In the west, eastern languages are viewed rather romantically and the exoticness of their written shapes have made items featuring them highly desirable. More often than not, the products of this enthusiasm are upside-down Korean characters, gibberish strings of Chinese logograms and dramatically (permanently!) inked tattoos taken from the streets of Japan (though, more likely from the side of a beverage can than a Yakuza’s back).
I’d call these people out, but even in my own house there’s at least two items purchased for how cool they look. Exhibit A: A Neon Genesis Evangelion poster covered with dramatic three-inch high lettering that actually just announces an upcoming DVD set. Exhibit B: a colourful plaque depicting a cute racoon, on my housemate’s bedroom door. Very sweet, except it actually says “And now, let us wash our hands”, which is the last directive you’d hope to hear after being in somebody’s bedroom.
There is an undeniable appeal to these characters, and it’s not just a matter of how ‘different’ they appear to western writing schemes. Chinese Hanzi (and Japanese Kanji, when imported) may be complex, but they recycle and recombine shapes in a way that is actually very ordered and aesthetically appealing. The effect on posters and other materials is enhanced by the fact that, by convention, Chinese characters are mono-spaced. And even though handwritten Latin script is methodically taught by western schools, there is particular emphasis on the proper illustration of Asian characters (the order of strokes especially). “Design” as a wider concept seems to be more intrinsic to these languages.
Japanese poster art is has a distinct look and many western appreciators (it is claimed by some that the Japanese poster tradition is fundamentally different because it didn’t grow as a tool for selling products). In the following gallery, I’ve collected examples of poster art for the films of Studio Ghibli – an animated film studio that has become famous in the west. The ‘Ghibli style’ is itself distinct in Japanese animation, despite being arrived at by different directors and character designers.
All Poster artwork was taken from the ebay-pages of edo-iki, who stock a wide range of Ghibli merchandise:
The pre-Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki movie Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind already had an established graphic novel series. Straight off, eyes outside of Asia are drawn to the placement of text explaining the premise in the top right (Since Japanese is a language traditionally read from the upper right downwards, moving left from line to line).
In this poster for Laputa: Castle in the Sky, the single vertical column of text works in tandem with the theme of the image (taken from a scene in the film where Sheeta falls out of the sky).
Fans of My Neighbour Totoro will note that the girl in this poster is from a pre-production version of the film. This one character became two in the film (almost literally – elements of her design were shared between the girls).
Isao Takahata’s wartime-drama Grave of the Fireflies was released with this striking poster, that plays up to the many meanings of the ‘Fireflies’ in the film (both the literal fireflies, the firebombs dropped by American aircraft and the children themselves). The reserved use of text is particularly effective.
Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service in the bakery in which she works part-time. This poster sells the film primarily with its exquisitely detailed background artwork (though as the original title translates as “Witch’s Delivery Service”, it’s a little clearer to its audience what the film is about).
Viewed side by side with her younger self, Only Yesterday’s protagonist, Taeko almost looks like she’s part of a different film altogether (the flashbacks in the film do have a noticeably different feel, and this poster gets this across).
Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso was an interesting project: his obsession with planes is well known and he specifically made the movie for ‘middle-aged businessmen’ (the film was originally intended as in-flight entertainment on Japan Airlines flights, after all). This poster was specifically part of the effort to appeal to this audience – it is constructed to be reminiscent of the kind of theatrical posters that accompanied the release of classic Hollywood films in Japan.
The poster for Takahata-directed oddity Pom Poko. In terms of text, this one is actually fairly heavy, though it all reads horizontally left to right (At a stretch, this may be a thematic choice – the film is about the clash of modernity and traditional Japan, and the only vertical text here is in the artwork itself).
A simple design for Whisper of the Heart – White backgrounds appear to be a convention for romantic drama films.
Princess Mononoke herself appears on this version of the movie poster. The broad, uncultured strokes of the title’s font (the red text at the bottom) is intended to highlight the irony in her name (explaining to a society brought up on a Disney notion of ‘Princesses’ that Princess Mononoke is samurai film with at least two decapitations has never been easy).
Spirited Away is just one of the movies that has a slightly different title in its original Japanese (“The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro”). This was the movie that finally brought Ghibli to western prominence (winning the Animation Academy Award), and it was routinely advertised in a way that emphasised how exotic its fantasy was – a far cry from this depiction of grumpy little protagonist, Chihiro.
Part-sequel to Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns has the fun little poster packed with horizontal text – an overall composition that would be difficult in a Latin script.
This poster for Howl’s Moving Castle actively sells the titular fortification and establishes it as the fantastical character it is.
A beautiful port-town from Tales From Earthsea. If you haven’t seen the movie, you probably wouldn’t know that among the tiny characters in the foreground are the protagonists. But the poster invites you in nonetheless (the film did well at the box office, even if it was heavily criticised alongside its director, Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro).
Recent release The Secret World of Arrietty has this wonderfully staged poster showing the titular Borrower in some nice foliage (You can always count on Ghibli to illustrate beautiful greenery).
Yet to be released outside of Japan, From up on Poppy Hill is the second film from Goro Miyazaki, this time a romantic drama. Whilst the traditional media-look suits the genre of film this poster was made for, I do wonder whether this isn’t an attempt to re-emphasise Ghibli as the home of the unpretentious, Japanese auteur, after years of worldwide success and the unpopularity of the slick looking but incomprehensible Tales from Earthsea.