Some of my favourite movie art in the world comes from Japan — one of the few countries today with a wonderfully unique movie poster aesthetic. Unlike most countries (including India) where globalisation and the digital age have largely killed the homegrown aesthetic and rendered it bland, westernised and homogenised — Japanese posters continue to retain a singularly local flavour.
The quaint quality of Japan's posters perhaps stems from its high-context culture. Custom-made for the local market, Japanese posters often look different (and arguably more interesting) than the standard artwork used in other countries. The designs are bizarrely unpredictable, ranging from minimal to Extra AF — and the tone can vary from subtle, whimsical and artsy to gonzo, kitschy and pulpy. This makes it interesting to observe how the Japanese interpret foreign films on their posters.
While Japanese posters often seem to defy every design rule, there's a noticeably specific visual sensibility and rhythm to them. Some characteristics commonly seen in Japanese posters are vertical typography, distinctive title designs and clusters of text, miniature elements, photo-collages and small details- often playfully interacting with one another.
Another unique aspect of poster art in Japan are 'Chirashi', which are essentially mini-posters/ flyers used to advertise movies in Japanese cinemas. Because they are only available during a film's theatrical run, they are considered collectors' items — valued based on age and scarcity.
Indian films first arrived in Japanese cinemas in 1997, when Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman became the first ever commercially released Indian movie in the country. However, it was Muthu (starring Rajinikanth and Meena) that released in Japan in 1998 and became India's first smash-hit at the Japanese box-office — running for over 100 days in cinemas and grossing over 1.7 million USD. Rajnikanth turned into a cult phenomenon in Japan, and many of his films have released there since with varying degrees of success.
More recently, Indian films have made steady inroads into the Japanese market with many popular titles released there. English Vinglish and Enthiran both grossed over 1 million USD at the Japan box-office, Dhoom 3 was the first Bollywood film to get a wide theatrical release there, while 3 Idiots was nominated for the Best Foreign Film at the Japan Academy Awards.
2019 has seen multiple Indian films release in Japan, including Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Sanju, Kesari, 2.0, Pad Man and Hindi Medium, Gully Boy and Andhadhun which is set to open there in November.
In this Posterphilia column, we showcase some Japanese posters for Indian films that deviate in interesting and significant ways from their Indian counterparts.
After the mega-success of Muthu, titled Muthu Odoru Maharaja (Muthu: The Dancing Maharaja) in Japanese — distributors were eager to replicate its success. Ejamaan, thus became Ejamaan — Dancing Maharaja 2 and was released in Japan in April 1999. Unfortunately, the film tanked at the Japan box-office. The Japanese poster looks as though the lead couple walked right into one of Snapchat's sparkly filters. The tagline is Love is forever and the text above the title says: Rajinikanth & Meena's Volume 2 — just in case you didn't connect the dots.
Anjaam, Rahul Rawail's 1994 revenge drama starring Madhuri Dixit and Shah Rukh Khan screened at the Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival in 1999. Easily the wildest entry in this list, Anjaam's Japanese poster (illustrated by Japanese artist Ayumi Kasai) is a psychedelic, phantasmagoric spectacle that depicts the female protagonist as a gloriously vengeful Goddess. The official Japanese title for the film is equally bonkers — JigokuMandara Asura which translates to "Hell Mandala Asura". The poster, however simply reads Asura (Demon).
The Japanese poster for Mani Ratnam's Bombay simply uses a close-up image of Manisha Koirala along with a collage of images and a few pictures set inside bauble-like circles. Despite the basic layout, it looks visually arresting with the lush blue colour of the dupatta and the delicate English title treatment. The tagline reads: This love is a song from the sky.
Like Ejamaan, this Rajinikanth-Soundarya starrer released in Japan in August 1999 with the title Arunachalam: Dancing Superstar. The Japanese artwork includes a pair of eye-catching posters that borrow the Tamil title logo but give it a pop-art makeover with vibrant pop-colours, cool typography, funky shapes and patterns and mini dancing figures in the background.
In 2002, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam became the first Hindi film to get a Japanese release in over 60 screens. Funnily, the title for the film in Japan was Mimora, which is — you guessed it — the Japanese pronunciation of Nimbooda! The Japanese poster chooses minimalism over the baroque Indian design and removes Salman Khan from the image altogether. The Japanese retain the Indian tagline Straight from the heart but underline it further with a question: "Is it a sin to love (somebody) straight from the heart?"
The Japanese poster for Om Shanti Om (released there in 2013) out-blings the Indian version with oodles of glitter, a floral border, lots of tiny details and Deepika Padukone at the centre, like a shimmering Goddess. The Japanese title reads Loving Reincarnation — Om Shanti Om, while the tagline reads: In every life, I'm in love with you. It's worth noticing that Japanese posters for Bollywood films often sideline the male leads and put the heroines in main focus — their beauty and glamour perhaps proving a great draw.
English Vinglish was released in Japan in June 2014 with the title Madam In New York. The poster features a minimal (and very Japanese) illustration of Sridevi with bright pink and orange dots on a beige background. Her gentle smiling expression and colour scheme give the poster palpable warmth and charm. The top of the poster features a picture of the protagonist Shashi with her classmates, the NY skyline and light mandala patterns, and at the bottom we see the trademark photo-collage. The text above the title reads, 'World happiness is made with a little spice' — whereas the text below it says, 'The first trip to New York — To bring back the sparkle of life.'
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag released in Japan in January 2015. Both the Indian and Japanese posters allude to the protagonist's childhood memories of the India-Pakistan partition. While the Indian poster uses a broken fence as a motif to depict this, the Japanese one goes a step further, using a mirror image of Milkha as a child running for his life. Reflections and shadows are a commonly used poster device, but here this image is placed under the earth on which the grown-up Milkha is running — which literally (and powerfully) unearths the trauma and scars that lie below the surface, deep down inside him. The Japanese title simply reads 'Milkha', while the tagline goes: Run Milkha, follow your soul.
Go Goa Gone was released in Japan in 2015, with the title India of the Dead. The Japanese poster amps up the pulp quotient, giving the artwork a fun schlocky, low-rent treatment. The main caption in gold reads: "Exciting entertainment with lots of laughs and horror! Unexpected arrival of the first Indian Zombie comedy!"
After its humongous success in China last year, Hindi Medium released in Japan this September. While it was released as Hindi Medium in Japan, the Japanese poster actually goes very well with the film's Chinese title, The Starting Line. We see the anxious mom dragging her daughter to ensure that she doesn't get left behind in the race for a good education, as the father looks on befuddled. The poster departs radically from the original Indian artwork not just thematically but also aesthetically, with its solid pink background, small characters and large typography occupying all the negative space. The English title is rendered in a font styled on the Devanagari script, and the other lines on the poster read: "How come you cannot speak English?", "Above all else, private school!" and "Examination ordeal, Hindi style."
Last, we have the Japanese poster for Gully Boy, which released in Japan on 18th October. Apart from the different image, the poster also packs in multiple tag-lines and catchphrases. While the English lines go: "Voice of the streets. Change your fate." and "My time will come." (Apna time Aayega), the Japanese text reads: "Ignite feelings with words" and "From the back alley to the world. He rose from the slum on the back of rap music. A surprising true story."