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5 Japanese Mini-Movie Posters that Are Better Than the Original

Known as chirashi, these delirious, densely-packed photomontages perfectly convey the surreality of a few cult favorites

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.

1
Carmen Jones

1954

“One of the things that’s so unique about Japanese poster design is the use of calligraphic characters as key elements of the composition,” Sarowitz says. Carmen Jones is a prime example where calligraphy is prominently featured in the poster. First designed for U.S. audiences by Saul Bass, the Japanese version retains elements of the original design but places emphasis on Bass’ small flame illustration, overlaying it on a photo of Harry Belafonte’s face. The added use of color and the decision to superimpose the images creates a vibrancy to the overall design and speaks to the intensity of the relationship between the film’s protagonists without having to offer any additional information.

 

2
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

1976

In The Modern Japanese Movie Poster: For American and European Films, author Karlheinz Borchert writes that “movies, with their diverse landscapes, lavish sets, and their special scenic lighting were well-served by the montage concept, which always provided the designer abundant resources on which to draw.” This One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest poster encapsulates the essential moments of the story through collaged film stills, and highlights themes of captivity and escape while still allowing for “multifaceted, associative interpretations.”

3
Pulp Fiction

1994

 

Similarly to Cuckoo’s Nest, this version of Pulp Fiction forgoes the original poster layout featuring only a single image of the main character and instead weaves together key moments from the storyline to create a more narrative experience for the viewer. Borchert explains that while “movie posters from postwar Japan were overloaded with imagery and flooded with exuberant text, [over time], they evolved to include more modern, compositional structure and use of white space.”

 

4
Frogs

1975

The frenetic quality often created through photomontage lends itself well to the horror genre. And while the American version of the 1972 “eco-horror” film Frogs is definitely showing its age with it’s quintessentially B-movie taglines, the 1975 Japanese version still looks scary AF. The close-up cropped image of a woman’s terrified, bloodshot eyes and the white space just barely separating the canoers from a perimeter teeming with killer amphibians elicits a visceral reaction from the viewer that the original fails to achieve.

5
The Holy Mountain

1987

While Japan has a rich history of graphic design that includes legends like Kazumasa Nagai, Shigeo Fukuda, and Tadanori Yokoo, the majority of movie posters created for distribution in Japan left the designers uncredited. However, there were a few exceptions to this, like Masakatsu Ogasawara’s wild rendition of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal cult classic The Holy Mountain. Ogasawara’s composition retains the geometric and stylistic elements of the original illustrated poster but its execution through photomontage is a better representation of the psychedelic visuals that permeate the film. 

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