Summer 1994

Perfection of an empty page

Kirei: Posters from Japan

Edited by Catherine Bürer
Thames & Hudson, £38

The Japanese poster tradition has given us some of the most beautiful and, to western eye, baffling images in all of graphic design. You can never escape the suspicion that however deeply the posters might move you and their technical excellence impress, you are almost certainly missing the point. It is not just a question of failing to understand the language – for the more fanciful and poetic copy lines, not even a translation would help. To make these images even half as resonant and meaningful to us as they are to a Japanese audience, a much deeper level of cultural translation is required.

This is the daunting task that Kirei – Posters from Japan sets itself and which it only partly achieves. The book is based on the collection of posters in the Museum fur Gestatlung, Zurich and feels like a catalogue, but essays by Catherine Burer, Josef Muller-Brockmann and Japanese poster designer Koichi Sato offer valuable insights. Large-format pages enact the posters’ drive for lightness and transparency by surrounding them with white space.

The essayists range widely but come back to one point on which they all agree. While there is a no one style of Japanese poster, but rather a multiplicity of personal approaches, the single characteristic that most distinguishes them is a reduction of elements until only the essential remains. Kirei, the almost untranslatable Japanese adjective that gives the book its title, can mean “beautiful”, “simple”, “fair”, “pure”, “plain” or “clean”. To make something kirei is not to prettify it with pointless decoration, but to purify it of all superfluous matter. “The perfect embodiment of kirei,” write Sato. “is logically a blank sheet of paper. Whiteness is colour without impurity and the plane is necessarily simpler than the cube.”

And yet, as Muller-Brockmann points out, in Buddhist philosophy these blank spaces are not considered empty, or of lesser importance. The void in these posters is simultaneously both foreground and background. It is not “a mere lack of presence, but rather a sign of seeing beyond things, a site of inner reflection, mediation and utmost quiet”. Its meaning is spiritual and religious.

Even if we are unwilling to follow the Japanese into the thorny garden of Zen metaphysics, these posters still have much to teach us in the West. Their radical difference from the norms of our own graphic design it is a timely reminder of the contingency that underpins of definitions of the discipline. These are cultural conventions, no more, and there is nothing inevitable, or permanent, or universal about them. When culture changes, as it must, there is no reason why design should not change along with it. Try stopping it.

Apply Bob Gill’s famous definition a successful graphic idea, however, and many of these posters would not qualify as good design. If you described the content of one Koichi Sato’s over the phone – “a box with light flooding out of it” – the person on the other end would have no trouble drawing their own version. They would not have captured Sato’s “idea”, tough, because this lies in the precise way in which the image is realised: the idea is a complex function of the designer’s sensibility, style, understanding of his own culture and technique. Unless the receiver’s qualities happened to match Sato’s, they would not be able to reproduce the effect.

If this collection has a failing, it is the familiar graphic design book ploy of over-generalisation. It would be hard to imagine a guide to Japanese film or literature that omitted to substantiate its arguments by citing a single film or book, but that, in effect, is what we have here. Burer notes how artistic individuality makes it difficult to speak of the Japanese poster as if it were a definite entity, then proceeds to do just that.

Many of the posters consequently refuse to fit the patterns the writers have established. “In Japan photographs of identifiable subject matter are relatively rare,” writes Muller-Brockmann, a surprising assertion many of these examples are unambiguously photographic. It is hard to detect much “immanence” or sense of “ethereal floating’ in routine, albeit superbly photographed images of a bare-chested girl on a beach, a bottle of fizzy drink seen against the sky, or an immaculately coiffured model nibbling fish from the bone (copyline: “Crunch, Crunch, What a Delicious Noise”). Burer’s “inner tremor” and “moment of poetic repose” seem a touch elevated as descriptions of the sort of response images like this are meant to evoke. To western eyes they look as vacuous as many of our own ads.

A closer examination of individual cases sometimes reveals the same chasm within a designer’s body of work. Makoto Saito’s Parco department store poster of 1981, showing a young woman and boyfriend, is standard fare – literal-minded and unpromising. By the mid-1980, he is slicing the photographic figure into discontinuous fragments and building cool surrealist montages from bodies, heads and limbs. More recent examples are intricate and painterly: a fashion poster has the selectively applied colour and abstracted details of Richard Hamilton Pop Art screen-print. What are the personal and external factors that propel such developments?

Nothing about Saito’s typography or image for this poster suggests that it comes from Japan, and many of his colleagues have also set their eyes on the West. Shigeo Fukuda’s familiar puns, echoes and inversions have as much in common with Sato’s mysterious intuitions as a stand-up comic’s punch line has with a haiku. There is a questioning of local traditions and even a disregard for them in some of these posters that the book’s slender, concluding section on the “Occident” has barely even begun to address.

First published in Eye no. 13 vol. 4 1994

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