Benjamin Lacombe and his visionary Japan: “Stories that speak to our contemporaneity”

The French artist Benjamin Lacombe inaugurated the exhibition ‘Ghosts and Spirits of Japan’ at TENOHA Milan: our interview.

The spaces of TENOHA Milano host until January 15, 2023 the new immersive exhibition ‘Ghosts and Spirits of Japan’ (in this article all the information). The volumes illustrated by Benjamin Lacombe Ghost Stories of Japan And Spirits and Creatures of Japan (The Hippocampus Editions), which translate into images stories, traditions and beliefs witnessed by Lafcadio Hearn.

After ‘Botteghe di Tokyo – The Exhibition’, therefore, the journey to the Land of the Rising Sun continues beyond the fateful red bridge. And it is precisely this that welcomes visitors at the entrance of the new exhibition with a warning that resonates echoing: Don’t Cross the Red Bridge. On the occasion of the inauguration, we met the French illustrator who was welcomed by hundreds of Italian fans queuing for the special firmacopie.

So many questions and curiosities that even the public has addressed to Benjamin Lacombe to delve into the evocative and supernatural imagery of a Japan full of mystery. “Probably The most fascinating aspect of the yokai is the fact that they do not only correspond to the spirit world as we know it ”, explains the artist. “Anything could be a yokai, even an old wooden table dominated by an internal force. We could define it as an unknown force that pushes us to respect the nature that surrounds us including what we do not know about it ”.

What do the yokai and the ancient tradition of these tales teach today?
They teach humility and respect. They have to do with the essence of nature and this, perhaps, can also be linked to what we are experiencing today with climate change. From this point of view we are certainly not respecting the yokai. It is a much broader discourse. Basically the yokai are a way to make people understand that you need to be attentive to nature. Some yokai, for example, are the ‘Dragon King’ or the ‘Dragon Daughter’ representing the tsunami. Or there is the yokai which takes its name from the sound emitted by the beans washed in water to be cooked.

“The yokai is a kind of teaching to be humble about who we are and what is around us, so it is possible that we do not know everything,” says Lacombe.

What fascinates you so much about this world?
What is fantastic and what fascinated me most in reading what Lafcadio Hearn tells is that many of his stories are very ancient. There are yokai so small that you could not see them but they managed to have control over your body to the point of death. Basically, it is a metaphors of disease while in Europe it was still thought that death was a skeleton with a huge scythe.

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This tells us of a great modernity.
It’s crazy… today we understand that even trees have their own way of communicating with each other. This is in fact already present [nelle leggende orientali]: it is the kodama, a form of communication with trees. We are discovering so many things that we were wondering about, so we know that a tree is not just an inert piece that feels nothing. These are stories from which a lot can still be learned: they also date back to the medieval period, in reality they speak to our contemporaneity.

Which yokai do you love the most and which do you enjoy drawing?
I love the yokai Karakasa, the one with the umbrella: it’s so funny, I love it. My pronunciation is bad – so I don’t even try to remember the name – but I also love the one-eyed yokai, which is at the beginning of the exhibit. It was a lot of fun to draw it.

What kind of challenge does it represent for an artist to transform something intangible into images?
There is no particular image that has been difficult. This is a book I have wanted to do for a very long time. You must know that I started my first book when I was 19. It was a comic that, fortunately, did not come out in Italy because it was horrible! It was published in French and was about a Japanese ghost girl (it is de L’Esprit du Temps, Éditions Soleil – ed). So I’ve always been fascinated by the Zen world, it’s been a long time since then… Now, when I started illustrating these two books, I had great expectations and I wanted to do a good job since the first time didn’t go particularly well.

So when I started I was very very inspired, I didn’t have any particular difficulties as I had so many ideas. I could have done ten books! I have done two so far and there is already another one, the third, which is a bit different … but, well, it wasn’t difficult for me compared to other books as it was for Alice who was illustrated by this many other people. In that case you have to give your imprint.

Among your books, is there any title to which you are more linked?
My favorite? Uh, it changes all the time! Surely these two books related to Japan I love them very much but I also love them Alice in Wonderland, The Herbarium of the Fairies, Macabre talesI love very much Frida And Bambi it’s one of my favorites. And then there is another book that I am working on right now, and I would like to finish it in Christmas time .. it is very current, The little Mermaidvery different from what you are used to seeing.

“I mean, there are so many books and each one is like a child – says Benjamin Lacombe – it’s terrible to say which one is a favorite. It depends on the moment”.

If there is a chance to go to the cinema, who would you like to work with? Maybe Tim Burton?
Well, let’s say that if the proposal came to work with Tim Burton I would. Mine is not a real dream, but of course I would accept! I love what he did but in some moments I lost that focus a little. For example, I love many of his works such as ‘Edward Scissorhands’, ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’, ‘Batman’… fantastic. I love the most recent projects less, the one after ‘Planet of the Apes’ and others of the genre … ‘Dumbo’, however, I find it very beautiful and also ‘Frankenweenie’ …

But you know, it’s very difficult to collaborate with someone who has such a strong universe. He collaborated, for example in ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’, with Henry Selick who directed the film. But he was very close to Tim Burton and tried to stay very true to his style. It must be said also the films with Disney are a colossal trademark… so if I were to make films, and I have many projects in the drawer, I would prefer to make them my way.

Photo PF / Press Office and L’Ippocampo Edizioni website

Benjamin Lacombe and his visionary Japan: “Stories that speak to our contemporaneity”