The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
Another aspect of Japanese theater communicated through posters
Another aspect of Japanese theater communicated through posters
Tatsumi Hijikata Barairo Dance – A La Maison De M. Cive
(1965, Design: Tadanori Yokoo)
A La Maison De M. Cive
Engeki Center 68/71
Koi-koi Karuta Nezumi-kozo Jirokichi

(1971, Design: Kouga Hirano)
Koi-koi Karuta Nezumi-kozo Jirokichi
Experimental Theater Lab “Tenjo Sajiki”
Map of performances of the 30-hour street theater work Knock

The street theater staged in Asagaya, Suginami Ward, Tokyo. Plays were performed simultaneously at the numerous venues and spectators used this map to round the venues.
(1975, Creation: Ryoichi Enomoto)
Angura theater posters as an insurrection by young designers

Underground (angura) theater posters can be seen as one of the great achievements of Japanese contemporary theater. The people who did the graphic designs for these posters included a star-studded list of artists such as Tadanori Yokoo, Kiyoshi Awazu, Genpei Akasegawa, Akira Uno, Kuniyoshi Kaneko, Katsuyuki Shinohara, Katsuhito Oyobe, Koga Hirano, Yosuke Inoue, Masamichi Oikawa, Ryoichi Enomonto, Kazuichi Hanawa, Seiichi Hayashi, Sawako Goda, Tsutomu Toda and Shiro Tatsumi. And the posters they designed were not simply a medium to announce the holding of a play but a medium for innovative graphic artistic expression as well as an embodiment of the message involved in the play that the audience was about to see.
The poster that sparked the angura theater poster genre probably more than any other was the poster for Tatsumi Hijikata’s Ankoku Butoh-ha Garumega Shokai company’s Barairo Dance - A LA MAISON DE M.CIVECAWA (1965), which was a psychedelic poster making abundant use of florescent colors. At first, Hijikata had asked Ikko Tanaka to do the poster for this production, but Tanaka said there was an interesting designer and introduced Hijikata to Yokoo. When Juro Kara saw the resulting Yokoo poster, he asked Yokoo to design the posters for his Jokyo Gekijo. The first product of that union was Yokoo’s now famous Koshimaki Osen Bokyaku-hen poster. It was truly a shocking work. When you look closely at Yokoo’s work from that period you will see an apology “Forgive me for being late” actually printed in small letters on the posters. We are told that this is because the printing was always behind schedule, and sometimes the posters didn’t arrive from Yokoo until the day of a play’s opening performance.
 The angura theater posters of the day were strongly influenced by the American hippie culture. In 1968 a poster shop opened next to the Hanazono Shrine in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. That shop had posters by people like graphic designer Peter Max, the leader of America’s psychedelic art movement, and that surely had a big impact on designers of the day. The year 1968 was a historically important one that saw student rebellions erupt around the world, and in Japan it was the year that the student activist group Zenkyoto barricaded themselves in universities and fought violent encounters with riot police. The Underground theater movement was also related to these social/political events of the period, and that rebellious spirit spread to the world of graphic design as well. To them, posters were not a medium for advertising but a medium for self-expression and the trend was to use posters for communicating the message of their generation.
 The definitive work that sparked the new movement in poster design was certainly Yokoo’s Koshimaki Osen Bokyaku-hen poster. It showed young designers just how much could be done in a poster and that anything goes in poster design. That was a big stimulus for a group of designers and young artists associated with the other talents gathered in the Underground theater movement and linked together by a sort of gravitational pull, and the result was a rush of creativity that saw the designer competing with each other to produce ever more revolutionary and controversial posters. In the midst of this movement the 68/71 Black Tent company declared that their posters were a form of “wall-hung theater.” At the same time, Tenjo Sajiki advertised their plays with a series of what they called “time posters” that were hung around town. In this way, the posters themselves became a form of theater.
 The Tenjo Sajiki posters were designed by Yokoo, Awazu, Ono, Oyobe and Tatsumi, while the Jokyo Gekijo posters were designed by Yokoo, Shinohara, Akasegawa, Goda and Kaneko. With the exception of Awazu, all of these artists were young, in their early 30s (born in 1935-36). By the way, the previous generation of designers, the first postwar generation, were the ones who formed the Japan Advertising Artists Club and created their own design revolution, including Tanaka, Kamekura, Tsunehisa Kimura, Shigeo Fukuda and Kazumasa Nagai, etc. The public exhibitions of the Japan Advertising Artists Club had served as a gateway to recognition for young artists, but it would become a target of student activities in the late ’60s as an authoritarian institution. This led to the Club’s dissolution in 1970. Then it was the Yokoo generation of independent designers who emerged in to fill the gap.

Thinking about it, your Poster Hari’s Company principle of “Stimulating the theater world through advertising art” seems to be an attempt to recreate the spirit by which posters were once considered a form of theater in themselves, isn’t it? I see now why, in Terayama’s words, it was possible to “do street theater with posters.” Also, a name that is often heard as a printing company that supported the young designers of that time is Saito Process.
Saito Process was a small printing shop that had silkscreen print technicians, and young designers would often go there to have small editions of ten posters or so printed to submit to the Japan Advertising Artists Club contests. In that way it helped support the activities of the young independent designers. Saito Process no longer exists, but when the company was dissolved the entire collection of posters it had in storage was donated to The Musashino Art University, and that is why the university’s art library has such a great collection of posters of that era.
 Silkscreen is a form of printmaking that can be done at home, so there is not really a need to take the printing work to a printing company. The Jokyo Gekijo and Tenjo Sajiki posters were printed at Saito Process, but the posters for Mitsuhiro Kushida’s Jiyu Gekijo were printed by himself in his own home. That’s why they are in the A full-sheet size and you can see the marks left by the clothespins used to hang the posters when drying the ink after printing. Silkscreen printing is a craft but it is also a medium of expression that enabled young designers to work freely and print their own posters by hand without spending money to hire a printer. This made silkscreen popular as a potent weapon for young artists.

In the 1980s, there was a shift in the theater world away from the controversial angura theater that challenged the social establishment toward the small-theater plays that became popular among young people. The posters for the plays of Kohei Tsuka that became the hot thing of the time were designed by the illustrator Makoto Wada.
Wada was also born in 1936 and had already been active as an illustrator, but his work was not suited to the Underground theater movement. It wasn’t until Tsuka’s small-theater works became popular that Wada made his appearance on the theater poster scene. The posters were not designed for the B full-sheet size but smaller, and you no longer saw the angura style “wall-hung theater” poster movement being used. There are also other illustrators after Wada who became associated with theater companies, such as Yukio Kawasaki, Michio Hisauchi, Suehiro Maruo, Fumiko Takano and Yoshifumi Hasegawa. But the decisive difference between them and the graphic designers who did the angura theater posters of the 1960s is that most of the angura poster designers were also doing the stage art for the productions they created posters for. I imagine it was probably the case that they were asked to do the stage art and designing the poster was one part of that job. That’s another reason why the posters were also a form of theater. However, when you get into the 1980s, the posters were ordered separately. What’s more, there was now a division of labor in which the designer who designed the poster and the illustrator who did the illustration for it were also two different artists. This made a big difference in the nature of the posters as a medium of expression.
 In addition, recently theater posters and leaflets have become things that are evaluated simply in economic terms for their cost performance. When thought of as tools for selling tickets, it becomes a question of how many tickets will be sold by printing and distributing 100 posters, which may lead to the decision that there is no need to do a poster because of its poor cost performance. It can also lead to the decision to use the same design for the poster and leaflet in order to avoid an added cost. That is the kind of commodity the poster has become.
 In recent years, theater productions are no longer created by theater companies, but instead by “units” and production agents, which means the loss of the former aspect as a communal project by a large group of theater people constituting the theater company. This is one of the reasons why there is no longer a need for the type of “Japan Avant-garde” posters of the past that stood as banners of the theater companies. Nonetheless, leaflets and posters remain an expressive medium that has the potential to motivate the people involved in a work of theater and to communicate a message to the people who see them. Depending on the expressive quality of the leaflet or poster, it can also be a driving force behind a work. It is a medium with the potential for substantial artistic expression. That is why it is sad to see this medium discarded so easily.

From what period did this trend become prominent?
One big influence, I believe, came when the popular theater company Otona Keikaku stopped using posters. Another change came when leaflets as inserts came into use by the small-theater companies, which reduced printing costs and allowed the companies to just print large volumes of leaflets and just leave their distribution up to others without thinking about the results. I believe this is another trend that led to the decline in quality and expressive content of leaflets and posters. At the same time, computers made it possible for designers to work without having to be concerned about the final result on paper. They could just hand over the design data to the company in digital file form and often not even check the quality of the printed colors. My honest feeling is that I want to ask these designers if it is really OK with them when the final printed product doesn’t have the color expression they intended.
 The advances in IT are a fact and it is certainly nice to have the options IT offers, but I have my doubts about letting everything just be swept in that direction. If people decide that the internet is better everything will be swept in the direction, but if we don’t try to maintain a society where the internet and paper media coexist, the quality of expression is certain to decline.
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