Manga Artist Inoue Takehiko’s Appreciation of Gaudí


A Chance Encounter During the Barcelona Olympics

The millions of readers of the manga series Slam Dunk, Vagabond, and Real might imagine that author Inoue Takehiko would only have time to think up the stories and draw the artwork for his creations. And it is true that over the past 25 years he has dedicated himself to his creative activities, so that now you can find his works in any bookstore in Japan—and many others around the world.

But the renowned manga artist, born in 1967 in Ōkuchi, Kagoshima, has over the years addressed topics outside the comic medium as well. In 2013, for example, he surprised fans by publishing the book Pepita, which contains drawings and short texts inspired by the life and work of Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí (1852–1926).

The connection between the architect of the Sagrada Familia cathedral, one of the most visited Catholic monuments in the world, and the Japanese artist who catapulted to fame in 1990 with Slam Dunk, his manga about a high-school basketball team, stems in fact from Inoue’s great love of the sport at a time when it was relatively minor in Japan.

In 1992, when Slam Dunk was enjoying huge popularity, Inoue traveled to Spain to see the US men’s national basketball team compete at the Barcelona Olympics. Dubbed the “Dream Team,” it was the first squad to feature NBA players and was considered the greatest collection of basketball talent every assembled. Players included some who had inspired Slam Dunk, such as Michael Jordan, as well as many of Inoue’s personal favorites, like Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, and Magic Johnson.

In between watching the games in Barcelona, Inoue visited some of the key buildings designed by Gaudí, which are major tourist destinations in the Catalonian capital. When he first set eyes on the Sagrada Familia, he felt a bit uneasy, perhaps due to the emotional effects of watching the NBA stars on the court earlier. But viewing the magnificent work by the Catalonia native left an impression  that bore fruit 20 years later.

A view of the Sagrada Familia, which is scheduled for completion in 2026.

Meeting the Cathedral Artisans

In 2011, Inoue returned to Barcelona at the invitation of the magazine Nikkei BP. He was accompanied by several experts, including the Japanese architect Tanaka Hiroya, who since the late 1970s has dedicated himself to studying the proportions and measurements of Gaudí’s architecture. The aim of the trip was to gain a deeper understanding of the life and work of the great modernist architect.

Inoue is known to have respect and profound admiration for artisanal work, and during his trip some of his most intense conversations were with sculptors, carvers, and other artisans involved in the detailed, handcrafted work on the cathedral, which is scheduled to be completed in 2026.

One such artisan was Bruno Gallart, who was tasked with carving the Lord’s Prayer in over 40 languages in the Portico of Glory. Gallart felt a special affinity with Inoue and asked him to write the phrase “Deliver us from evil” in Japanese. Inoue was surprised and flattered by the proposal. Although initially reluctant because he was not a Christian, Inoue agreed, returning to his hotel quickly that evening to write out the Japanese sentence, which he handed to Gallart the next day.

This unexpected incident is included in Inoue’s book Pepita, which takes its title from the only female name, apart from family members, to appear in the biographies of Gaudí, as well as for its Catalan meaning of “seed.” According to Inoue, his trip to Spain became the seed of many unexpected experiences that are presented in the book, which has been translated into seven languages, including Chinese, English, French, and Spanish.

The Portico of Glory gate.

A Shared Interest in Religion

Inoue’s encounter with the life of Gaudí made him more aware of the rural background of the architect, who was born in the province of Tarragona. Many of Gaudí’s brilliant inspirations, such as the catenary arch shape of the towers of Sagrada Familia, were the result of his close observation of simple, natural forms in the countryside.

Like many who study the life of Gaudí, Inoue became aware of the profound religious beliefs of the architect, who spent his final years living inside Sagrada Familia. When criticized for the slow process of building the cathedral, he famously replied: “My client [God] is not in a hurry.” The cathedral’s facades include a collection of biblical narratives represented with the sculptures of human beings, animals, and plants that are characterized by their realism and diversity.

The rich Christian iconography found in Gaudí’s work sparked Inoue’s interest in Japanese Shintō architecture, which tends to eschew realistic depictions and superfluous ornamentation.

▼Further viewing
A Year in the Life of Ise Shrine The photographer Nakano Haruo captures Japan‘s most essential Shintō site.

In particular, Inoue became interested in Ise Jingū, one of the centers of Shintōism in Japan. In 2013, he visited the shrine to participate in ceremonies related to the reconstruction of the sanctuary’s buildings, a ritual which has been conducted every two decades for the past 1,400 years. One of the rites Inoue took part in was the Oshiraishi-mochi, a procession in which people lay white stones on the site where the new shrine will be constructed.

After his visits to Ise and other shrines in Japan and meetings with such renowned architects as Fujimori Terunobu, Inoue published Shō, a follow-up to his first book on Gaudí. I was able to accompany Inoue with a camera crew during his visits to different shrines to film a short 15-minute Japanese-language documentary, which was included on DVD with the book and was also broadcast on History Channel Japan.

Third Trip to Barcelona

In 2013, I accompanied Inoue on his third trip to the land of Gaudí. I was there to film an hour-long documentary(*1) that would follow Inoue on his trip around the rural areas where Gaudí spent long periods of his youth convelescing from the arthritis that afflicted him his whole life. Gaudí’s time in the countryside helped him hone his keen ability to observe nature. During Inoue’s trip around the province of Tarragona, he came to realize how the natural phenomena there, such as wind-twisted trees, snails, and animal bones, had helped to inspire the complex and unusual forms and structures of Gaudí’s architecture.

Although the facade of the Sagrada Familia’s Portico of Glory has not yet been publicly unveiled, we were invited during Inoue’s trip to view the part where the Japanese phrase he had written on a piece of paper two years earlier was engraved.

The engraving was near the bottom of the enormous metal gate. Inoue knelt down to touch this message, which will remain for centuries as a testament to the existence of a messenger who helped bring together the disparate fields of manga and architecture, the two religious beliefs of Shintō and Christianity, and the respective cultures of Spain and Japan. (Originally published in Spanish on December 18, 2015. Banner photo: The interior of the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona.)

(*1) ^ The documentary Pepita: Inoue Takehiko Meets Gaudí was screeened at events held in 2013–14 to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of relations between Spain and Japan, and was also shown at the exhibition “Inoue Takehiko Interprets Gaudí’s Universe,” held from July 2014 to July 2015 in Tokyo, Kanazawa, Nagasaki, Kobe, and Sendai.

manga Inoue Takehiko architecture Gaudí Barcelona Sagrada Familia Slam Dunk