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Under the Volcano

The "floating world" of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japan reflected a time of urbanization and swift transitions. In turn, the great woodblock printers of the period--skilled observers of everyday life and landscape--caught the spirit of the era in vivid prints now prized by collectors around the world. One of the best known of those printmakers is Hokusai, whose "One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji" series recorded the seasons, shadows, momentary variations and ephemeral perspectives of a society in rapid flux.

Husband-and-wife team Todd and Linda Shimoda shared such a strong infatuation for Hokusai's floating world (or ukiyo-e) images that they longed to update them and incorporate them into a fable of modern-day Japan. When Todd, the writer, and Linda, the artist, set out to collaborate on just such an animal, it turned into an open-ended odyssey that took the couple to the foot of Fuji and back again in search of inspiration. They'll be in the area this week to sign copies of 365 Views of Mt. Fuji: Algorithms of the Floating World (Stone Bridge Press, 1998), an unusual work of illustrated fiction that's the culmination of their travel and teamwork.

While skeletally the story of a present-day art curator, a Hokusai-like printmaker named Takenoko is Fuji's bedrock character--from him, all other plots flow. Emulating Takenoko, creator of the title's 365 views, Linda Shimoda drew an illustration a day for an entire year, each inspired by the simplicity of Japanese brushwork. And while she did that, Todd took to his own corner to write.

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The Shimodas didn't put their respective projects together until each was complete. "I didn't look at them at all," Todd says of Linda's illustrations. "I didn't want to know. I thought it would be better to stick to the story I wanted to write." But sometimes they did peek over each other's shoulder. "We work on lots of projects together this way," Linda adds. "We're interested in people's creative links and the lengths they go to pursue them. We began to wonder if they're geniuses--or just crazy." Todd takes over and continues: "I took Hokusai as a model of the fictional artist. I wondered, well, what kind of genius is involved in that? And I wondered about his descendants. In the book, each descendant is an exaggeration of each piece of the artist, unbalanced by real depth, genius and madness. And then the poor unsuspecting fool who brings that together succumbs to genius and madness, too. It triggers his ultimate demise."

As for Linda, the process was more a matter of studying and interpreting Hokusai's techniques and philosophies. "I got interested in each particular scene," she says. "I did four interpretations of each of his views. He actually did 101 views in all, so I did 404. All of them are in the book.

"I thought about his life--how eccentric and naive he was," Linda adds. "Like me, he had periods of doubts, but he was still a very humble artist. I saw this as a way to honor him." In what was a stylistic departure for her, Linda turned it into a yearlong challenge to her abilities. "At that time, I didn't know how to use a Japanese brush," she explains. "I felt like a fraud." She's since learned how to work with a brush but says she's still a beginner.

Originally conceived as a CD-ROM, Fuji became a book in its final form, although it's a book that can't necessarily be read in strictly linear form. "The text was originally written in hypertext with links to each of the characters," says Todd, a native Coloradan. "We sent out a proposal to several CD-ROM publishers, and it turned out people weren't buying CDs to read. They kept asking us to turn it into a game."

The Shimodas weren't interested in that. They took a second look at what they had and decided it could work in book form. Linda put her design skills to the test, coming up with a layout that still allowed for the tangential sidebar stories or "bytes" to evolve alongside the main plot. "When I brought the book to the publisher already laid out in its final form, he just looked at me like, 'What do you want?'" she says. After the initial shock of seeing a book proposal in such polished shape, Stone Bridge Press happily offered a contract.

Post-Fuji, the Shimodas are still finding new ways to collaborate, though they aren't ready to tell exactly how. And they're still intrigued by the non-linear, high-tech creative direction pioneered in their first book. "Either we're naive, or it's worked for us," Todd says of the couple's limitless approach to seeking the muse. "Since we're not really established yet, we're free to do whatever we want.

"But if we get a following," he adds, "things might be different."

--Froyd

Todd and Linda Shimoda sign 365 Views of Mt. Fuji: Algorithms of the Floating World, 7 p.m. August 6, Borders, 9515 East County Line Road, Littleton, 708-1735. 7:30 p.m. August 7, Stone Lion Bookstore, 107 North College Avenue, Fort Collins, 1-970-493-0030.

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