"What is a Japanese poster? A spectacle, a pleasure, a shudder, a shock? Like every miracle, it does not serve up instant comprehension, nor does it respond to conventional interpretation. It impresses through its elegance, its abstract components, its indirect message. Its intense impact or subtle gentleness must be felt before it can be understood."
— Catherine Bürer, art historian specializing in Japanese posters
It is doubtful that a Japanese poster designer like Shigeo Fukuda would seek to understand another designer in terms of a 'movement' or 'period.' Such periods seem to exist primarily in the minds and words of western historians. The Japanese method of study places its focus on the individual over the 'movements' western criticism seeks (in retrospect) to define (Bürer 7). But distinctions such as these are eroding rapidly as the homogenizing effects of globalization are felt more acutely, so perhaps it is best to look at Fukuda's poster design in both the western tradition of a ‘style’ or ‘movement’ and in the Japanese 'rhizomatic' interpretation, merging and layering individuals from the past with the still living Fukuda. We shall begin to understand his signature and how it relates to his relationships with western designers, as well as how production methods and technology have influenced his process, content, and stylistic tendencies.
To understand how these works came into being requires both an understanding of the unique slice of time of Fukuda's formative years and the periods in which the work was done, from the metal type-based Swiss formalism of the 60's and 70's to the introduction of the computer as a graphic design tool, to the post-modern appropriation of historical work for contemporary concepts. As we shall see, Fukuda's inventive, yet subtle, use of optical illusion and unconventional illustrative devices have remained essentially unchanged during the course of his 50-year career as a freelance designer, a fact that only strengthens each work both individually and when viewed collectively.
He was born in 1932 and made origami as a boy. Several highly influential Japanese poster designers were born within a few years of Fukuda, including Ikko Tanaka (b. 1930), Kazumasa Nagai (b. 1929), and Tadanori Yokoo (b. 1936). The connection between their western-influenced work, WWII and the reconstruction post-war period occurring during their formative years is unquestionable. Fukuda graduated in 1956, when the Swiss school of design began its rapid domination of print design (and a few years before Helvetica's birth). Two years after graduation, Fukuda began working independently for clients he had acquired.
Of course, all writing on Fukuda would be purely conjecture without looking at his work. I have selected three posters from three decades that I believe support my analysis of his
Shigeo Fukuda Exhibition
Keio Department Store
In the first poster, female and male legs protrude from white and black mass and then dissolve imperceptibly in a simple repeating pattern. It is the impossibility of the image that provokes the emotional response Fukuda is looking for, that miracle Bürer speaks of. Economy of line and resulting clear delineation of form – hallmarks of the Swiss poster – are present, but text, the final communicator, the function to which all other elements must conform, is simply presented along the bottom, unassuming and not clamoring for attention. So while Fukuda has no qualms about adopting the pragmatic style conventions of Swiss design, he seems uncomfortable, in this instance at least, with the Swiss marriage of image and function, artistry and marketing.
Graphic Design Today
A faceless figure transcends the picture plane, stares at a blank sheet of curled paper, and steps on the repeating type in the background, subversively establishing the supremacy of image and emotion and the human over practical content and function. The viewer is compelled to project themselves onto the faceless figure, to contemplate themselves and what the figure is presumably contemplating, and only then, after this respite, does the poster reveal its communicative, advertising function.
Perhaps the concept behind this contemplation of print can be best understood in a historical context – the early 90s – when the advent of desktop publishing and the promise of even more powerful digital tools would have no doubt weighed heavily on the mind of a designer who made his career in an analog world.
World Graphic Design Conference Nagoya
In Masterworks, Fukuda pays tribute to the Ukiyo-e engraver Yoshifuji, whose 1861 engraving, "Faces of Five People Made to Look Like Ten," inspired the 'composition mechanism' that creates movement and interest in this poster.
"I wanted to recreate the interesting and mysterious structure of this picture of exotically dressed children to the full extent," Fukuda writes (in awkward translation). This is a telling statement. He is essentially admitting to stealing a concept from a dead artisan and adopting it to his own end – a 'post-modern' working method but one that is forgivable, for Fukuda is humbly giving homage to the roots of his craft.
The white figures are defined in detail and form by red and function as a visual metaphor for the stated mission of the World Graphic Design Conference (in essence): to define quality of information through clarity, creativity, and joy/humor and convey this message to the international design community. The international part is obvious enough – connected bodies form a circular whole – but the visual play goes one step further, embodying that desire for quality information: the figures are clearly represented and the visual meme is clear, the original concept is creative, and the joy/humor is inherent in the connected bodies (although it is more explicit for kanji readers – the faces are the symbol for 'laugh').
I would hold that these three posters are enough evidence to suggest that while they may be stylistically similar, there is a clear difference between Fukuda's work and that of his western contemporaries, like Müller-Brockmann. If Bürer's assumptions about the function of the poster in Japanese culture are correct, then perhaps the difference is best understood in terms of classically defined eastern vs western culture. Japanese culture in particular is wary of the finality and rigidity of absolute truth implied by rigorous logic, along with its resultant dogmatic laws and rules, and will happily show its failings (see Kurosawa's Rashomon).
Japanese poster design can trace its roots back to the tradition of woodblock printmaking, a noble art that lived on after WWII when fast, cheap, high quality commercial printing became available. This stands in sharp contrast to the West’s (American in particular) almost myopic commercial application of the art form. Not that the posters of, say, Toulouse-Lautrec or Jules Chéret were without any appreciation of artistry – on the contrary, they rival Japan's best – but the motivation behind western design is fundamentally different.
"Japanese designers do not share the European's aggressive, unconditional will to create effective, sale-oriented posters. Instead, they take time with ideas, allow them to grow, before converting them into visual representations with monk-like discipline and devotion."
— Josef Müller-Brockmann, The Poster in Japan
To the Japanese, poster design is, first and foremost, a form of cultural communication, a commercial activity second. The poster must create an emotional response in the viewer - a poetic image – to give them respite from the burdens of this world, but also to remind them of the balance inherent in it – a Buddhist concept, to be sure.
Catherine Bürer wrote, "In Japan ‘anything goes’ as long as it astonishes or seduces." The emotional impression is paramount to logic and reason — the absolute is unattainable, and possibly evil. It is this ever-shifting, ethereal quality of the emotion, drawing us into the simple illusion and meditative trance of the picture plane, that makes Fukuda’s work so consistently intriguing and fresh after so many years.
Poster Exhibition by Ten World Artists. Idea, 1982.
Fukuda, Shigeo. Masterworks. Firefly Books, Buffalo, NY, 2005.
Kirei - Posters from Japan. Thames and Hudson, London, 1993.