People: Kouzou Sakai

By Payal Khandelwal

While cycles, buses and whales fly, the moon calmly rests on water in Kouzou Sakai’s deeply mysterious and surreal world. Kouzou is a freelance illustrator based in Tokyo, Japan. 

He has a special affinity towards all kinds of animals, birds, fishes, insects and plants since he was a child. And unsurprisingly, they often manage to scoop central roles to play in his work. He graduated from the Department of Animal Science and Biotechnology from his university, but eventually went on to work in design production before becoming a full-time illustrator.

In this interview, we talk to Kouzou about his interest in nature, his work for Haruki Murakami’s book and his personal projects, among other things. Read on:

Tell us something about your childhood. Where did you grow up?

I currently live in Tokyo, Japan. However, I grew up in a country town where there was a lot of nature around me. During my childhood days, I used to play around the sea and mountains. As a result, I have always liked drawing nature and various creatures around me.

In school, I was a good at both academics and sports. I belonged to the football club of the school. And in fact, sports is something I am still quite fond of.

What were some of the other creative influences when you were growing up?

I have always liked illustration books which had insects, mammals, birds, fishes, and plants. Most of the modern Japanese illustration books are mainly photographs, but the old illustration books had many different kinds of illustrations. I think that those books greatly influenced my own creations. I liked the illustrations that depicted living in a world where one is surrounded by various creatures all the time. It was a fantasy though, as it really is an impossible world.

Also, we had cats in our house all the time. I love cats very much.

You have an unusual background. You studied at Department of Animal Science and Biotechnology. How did that eventually lead to illustration?

I was quite confused about my choices of subjects at the university, to be honest. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to opt for science or art. I liked animals, and I liked drawing them, but I finally chose science. And then when it came to my occupation, I was confused yet again. It was a considerably difficult route change. I finally decided to be an illustrator, and was happy to face the challenges that came with it.

I liked the illustrations that depicted living in a world where one is surrounded by various creatures all the time. It was a fantasy though, as it really is an impossible world.


Color- The Mind World of Color

How do you balance between commercial work and personal projects?

Client work is simple. I have to just create illustrations as per the client’s needs. But personal work is far more complicated. Personal work, according to me, must not become a work that barely leads to self-satisfaction. I must create practical and attractive works in order to get new work. In addition, it is important to consciously create elements in my personal work that are different from conventional work. So usually, I have a hard time while working on my personal projects.

Can you tell us a bit more about your personal project ‘Days’? What triggered it?

I was looking for a simple, new art-style. I was aiming at a style that a large number of people could enjoy. The man in a suit is an everyday symbol. And the animals pop up as a “non-everyday” factor.

Of course, there is a story in each work. But I never reveal my stories so that it doesn’t limit the imagination of the viewer, and they remain free to interpret the stories in their own way.



You have also explored the idea of how mind works in your project ‘Mono’.

‘Mono’ is an older project than ‘Days’. Till I worked on ‘Mono’, I had only created illustrations that were full of colors. Therefore, I decided to do this project in order to create more variety in my work. While ‘Mono’ is a considerably old project, it’s still quite appreciated. So I think the project has succeeded.


Mono- The Mind World

How was the experience of doing illustrations for Haruki Murakami‘s book Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage? Are you a Murakami fan?

I was extremely honored that I was able to do illustrations for his book. I couldn’t stop being excited throughout the time I was creating those images. And I’m certainly his fan. My personal favorite is Kafka on the Shore.

How does Tokyo inspire you and your work?

To be completely honest, I’m not really inspired by Tokyo. This is mainly because I’m a homebody. I don’t like crowds. I have a complicated reason because of which I live in Tokyo. Otherwise, I’d love to move to a town which has much more nature.

Who are the designers/artists around the world that you really admire?

I like René François Ghislain Magritte and Tove Marika Jansson.

Do you have any mentors?

I don’t have any mentors. I’m self-educating all the time.

What are the other things – amongst say music, books, films, etc. – that have deeply inspired you?

The music that truly stimulates my imagination is Bill Evans’ and Harold Budd’s. I listen to trendy (contemporary) songs too, but I’m rarely inspired by them.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently doing some illustration work for a book and a magazine.

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Illustrations for Haruki Murakami’s novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage


Weekend Night Rail Travel


The Timeless Shape of Happiness (A collaborative campaign between McDonald’s and Coca-Cola)


All the images are artworks created by Kouzou Sakai. ©


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