Summer 1991

Word, image and emotion

Japanese Graphic Design

Richard Thornton
Laurence King, £35

Graphic design history is a notoriously tricky subject spanning, as it inevitably has to, a broad spectrum of material from fine art-oriented work to overtly commercial exercises which cannot be judged simply as aesthetic creations. In his impressive new book, the American academic Richard Thornton has succeeded, nonetheless, in formulating an approach towards the history, and contemporary study, of Japanese graphic work which is both broad and contextual, thereby avoiding many of the pitfalls which beset studies which locate their graphic design subjects within a narrower arena. By positioning the Japanese material in a framework which includes political, economic, institutional, technological, socio-cultural and aesthetic factors, Thornton has been able to cover an enormous amount of ground in a comparatively small space and to provide a succinct overview of a vast amount of material. The book represents several years of original research and, as such, illuminates a subject which in the past has received only scant treatment. This is no coffee-table book.

Thornton’s essential aim was to ‘find connections between the heritage of the Japanese and their current practices’ and, like a leitmotif, this ambition recurs throughout the study as a whole, justifying, in particular, the inclusion of the first chapter, ‘Origins of Design’. The chapter sets out some of the early traditions of Japanese graphic work reflected in the early presence of calligraphy within Japanese culture and the importance of family crests – ‘monshos’ – and such graphic manifestations as ‘rimpa’, ‘ukiyo-e’ prints and ‘kanban’ which, by the late nineteenth century (Thornton’s real point of departure), had become widespread. However, at this stage, it is not altogether clear how these traditions influenced subsequent work, although a few hints, such as the ‘flatness’ of much of these early graphics, are embedded in the text.

The following chapter, which focuses on the first half of the twentieth century, emphasises the growing relationship of Japanese practice with Western work and describes the essentially hybrid nature of much commercial graphic design from this era which combined Japanese traditions with Western tendencies. Thornton is at some pains to make clear, however, that he sees this period less as one of ‘Westernization’ than of ‘modernization’, and he makes frequent references to the technological advances of the era, among them the use of colour lithography and automatic offset printing presses (imported from the US). The changing role of Japanese women is referred to, also, as a significant change in this period, although the use of the ubiquitous ‘beautiful woman’ as subject matter for commercial graphics at this time would seem to belie this fact somewhat.

The book then proceeds to cover the rest of this century, one decade at a time. While a broad framework is, once again, presented to contain this account, it ends up, rather disappointingly, as a list of names rather than as a fully analysed study. Clearly there are key figures in this scenario: the book could not help but focus on the work of such giants as Masaru Katsumie, Yusaku Kamekura, Tadanori Yokoo and a handful of others whose pioneering work has had dramatic influences on the progress of Japanese graphics through this period. But at the same time, one longs for a critical discussion about what makes this work so special and about why Japan has earned such a reputation for itself in this field. There is a tantalizing section of writing in the 1970s chapter which, for a brief moment, puts to one side the relentless list of ‘great men’ and sets out to analyse the appeal of Japanese graphics to foreign observers. Thornton focuses on three themes – emotion, copy and image – as keys to this work and explains, very briefly, why he feels that they present themselves as they do. The comment about the loose relationship of copy to text being linked to the nature of traditional forms of communication within Japanese culture (poetry for example) begins to fulfil Thornton’s own brief to himself (i.e. to see the links between Japan’s heritage and contemporary practice) but, for me at least, it fails to go far enough.

Another area which could have extended this discussion, but which is given scant attention in this study, is that of packaging. The dominance of the poster (justified in the conclusion) is paramount throughout the work to the detriment of other graphic forms. To me, packaging, in particular, seems to deserve more treatment than it is given here if only as a means of demonstrating a particularly strong form of cultural continuity, reflected in graphic design in Japan.

Such minor quibbles apart, Thornton’s account of Japanese graphics since 1950s is well researched and documented and clearly adds significantly to the body of knowledge in this area. Moreover, the whole book is illustrated magnificently and presented in a manner which is highly appropriate to the subject at hand. My only reservation lies with the author’s failure to answer fully the question he has posed himself. We are left with only a few passing hints about the nature of continuity in Japan’s graphic achievement: ‘manga’ (comic books), for example, relate back to graphic material from the Edo period and contemporary posters shown in public places carry on something of the function of the ‘kanban’ from earlier years. What is not addressed, however, is the significance of the dramatic break with the past which occurred when Katsumie and the others around him deliberately sought to move away from Japanese traditions and to embrace European ideals as a means of creating a modern graphic design movement in the middle years of this century. This break, surely, makes us look at everything which followed it – for example Yokoo’s playful references to Japan’s past – in a new light. Perhaps, however, this is a subject for another book. I hope so.

Penny Sparke, author, Japanese Design, course leader, Royal College of Art, London

First published in Eye no. 4 vol. 1 1991


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