Classic films like Pulp Fiction or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest have achieved iconic status in our collective pop culture consciousness not just because they’re great movies, but also for the instant recognizability of their posters. Which means that discovering alternate versions of a favorite poster can feel like getting a movie reboot without eroding the quality of the original film (quite a rare thing for reboots these days).
In Japan, designers have been reinterpreting western films for the local market since the 1950s, not only as standard-sized theatrical posters, but also as diminutive 7.25″ x 10″ mini posters known as chirashi. Mark Wright, owner of Vidéothèque, an independent video and record store in South Pasadena, CA, first spotted a collection of chirashi while browsing for vintage movie posters on Ebay. “I was astounded by their artistry and detail,” he says. “I’ve since made connections with collectors in Asia, and we now sell them on our Etsy page. It’s fun discovering wildly different poster designs and format nuances from different territories.”
Derived from the verb chirasu, meaning to scatter, distribute, or disperse, chirashi are popular both for their creative reinventions of western designs as well as their small size and relative affordability, the latter of which makes them easier to collect than larger movie posters.
Chirashi are typically produced as double-sided handbills and are designed using the distinctive photomontage technique that gained prominence among Japanese film distribution companies during the postwar era. In the book Art of the Modern Movie Poster, co-author Sam Sarowitz writes that “Japan was one of the earliest countries to adopt offset printing for film posters, moving away from the elegant but unwieldy stone lithograph process that was the norm in both the East and the West before the war.”
Sarowitz, who runs Posteritati, one of the world’s premier dealers of vintage and contemporary movie art, explains that during the 1950s Japan witnessed an explosion of popular genres. “Legions of sword-wielding samurai, [and] city-stomping monsters seemed to call forth the world’s busiest posters: dense photomontages packed with delirious imagery, and text rendered in the three different writing styles of the Japanese language,” he says.
This collage technique was applied to domestic films as well as to movies imported from the U.S. or Europe. These are a few of the most dynamic posters in chirashi format, paired with their western counterparts for comparison.