1981 / 2017
In 1981, twelve of Japan’s top graphic designers came together to create a suite of
posters under the curation of legendary art and design critic Masaru Katsumi, best
known around the world today for having pioneered the concept of a sleek, stylized
system of pictographs representing each Olympic sport for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
The posters commemorated an extraordinary series of lectures, masterclasses, and
performances both live and televised that began at UCLA and radiated outward as far
as New York, Washington D.C., and Honolulu. Five of the greatest living masters in five
genres of traditional Japanese theater, dance, and music spent five weeks on campus
and performing across the country as part of the annual UCLA Asian Performing Arts
Summer Institute. The group of performers called themselves the Classical Performing
Arts Friendship Mission of Japan.
The graphic designers Katsumi chose to participate in what was at the time an utterly
unprecedented collaboration reads like a who’s who list of the most innovative artists in
the field: Katsumi Asaba; Kiyoshi Awazu; Shigeo Fukuda; Takenobu Igarashi; Yusaku
Kamekura; Takahisa Kamijo; Mitsuo Katsui; K2 (Keisuke Nagatomo & Seitaro Kuroda);
Kazumasa Nagai; Makoto Nakamura; Ikko Tanaka; Tadanori Yokoo.
The posters themselves, which give visual form to their creators’ sense of five
performing arts—gagaku, hayashi, kyogen, nagauta shamisen, Nihon buyo, and
noh—exhibit a striking range of styles and sensibilities. Some capture an excitement
particular to the 1980s, and a sense of the joys and the riskiness inherent in conjoining
the classical and the current; others seem imbued with a desire to transcend their
moment, and still look, thirty-five years later, as if they have only just come off the
Incorporated immediately upon their release into the collections of major art museums
across the country, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Fine Arts
Museums of San Francisco and the Art Institute of Chicago, these posters have gone
on to inspire other designers and artists. In 2016, fashion designer Issey Miyake used
Ikko Tanaka’s poster from this series—which is often cited as the best representative of
his work—as one of three motifs to structure a collection devoted to Tanaka’s career.
Thirty-five years later, as I was conceiving a plan to bring Mansaku Nomura, who had
first visited Los Angeles as part of the 1981 UCLA Asian Performing Arts Summer
Institute, back to campus along with Mansai Nomura, Yukio Ishida, and other members
of the Mansaku-no- Kai Kyogen Company, I had an almost ridiculous thought. Would it
be possible to create a second set of posters, featuring the seven original artists who
were still with us, together with five newly chosen artists who would bring the number
back to twelve? Could we make a remarkable event in the history of Japanese graphic
design even more special, by doing it again more than three decades later?
So I wrote a letter to Katsumi Asaba, who since 2012 has served as President of the
Japan Graphic Designers Association. I explained my idea, tried to communicate how
exited I was about it. And something extraordinary happened. He said yes. He offered
to contact the other designers from the first suite, and choose five new participants.
Thus it was that the first suite of posters, curated by one Katsumi, came to be followed
by a second, curated by a another, that marks the inauguration of a new project called
the Yanai Initiative Japanese Performing Arts Program.
Among the participants in the original poster project, six created works for the new suite:
Katsumi Asaba, Takenobu Igarashi, Takahisa Kamijo, Mitsuo Katsui, Kazumasa Nagai,
and the two-person team of Keisuke Nagatomo & Seitaro Kuroda. Keisuke Nagatomo
passed away in March, so this poster was one of his final projects. Tadanori Yokoo
hasn’t yet come up with a design, but with luck he will sometime between this preview
and two formal exhibitions of both sets of posters that I hope will happen soon, one in
Los Angeles and one in Tokyo. The five designers whose work appears for the first time
in this double collection include Kenya Hara, Kazunari Hattori, Kaoru Kasai, Masayoshi
Nakajo, and Taku Satoh. I won’t comment on the new set of posters. Just go look at them.
Director, Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities
Associate Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures, UCLA