in the sense that you have to carefully consider many factors to create one piece of art or music.
What made you launch your own company in 1986 after more than 10 years as a freelancer?
My friend advised me that I should share the processes for creating illustrations with some assistants because that would save time and allow me to create more characters. Although I didn't plan to mass produce my work, his idea was good.
What is the most difficult thing for you as a company owner rather than as an artist?
Pricing my own pieces of art is difficult. So my staff help me in that area.
How long does it take to create a character?
It depends. When my idea and clients’ needs match, I can create it very quickly. When I don’t spend too much time on ideas, the outcome is much more satisfying, in general. I don't know why, though.
As an artist, do you find it difficult to work with your assistants?
I'm a difficult man for everyone to handle, I guess. So, I try to share my sense of art and beauty with them by sharing my impressions on films, music and anything. Fortunately, one of my assistants has been working with me for 22 years, so we understand each other’s sensibilities.
Do you have any rules?
I don't create characters for politicians, the gambling industry and religious groups. This is because I don't want people to see me as a member of any group with specific ideologies. Although it might be good as a business for us, I don't see ordinary people, who are members of those groups, buying my works anyway.
How is the economic downturn affecting your business?
So far, there hasn’t been much of an impact since our clients in long-term relationships are still with us. But offers from other advertising companies are decreasing.
What are your future prospects?
My works are known as airbrush art. But I'm now interested in sketch-style illustrations by pencil. Since many people have expressed an interest in such illustrations at my exhibition, I wonder if I can offer it to my clients. I think hand-drawn illustrations would interest more people in the current digital age.
What is a typical day for you?
Since I work at night, my breakfast is lunch. Then, I come to my office and start meetings, check emails, etc.
How do you spend weekends?
I go shopping and see movies with my wife. For more information, visit: www.susumumatsushita.net© Japan Today