Exhibition: Japanese Posters of the 1930s

Ideas from left, right and center

For those of us living today, the 1930s seem a rather scary period. Following the Wall Street crash and the Worldwide Depression that followed, the totalitarian systems of Fascism and Communism appeared everywhere to be in the ascendant, including here in Japan, where a strong grass roots labour movement clashed with a culture of nationalist indoctrination and expansion. But this was also a period when poster art found its true place in the Japanese consciousness, as shown by the current exhibition of posters and handbills at the National Film Center.

Alongside posters adorned with hammer and sickles, calling for strikes and socialist solidarity, there are others adopting a nationalistic tone, supporting the effort to colonize Manchuria or the war–effort against China. Striking a humorous contrast with this note of intense ideological struggle are posters cheerfully advertising products like Moon Star shoes or inviting people to come to Kyoto, "The City of Traditional Culture."

In poster art, the message – whether it is to sell shoes or start revolutions – is the most important element. Accordingly some of the cruder designs, such as handbills produced by various trade unions, include little more than words. But poster artists also realized that to get their message across, sophisticated aesthetic effects were needed.

Satomi Muneji's Orient Calls (1936) is clearly indebted to Art Deco, while other posters reveal elements of Constructivism, a non–representational art movement which found favor with the rulers of the Soviet Union up to 1934, when Stalin rejected it in favor of Socialist Realism. Revolutionizing architecture and sculpture, Constructivism also found time to influence graphic design with a style that used montage, strong geometric shapes, and vivid blocks of color.

This can be seen in works such as the 1931 poster by the Federation of Tokyo Area Proletarian Organizations, calling for famine relief for the Tohoku region. But left wing organizations weren't the only groups attracted to this new aesthetic. The modernism of the style also appealed strongly to the film industry, as seen in the 1937 poster for The Lights of Asakusa, a movie that set out to depict the glamorous life of Tokyo's most fashionable area. Images like this, along with more conventional posters advertising goods and tourist destinations, show us the seeds of our own modern consumer and media–driven society. Obviously not everybody was obsessed by the ideological struggles of the age.

Because Japan was developing into the country that would later launch the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Westerners tend to see this decade of Japanese history in a negative light. However, the charm and even the cuteness of many of the images are at variance with this dark view. For example, who can see the brutality of the approaching war in the charmingly naive poster, Cheerful Kid Speaks? This 1931 poster shows a young schoolboy at his desk eagerly raising his hand, testifying to the supposed powers of milk in stimulating the responsiveness of schoolchildren.

Many of the posters, even those connected with Japanese aggression, such as National Bonds for the Sino–Japanese War (1937), surprisingly reveal a humanity that was in the process of being stifled. This incongruous work shows a cute, flag–waving Chinese child cheerfully welcoming the Japanese invaders!

This exhibition succeeds in revealing the tensions of pre–war Japan but also shows a complicated humanity at odds with the image of an Imperialistic nation on the march.

Japanese Posters and Handbills in the 1930s – Communication in Mass Society runs until Nov. 4 at the The National Museum of Modern Art, National Film Center, 3–7–6 Kyobashi, Chuo–ku (03–3272–8600), near Tokyo Station.

Asahi Evening News
29 Sept 2001
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