Nanako Hirose’s “book-paper-scissors” – 2019 Busan Film Review

A 75-year-old who revels in his eccentric preference for analog in a rapidly evolving digital world, Nobuyoshi Kikuchi is cheerfully aware that his vocation is a dying profession.   As one of the top book designers in Japan, the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” does not apply to him.  Instead, Kikuchi advises that “novels are objects.  They live within the paper.”

Directed and shot by Nanako Hirose over a period of three years, “books-paper-scissors” examines Kikuchi’s meticulous process across seven chapters.  His exhaustive attention to detail, indeed, goes beyond the front cover and into some rather surprising aspects, some of which are unique to Japanese book design.  There is the Japanese writing system, which invites a multitude of possibilities to present kanji, hiragana or katakana in unexpected ways, such as diagonal text.  Specific types of opaque or translucent paper as book jackets create more layered variance, lightening or darkening fonts and graphics.  Then there are the more universal debates, including what colors to use, how much white space to include between words, and – unsurprisingly – the battle between serif vs. non-serif fonts.  This manifests itself in scenes where Kikuchi’s apprentice, Isao Mitobe, is introduced; a humorous incident occurs later when Kikuchi has to critique one of Mitobe’s designs and the preceding awkward silence resembles a guilty student visiting the principal’s office.

Throughout Kikuchi’s creative journey, authors, poets, publishers, and others in the printing and literary worlds turn to him for his wise sage advice on a discipline that is very much an art as it is a science.  Although Hirose includes a number of on-screen definitions to help viewers wade through book design jargon, the staggering amount of detail presented in “book-paper-scissors” will likely appeal more to design and typography geeks.  Still, it’s a fascinating portrait of a man who found his calling at age 19 and continues to pursue it today.  “If I find something that no one has tried before,” he says, “that will be my victory.”

“book-paper-scissors” made its world premiere at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival and will screen on Oct. 7 at 8 p.m., and Oct. 10 at 4 p.m.  Tickets are available at