Graphic appeal

The man’s slumped shoulders and dangling head, the dead space of his suit-draped back, the thick noose suspending his body and splitting the scene in half as police officers and men in labcoats look on: above all this, the red kanji reads Koshikei—Death by Hanging.
Celebrated Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s provocative 1968 film about a Korean criminal whose botched death sentence carried out by Japanese officials results in total memory loss is often said to resist narrative description.
Koshikei’s poster, one of the 39 on display at the Cinémathèque Québécoise’s exhibit Le cinéma japonais s’expose: Affiches de L’Art Theatre Guild, exemplifies the alluring yet elusive quality of the Japanese independent movie industry’s cinematography and design.
The history of Japanese independent movie posters spans different visual media techniques, like collage, pastel, oil paint, watercolour, sketching, photography, and manga-style art. Wrapped up in this history are the enterprising and highly individualistic minds behind the posters.
Lacking the official photographs authorized for promotional aims for imported American or French films, or wishing for a cost-effective manner to advertise a movie, Japanese film studios would commission posters from well-known independent graphic designers, illustrators, and painters without formally hiring them into their companies. The resulting work is a trove of eye-catching promotional material by independent artists like Kiroku Hikagi and Saburo Tatsuki.
However well the Cinémathèque explains the design element of Japan’s history of movie promotion, the relationship between poster and film is an element missing from their exhibit. Without this, no viewer can understand why the featured posters are remarkable beyond their visual impact, necessitating a recourse to outside resources.
Midnight Eye: Visions of Japanese Culture, a non-commercial, not-for-profit online magazine about Japanese cinema, explains the impact of the higher annual rate of independent films over big-studio releases in the Japanese domestic market.
In 2002, the three big studios Shochiku, Toei and Toho distributed 45 films, while independent movie studios released some 203 films, according to German writer Roland Domenig in his article “The Anticipation of Freedom: Art Theatre Guild and Japanese Independent Cinema.”
Because the government does not subsidize the film industry in Japan, budgets are low, but because independent filmmakers compose such a large proportion of the market, their work, which circumvents the lack of funds with artistic storytelling and oblique plotlines, remains artistically satisfying while reaching a larger audience.
As Japanese independent film developed from the 1920s onward, Domenig explains, a camaraderie emerged among independent filmmakers, linking generations of artists who had worked through the Depression, Second World War, and severe economic downturns, eventually leading to the formation of the Art Theatre Guild in November 1961.
It was started by film journalist, American cinema reviewer, and screenplay writer Iwao Mori, then also vice-president of mammoth film company Toho, of Godzilla and Seven Samurai fame.
The ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s produced, through the ATG dynamic, films with audacious subject matter and remarkable advertising techniques, creating a period of artistic excitement and genuineness scantly occurring for such a prolonged measure of time.
The Cinémathèque has done well, however, to curate a collection of posters which echo the masterful storytelling at work in the best of Japanese independent cinema—if only the exhibit offered a little more information to the eager viewer.
Take the poster for Nagisa Oshima’s 1970 film Tokyo Senso Senyo Hiwa (The Battle of Tokyo/The Man Who Left his Will On Film), conceived by celebrated graphic artist Kiroku Hikagi using material from the movie.
A young woman sits upright with her knees bent and feet pointed forward, hands unseen as they nestle in her lap, neck arched back as her face turns skyward, covered from the neck down in miniature, visually clashing projections of film scenes which distort as they cover her nude body, while behind her, a young man’s face wears an unreadable expression as he stands behind a film camera as though at work, yet seems to look beyond it.
The story of a young filmmaker’s struggle as he is accosted and harassed through Tokyo after entering into a dispute, Oshima’s work mirrors its artistic form on the narrative it conveys: composed of short, erratic, blurry and violent clips of scenes from around town, the film reconstructs the tale of the harassed protagonist’s struggle as though working with the material from his still-running camera.
The Cinémathèque Québécoise’s exhibit presents dynamic and intriguing posters at every turn; far more than can be covered in one feature.
In Seichi Hayashi’s poster for Akio Jissoji’s Mandara (1971), for example, a group of naked women lie on the ground, their limbs intertwined, awaiting slaughter at the hands of an androgynous sword-wielding figure, the whole scene lent a ghostly air through the navy, off-white and black of the bleeding watercolour.
Cinema posters for even major studio releases also occupy a position of great resonance in Western pop culture, sometimes eclipsing, as a stand-in symbol, even the cinematographic work they promote: consider the image of the evening-gown-clad Audrey Hepburn, coyly exposing one leg, raising a glove-swaddled arm to caress the tabby on her shoulder as she looks sideways with a hint of irony in her almond eyes, holding a dramatically long cigarette holder in her smirking mouth. Breakfast at Tiffany’s has become the afterthought to its iconic poster for a generation of non-viewers more accustomed with the featured moniker than the movie itself. How many who can put a name to the poster of the smiling, blond Monroe as she holds down her fluttering white dress have seen The Seven Year Itch?
Even more contemporary films suffer the same phenomenon: why has the image of Uma Thurman reclining on her stomach, bobbed black hair and patent black heels shining as she eyes the audience with disdain, holding a smoking cigarette in her right hand as her left lies idle alongside a revolver come to symbolize Pulp Fiction, with all its excitement, violence and action? Star power, careful graphic design, story hints, and directorial fame: all create a pull for curious audiences.

The Cinémathèque Québécoise’s exhibit runs until Nov. 6 at the Foyer Luce-Guilbeault, 355 de Maisonneuve Blvd. E. Admission is free. For more information about Japanese independent cinema, visit


Related Posts