Photo Essays

Surreal Japanese Illustrations Capture the Spirit of Andersen’s Fairy Tales

The Daisy  All images courtesy of the National Diet Library
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “The Daisy” (all images courtesy the National Diet Library)

Although adults may misremember them as light children’s stories, the 19th-century fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen commonly deal with themes of loneliness, forced journeys far from home, and the precariousness of existence. Their protagonists are small, delicate, and vulnerable — kids, flowers, ugly ducklings — and their wisdom centers on the power of kindness to combat the cruelty of chance, fate, and meanness of spirit. A 1925 Japanese translation of some of the tales — first spotted on the blog 50 Watts — features delicately striking illustrations by Hatsuyama Shigeru (1897–1973) that reflect their spirit. The volume includes “Thumbelina,” “The Flying Trunk,” “The Daisy,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” “The Angel,” “The Little Match Girl,” and “The Fir Tree.”

Hatsuyama’s illustrations use proportion to mimic the defenselessness of Andersen’s wee protagonists: a cat looms large next to a duckling; Thumbelina is no bigger than a nose; the little match girl stands barely above a horse’s underbelly. Hatsuyama also takes artistic license often, his drawings interpreting a character beyond what the author has described. For example, the flowers in “The Daisy” are depicted as women — a personification that represents the mood of the fairytale, if not its prose.

Intricate, dark, fanciful, and surprising, Hatsuyama’s illustrations are unique interpretations of Andersen’s stories. One easily imagines that a vain house cat would naturally smoke a pipe, and that a bird and a daisy with a woman’s face might touch beak to lips in a near-kiss. They remind adult readers of the complexity of children’s imaginative and emotional inner lives.

Thumbelina
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “Thumbelina”
Thumbelina
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “Thumbelina”
Thumbelina
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “Thumbelina”
The Daisy
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “The Daisy”
Title page
Title page of the volume
The Ugly Duckling
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “The Ugly Duckling”
The Ugly Duckling
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “The Ugly Duckling”
The Steadfast Tin Soldier
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”
The Steadfast Tin Soldier
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”
The Angel
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “The Angel”
The Angel
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “The Angel”
The Angel
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “The Angel”
The Little  Match Girl
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “The Little Match Girl”
The Little  Match Girl
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “The Little Match Girl”
The Fir-Tree
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “The Fir-Tree”
The Flying Trunk
Hatsuyama Shigeru, illustration for “The Flying Trunk”
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