Japanese Poster Art
Cultures don’t differ only for their cuisine, spiritual beliefs or social norms, but in their marketing as well.
Just the other day, I casually stumbled upon a Japanese promo video for a then new video game. It was pretty outlandish. Today, coincidentally, a Facebook Friend of mine posted the Japanese poster art for one of his favorite films (The Lords of Salem). The layout was insane, the picture was overloaded with content, cramming as much text and images as possible into the rectangle. Aside from the layout, the neon color palette (which is present in the film) was sensibly played up, compared to say the American poster.
This got me thinking. If we respond and perceive advertising differently it must be a cultural thing. What works in Europe or America, maybe is too minimalist for a Japanese audience. We respond to films, and art in general, differently because of where and how we were brought up. All this to say that it doesn’t make sense to try and define beauty objectively. However, scientists have proven that our brains do respond similarly (all over the world) to certain types of images: Whether we are ready to socially admit this or not is the real question.
To return to the posters: After seeing the crazy poster on Facebook, I instinctively googled some more posters to see if my suspicions were correct. My hypothesis was that marketing execs try to sell a film to Japanese audiences by throwing everything they can on the poster and see what sticks. This type of sensory overload is not only annoying, but doesn’t look good in my opinion. My “theories” were initially confirmed when I searched for Japanese film posters in general, but that seemed too easy and generic, so I searched for the posters of my favorite films instead. What I found was that most Japanese poster art is similar to the original, but with more text or an added still from the movie.
Examples of Japanese Posters
Much to my surprise I found that some posters were more creative and visually stimulating. My favorite is the one-sheet for Young Adult, even if it’s too cheerfully colorful and doesn’t capture the film’s depression: Why not? If it gets audiences to see the movie, I’m all for it. An argument could be made for the fact that it’s trying to comment on the worlds Mavis is creating as a writer of young adult fiction. It’s excellent. I also like the creative poster for eXistenZ: The American one pales in comparison. The simple drawing of Showgirls‘ Nomi Malone, the film’s protagonist, may have nothing to do with the movie’s over-the-top cheesiness and campiness, it is indicative of the character’s fragile nature and how she is “on the inside”.
The poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey, is more or less identical to the American poster, to show you that sometimes art can be universal, and the film truly is a masterpiece. Another classic poster is Citizen Kane, it’s not the same as the original, but rather two images taken directly from the film itself. What both posters have in common is the reference to its quality: Here (the Japanese example) by putting an Oscar statue next to the title, in the original poster by displaying a quote praising Orson Welles’ genius.
I also picked two Quentin Tarantino films Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Death Proof. The ‘Kill Bill’ poster is an example of what I would say is a bad poster, but seems to be the norm for Japanese marketing. It’s just a pastiche of everything they could find and features stuff that I’m pretty sure I don’t remember from the movie (even if it’s been a while since I’ve seen it). The Death Proof poster (much like the Inglourious Basterds one), is interesting, because it’s yellow to echo the film that put Tarantino on a map and to this day remains one of his most famous (Kill Bill).
Looking at the posters for art house releases, the most striking one is the one for L’Avventura: It’s in color (the film is in black & white) and is framed by text, literally. Big fan of the Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) poster: It looks more like a painting than a pictures and it portrays Monica Vitti staring right back at us. I like that they picked a poisonous looking green for the title, but I am a bit confused by the black & white still, especially considering that it was Michelangelo Antonioni’s first color film. Another poster using the “still-thing” (only better) is the Leon: The Professional poster. Very intimate, visually stunning picture capturing the film’s romantic angle, which would have been probably too risqué for Western audiences and a film already bordering pedophilia. To top it off, the poster for Melancholia, which displays how the Japanese exploit star power. Kiefer Sutherland surely has an important role in von Trier’s film, but surely Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are the two leads, so he has no business being there.
As bad as some Japanese posters might seem, keep in mind that not all American posters are good as well and while most of the times I’d say that less is more, sometimes less is also less. Also, jumbling all those elements on a limited space of paper is a more difficult, objectively. Japanese posters might seem more creative, and sometimes they are, and we could learn from them. Marketing researchers has also proven that ads that are aesthetically appealing don’t necessarily translate in sales. The Japanese posters might seem manipulative, but in time we may discover that, once more, they were ahead of us all along.