I'm going to Tokyo in a few weeks, and yesterday my mother-in-law, who lives there, told me about a great item to put on the agenda: the Nurie Museum, which appears to be entirely devoted to Japanese coloring books. For those of you aren't planning a trip to Japan anytime soon, the Onishi Gallery in New York is showing some of the same wonderful things right now.
Before there was anime, there were "coloring pictures," which first showed up in the Meiji era as the Japanese government started to import Western culture. Kids traced their own versions of the sketches -- a practice they were already used to, since it was one of the ways they learned their calligraphic alphabet -- and then colored them in. The maestro of this art form was one Kiichi Tsutaya, whose mid-century illustrations are right in line with the Japanese love of all things kawaii:
Kiichi is noted for his young girls. They have foreshortened bodies -- only three to four heads high -- bright eyes in large faces, and chubby legs. "Kiichi's nurie" enjoyed robust sales between 1945 and 1965. Until around 1960 they were sold primarily in packaged sets of single-sheet images, not as bound books. In the 1950s an average of 1 million sheets were sold every month, with a peak of 1.6 million. In his coloring pictures Kiichi depicted brides, beautiful fashions, and a stylish, joyful way of life, stimulating the dreams and yearnings of young girls, and opening their lives to the world of art.
The museum also has some cute modern examples on its absurdly cool-looking Japanese-language website.