Contemporary Culture Going Global

Nishino Akihiro: Comedian-Turned-Illustrator Pushes New Boundaries in Entertainment


Funny man Nishino Akihiro is famous for his humor, for speaking his mind, and, more recently, for his illustrations. In autumn 2019, he held a solo exhibition at the Eiffel Tower. We met Nishino in Paris to hear about his ambitious plans to bring a new kind of entertainment to the world.

The Eiffel Tower, symbol of France and one of the world’s must-see tourist destinations, draws thousands of visitors from around the globe every day. Late last year, the iconic landmark lit up with “illuminated books” in an exhibition by one of the Japan’s best-known comedians, Nishino Akihiro. Half of the popular comedic duo King Kong, Nishino has recently embarked on a second career as an author and illustrator of innovative books for children.

The show featured original artworks based on two of Nishino’s books, Poupelle of Chimney Town and Tick Tock, the Promised Clock Tower. Pages from the works were printed on acrylic sheets and illuminated by LED lights to create a vibrant display of light and color.

The Nishino Akihiro Exhibition was held in the Gustave Eiffel Lounge inside the Eiffel Tower.

The Nishino Akihiro Exhibition was held in the Gustave Eiffel Lounge inside the Eiffel Tower.
The Nishino Akihiro Exhibition was held in the Gustave Eiffel Lounge inside the Eiffel Tower.

The Nishino Akihiro Exhibition was held in the Gustave Eiffel Lounge inside the Eiffel Tower.

The Paris show followed successful exhibitions at venues in Japan, including at Tokyo Tower and Buddhist temple Manganji in Kawanishi, Hyōgo Prefecture. But in France, Nishino brought his work to a much wider audience than ever before. For two days over the final weekend of October, the Akihiro Nishino Exhibition lit up the Gustave Eiffel Lounge on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, attracting some 6,000 visitors.

Guests mingle in the brightly lit display space at the Gustave Eiffel Lounge.
Guests mingle in the brightly lit display space at the Gustave Eiffel Lounge.

An Ambitious Second Career

Ever since he was a child, Nishino says he dreamed of becoming a comedian. Soon after debuting in his early twenties, he swiftly rose through the ranks, earning a reputation as a top funny man in his native Kansai region. He then took his act to Tokyo, where he shot to national stardom and became a regular on popular television shows. “Workwise, everything was going great,” says Nishino. However, he had a nagging sense that there was more to success than comedy. “I’d always imagined that the world would broaden out more once I had made it to the top, but this wasn't happening.”

After four years in Tokyo, he was yearning for a new challenge. “I started to realize that maybe just appearing on TV wasn’t going to be that rewarding in the long run.” Nishino had just decided to step down from one of his regular television shows when legendary comedian Morita Kazuyoshi, one of Japan’s most ubiquitous celebrities, gave him a piece of advice that turned his thoughts to writing picture books.

“Until then I’d hardly drawn a picture in my life,” exclaims Nishino. “But Morita was strangely insistent that I give it a try.” Although hesitant, Nishino says the timing was right. “I was looking for a new challenge, so I thought, why not?”

Nishino set to work teaching himself how to draw, and five years later, in 2009, he released his first book, Dr. Inku no hoshizora kinema (Dr. Ink’s Starry-Sky Cinema). He says that children’s picture books fulfilled his desire to communicate with the world beyond Japan, something he knew would be hard to do with comedy. “Humor relies so heavily on language,” he explains. “I needed a something that would take me forward, allowing me create a more global type of entertainment.”

Innovation and Creativity

Nishino is not afraid to try new approaches with his books, a tactic he feels opens different possibilities for the medium. For his fourth work, Poupelle of Chimney Town, rather than have a single author be responsible for all aspects of production, he hired a team of illustrators, assigning each member according to their expertise the tasks of drawing aspects like buildings, backgrounds, and characters. To cover the publishing costs he raised money through crowdfunding.

Poupelle et la ville sans ciel, the French translation of Nishino’s book
Poupelle et la ville sans ciel, the French translation of Nishino’s book

The project attracted more than 3,000 supporters in its first round of funding. Nishino’s entertainment background was a crucial part of its success. It is common in Japanese showbiz for people from different fields to collaborate on a single work, and Nishino combined this with his internet savvy and eye for opportunity to come up with a novel way of funding the project, one that would reward supporters with a sense they were taking part. It was a fresh new idea for Japanese children’s books. He used the same approach for his exhibitions, recruiting volunteers from online fan forums and social media to help run shows.

Nishino says his ambitions go far beyond normal picture books. “My goal from the outset was for Poupelle to be more than a book. I looked to create something that was borderless, so I wanted to hold exhibitions overseas and have the work translated into other languages.”

To this end, Nishino showed the book online at no cost for a limited time. This brought criticism from other writers, who felt that making content available for free endangered their ability to make a living from their work.

“I knew it would create a bit of a stir,” Nishino says with a wry smile. “But the people who worked on the project all agreed that it was an interesting idea. Besides, parents usually buy books for their children already knowing the story. It’s not like novels or movies where you don’t want the ending spoiled. For me, it’s meaningless to worry about trying to keep the story secret.”

Nishino signs a book for a fan at the Effeil Tower exhibition.
Nishino signs a book for a fan at the Effeil Tower exhibition.

Poupelle of Chimney Town has enjoyed remarkable success for a picture book, with more than 420,000 copies sold as of December 2019. But Nishino still has ambitions for the project.

“The idea all along was to turn Poupelle into a movie, and this is going to happen next year. The book only tells a part of the story, just three or four chapters out of ten. In fact, the main character hasn’t even appeared yet. I knew that it would be hard to make the movie right away, so I used part of the story for a book version, to give people a taste of the fictional world and hopefully get them interested in finding out more. I consider the book to be a kind of in-depth, luxury flyer for the movie.”

Cutting-edge technology brings Nishino’s images to vivid life.
Cutting-edge technology brings Nishino’s images to vivid life.

Using Technology to Take His Characters back Home

The Paris show combined colorful artwork fusion with cutting-edge technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality. Nishino explains that the inclusion of VR and AR in the show was not part of the plan at first. “With a picture book, if you have a good story, it’s only natural to want to use the latest technology to create something even more entertaining,” he explains. “For me, the most important thing is to ensure that the story is unique and strikes a chord with readers. My job is to create a world that people will want to spend time in.”

Nishino released his latest book, Tick Tock, the Promised Clock Tower, in April 2019. The work and the author’s talk of creating his own town gives a hint of what fans many expect in the years to come.

Tick Tock depicts buildings and scenery from Nishino’s real-life home town of Kawanishi, including the local forest, bridges, and Shintō shrine. Using AR, Nishino was able to introduce the characters from the story into this real-world setting. He plans to take this mix of real and fantasy a step further with a theme park in Kawanishi. He has already bought land for the project, but insists there is still plenty of work to be done.

Nishino says his idea of creating a town has gradually emerged. “As people get older,” he muses, “they naturally start to feel affection for the places where they grew up. This is how the idea of using my home town as a story setting came about.” He contends that his main priority remains comedy, but that he wants to bring a distinctively Japanese type of entertainment to people around the world.

Nishino set Poupelle of Chimney Town in a smoke-clogged town where no one ever looks up into at the sky. The story’s two heroes dare to look skyward, convinced that something beyond all the smoke. For this they earn the wrath and contempt of the people around them. The fantasy seems to reflect many aspects of contemporary society, as Nishino admits: “People get laughed at if they talk about their dreams, and get attacked when they try to make them come true. But nothing can change unless we look up into the sky and try to see what is beyond the clouds.”

The show at the Eiffel Tower was arranged with the pictures one above the other so the story unfolded vertically. Nishino says this was done so that people’s faces would naturally lift upward.

Nishino started his career by making people laugh. Now he seems to have widened his focus from laughter to smiles. Unafraid of the controversy his work sometimes provokes, he brings the same message to the picture book world that marks his comedy, filling it with his trademark confidence, gentleness, and curiosity.

(Originally published in Japanese based on an interview by Hino Kyōko. All photos by Sawada Hiroyuki.)

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