Back in the 80's when I was living and working in Tokyo as a freelance illustrator, there were two dudes, both approximately a decade or so older than me, who became my friends/supporters/mentors.
The first one was called Yuji Sato and together with his live-in girlfriend (who was quite beautiful, reserved yet strong - a bit like a Japanese Charlotte Rampling - I think she'd appreciate that comparison), had a boutique design company in Ebisu, just up the hill from the station. I first met Yuji at a photoshoot for a fashion label. It was a recreation of The Beatles' Abbey Road cover with the four models wearing the brand's attire. I was cast as Paul McCartney. Yuji was the AD and producer. As the only one there who spoke Japanese, I helped out with the communication - as I'm sure friendly Paul would have done in that situation - so it was in character. Yuji and I got on easily and readily. He was a good natured, open minded chap. We went out drinking after the shoot and the friendship was sealed over sake and onigiri (rice balls). My faves are the ones with fish inside but can do the sour plum (umeboshi) too, if no fish ones available. For the record.
Yuji and I would catch up every few months for a dinner or some drinks until I returned to Australia for a while. When I got back to Tokyo, he was my first port of call, and I was freshly married by then, so we'd go out dining as a foursome. Although his style - his company was called Cube - was more high-end, restrained and 'design-y' than my stuff (colourful, playful, pop, comic-y, raw), whenever he could he would throw me some work - book covers or whatever. It was gratefully accepted by me and very helpful to us financially. Tokyo ain't cheap. We lived in a tiny studio apartment which was basically a room with a half fridge, a gas top cooker and a modular toilet/shower attached.
Aside from the dinners and job related meetings, I would sometimes go over to Cube's small office and just talk about life with my mate. He was calm and wise and pure of heart. It was fun for both of us to discuss ideas and outlooks and learn from each other - mixed in with plenty of humour.
My other friend/mentor was the head Art Director of Popeye magazine (the best selling Men's mag in Japan at the time). I met him on the rounds with my portfolio. I did a lot of cold calling in the early days. Looking up numbers in the fronts of mags and trying to meet with the ADs. Lots of knockbacks but I only needed a few good hits - so I kept trying. Arai Ken and I also had an instant connection. He had long black hair and seemed to be a bit of an outsider/loner - even in the huge building/company that was Magazine House. They produced, I don't know, probably forty or fifty titles at the time (80's). Ken was quiet but underneath you could tell he had a great eye and intellect. By the way others treated him, I could tell that he was highly respected.
I remember, we met down in the lobby the first time. There's waitresses who bring tea or coffee, orange juice. Lots of meetings happen there. My stuff was pretty diverse. Hand-manipulated SX-40 polaroids, surreal collage, slides of large paintings from my post art school days, crayon drawings.... It was different from what he would normally see. Many of the other ADs I met could not get there heads around it. Ken got it straight away. He saw the passion, the playfulness, the experimentation, lack of restriction... And he liked it. I was raw and maybe a bit of a risk, but he couldn't not give me a go. He gave me my first, modest, assignment right there. We went upstairs to the offices and he gave me a brief. I was stoked.
He must have been happy with it, because a few weeks later, he called me in again and told me that he wanted to talk about something. Cool. I rode my Kawasaki KZ650 into Higashi Ginza and went up to the bustling 7th (?) floor, sat down at this desk. I wonder if you would like to become a regular contributor to Popeye magazine, Lewie-san? Wow!
My job was to do four small, related, illustrations for the opening pages of each issue - the Pop Eye section. Little faces, comics, whatever. It was a bi-weekly, so I did eight a month, as well as a few other larger pieces here and there. It was enough to pay my rent plus some. I loved it. Total free reign. Ken was like a kind hearted emperor. We would talk about the contributions, on occasion, but all he ever did was to praise and encourage me. What a legend. To have scored a regular gig at such a prestigious magazine, opened plenty of doors for me with other work. I was sanctioned.
I did it for a few years and even continued to do them after returning to Australia - sending them by post - for another year or so. But not being there, dissipated the energy somewhat and eventually it was over. Ken and I remained good friends, though, and we would meet up on subsequent visits to Tokyo.
My friendships with both Ken and Yuji were pre Facebook and even pre-mobile, pre-email (!) days, so somehow we lost contact. But I will never forget their kindness, guidance and generosity. Two stellar gentlemen. Creative, brave, fun loving. The kind of qualities that one can look up to and attempt to emulate. Thanks, bros!