I attended high school in the countryside of upstate New York1 during the very late ’80s and nascent ’90s. During this time, a popular T-shirt for the local hayseed headbangers to wear was a Metallica tee that bore the slogan “We Were Metal When Metal Wasn’t Cool.” This is essentially the same ethos behind the late Japanese graphic designer Awazu Kiyoshi’s body of work in the 1980s — he was analog when analog wasn’t cool. The world was waiting with baited breath for the digital revolution to arrive, doing their damnedest to create a seamless world of perfect models populating perfect advertising efforts, but Kiyoshi Awazu did an about-face and embraced the primitive side of commercial art. And this is why I lionize him as a figure in Japan’s design history. In that era’s world enamored with slick façades, his romance with the crude and imperfect feels like a breath of fresh air, even forty years after creating his most vital work.2
I had been biding my time, waiting for a decent eulogy-in-print of Awazu in the international graphic design press since he passed away in April 2009. Awazu was among the upper echelon of Japanese graphic designers throughout his career domestically, though has received far less attention abroad than his peers Yokoo Tadanori and Tana’ami Keiichi. But it looks like Awazu’s time in the spotlight isn’t coming, so I’ve taken up the task here in hopes of encouraging design aesthetes internationally to examine his life and body of work. It’s funny — the same lack of sentiment expressed abroad is neatly mirrored in Japan. Chatting with Muroga Kiyonori, the editor-in-chief of Idea Magazine, he expressed the view that he’d always felt that Awazu was a lesser force than his contemporaries, but with his passing, Awazu’s lifework is potentially worth a deeper study. With that unconscious taunt, I picked up the gauntlet…
Born in 1929, the self-taught Awazu took up the mantle of graphic designer in 1954, designing posters for kabuki and less-popular shingeki theatrical troupes such as Shinkyo Gekidan, Zenshinza, and Shinseisazuka. This was followed by a number of years in which he created posters for film studios such as Dokuritsu Eiga and Nikkatsu, quickly gaining notoriety for his deft mixture of illustration, custom lettering, and detailed typography. Awazu’s 1955 poster “Give Back Our Sea” was both award-winning and culturally resonant, establishing the designer as an advocate of social causes through his portrayal of a fisherman barred from his trade. His posters for the 1957 documentary The Crying Whales and the 1957 play Chuji Kunisawa further cemented Awazu’s position as a young designer to watch.
Awazu spent the rest of the 1950s and the 1960s hard at work, refining his folk-influenced style, experimenting with color and form, and investigating the possibilities of chance processes after an encounter with composer John Cage. In a bold move at the time, Awazu consistently declined invitations to join advertising agencies and larger design studios, opting for a more autonomously directed career outside of advertising. His frequent collaborations with architects helped infuse some of Japan’s national monuments with a proto-hippie folk sensibility that eschewed the hard edges of modernism for an organic massing of lines and naturalistic form. The ’60s found Awazu continuing his work in film, creating fascinating poster designs for the avant garde film The Woman In The Dunes, and Kwaidan, an adaptation of four traditional Japanese ghost stories as popularized by journalist, amateur ethnologist, purported orientalist, and plural miscenegist writer3 Patrick Lafcadio Hearn. Freewheeling formal experimentation influenced by Pop Art and ’60s counterculture from both abroad and home in Japan also found their way into his work, primarily influencing Awazu’s bold color schemes, raw linework, and nuanced typography.4 Traces of Ben Shahn‘s illustrative approach and lettering pop up in Awazu’s work in the 1960s, as do elements of the Push Pin Studios appropriation of “olde timey” advertising cuts deployed decoratively, a compositional approach influenced by Yokoo Tadanori, concentric linework, and a reliance upon overprinting for dazzling optical effects.
Canonized for his early works, Awazu’s veer into graphic left-field in the late ’60s and ’70s seems to only be the territory of visual connoisseurs. I personally know of a grand total of two other giant fans of his work amongst design aficionados abroad. Undocumented in English is a wide swath of experimentation for the fields of architecture and theater from this period — the excitement of British paper architects Archigram married to the decorative elements of ukiyo-e expressed through the medium of coarse-grained silkscreen. Traditional motifs are filtered through at-times highly disturbing contemporary lens — dismembered heads emitting copious bodily fluids and the omnipresent crows of Tokyo crying tears of shame, interleaved with expressive hand-drawn characters, their strokes swollen and collapsing upon themselves.
What was potentially most notable about Awazu’s work in the 1970s and 1980s was his devotion to the poster as a form of graphic expression in a time when public perception and appreciation shifted from “pure” graphic design to more photo-reliant, advertising-based big budget initiatives such as those produced by art directors like Ishioka Eikoh for the PARCO department store chain spanning film, print, and broadcast. While Japan’s design industry moved wholesale to a fascination with the gloss and sheen of the photograph and the airbrush, Awazu battered away via pen, brush, ink, and press type, creating virtual cosmoses of flattened figure/ground relations.
Despite being out-of-step with visual trends at that time, Awazu had established himself as a force to be reckoned with, and commissions continued with an increased focus on collaborative projects in the field of architecture. Most notable of these projects was Awazu’s exterior for the Nibankan Building5 in the red-light district Kabukicho. Reminiscent of proposed early Modern Japanese kiosk designs, the Nibankan Building’s various planes are pasted with bright colors and geometric shapes — like a Pop Art painting fragmented and vomited on a simplified, though not simplistic multi-planar structure. Designed by architect Takeyama Minoru, the building was featured on the cover of Charles Jencks’ breakthrough 1977 book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. The collaborative, forward-thinking, and formal approach as well as the holistic graphic treatment were an early precursor of hyper-decorative treatments by other Post-Modern architects, most notably Michael Graves. Included in the architectural plan was a proposal for five-year interval graphic revisits, the pop colors and shapes to be revisited regularly. Adventurous and forward-thinking, the re-skinning of the building was meant to mirror the constant change that is so much the innate essence of Kabukicho.
Nestled in nearby Harajuku, the Awazu Design Office chugged away — Awazu and an assistant working through each day’s assignments, breaking for extended games of go amidst the fumes of Krazy Glue, Awazu’s adhesive of choice6. He preferred the clear, very, very permanent sealant for paste-up in lieu of the then-typical rubber cement. Then in 1988, the company quietly packed up and relocated to a remote part of Kawasaki where Awazu had Kyoto Station architect Hara Hiroshi build him a palatial modern home with an in-house studio amongst the rice fields and rolling hills of Kanagawa. From his new home, Awazu continued his assorted activities, exhibiting internationally, taking on design commissions, sculpting, and screenprinting.
In 2000, Awazu took over the job of Director of the Toppan Printing Corporation’s7 Printing Museum, the ardent independent contractor finally becoming a “company man.” Awazu steered the museum situated in the industrial Edogawabashi district to numerous awards and an enhanced status amongst cultural institutions in Tokyo. Meanwhile, he continued to actively research and exhibit, exploring a long-held interest in the petroglyphs of Native Americans, which culminated in an exhibition on the subject.
Awazu passed away in his beloved Kawasaki after an extended bout with pneumonia at the age of 80. His website is still operational as of December 11, 2011. It has yet to mention his death.8
Walking through Kabukicho today at midday, the Nibankan Building stands disheveled and worn. The last graphic facelift was probably a decade ago. Most of the businesses in the building appear to be closed — a mini-economy of bath houses, pachinko parlors, and assorted tawdry service providers boarded-up and shut, most likely forever. Looking up at one of Awazu’s masterworks, a raspy voice from nearby resonated in my ear — a proposition from a prostitute. Leveling my eyes at her, I smiled and said, politely, “No, but thank you” in Japanese. I’m a service provider, too, as was Awazu-san, and looking at the lovely giant red number 2 topping the building and the striped and concentric circled amalgam that is pasted on the building’s surface, I couldn’t have been more adequately pleasured.
2And, frankly, this statement stands for his contemporaries. Yokoo devolved into a bad painter (and worse actor), riding out his early fame on a gilt-edged red carpet. Tanaami has busied himself exploiting the early aesthetic which he departed from decades ago, trotting out inkjet prints on canvas that have been poorly painted-over, offering low-rent Thomas Kinkade-style productions as “originals,” despite the evidence of the paint-by-numbers methodology in play.
This whole trend reifies the time-worn concept of The Designer As Failed Painter — that all designers actually seek fine art careers, but have taken up the workaday practice of graphic design as a way of earning a living — a myth that is given form by those who fail to find fulfillment in a life in the commercial end of the arts.
Perhaps I should look out before I shoot my mouth off like this. I am 40 years old and have only been practicing graphic design professionally for fourteen years (and have chosen to devolve into being a “failed writer” in lieu of being a “failed painter,” apparently). Honestly, I find the whole designer as failed painter theme sordid. Embrace what you do. In the now-decade-old words of cultural writer and agitator W. David Marx, “Design is the new rock ‘n’ roll.” Designers should revel in their activities, not fawn over the activities of the painter in the garret rendering still lives brushstroke-by-brushstroke. Do what you do and OWN it.C
3And this is where I give Hearn crazy props. He was a white man with the gall to marry a black woman fifty years before it was legal in Ohio and then to marry a Japanese woman in Japan in a time when it was fairly unheard of.A
4And turtles! Awazu was fucking apeshit for turtles. He worked so many goddamn turtles into his work that it’s painful. This includes not one, but two known gigantic three-dimensional sculptures of turtles — one adorning his later Kawasaki home and another public sculpture.B
5The Nibankan Building stands as architect Takeyama’s precursor to the Shibuya 109 Building, every foreign otaku’s wet dream/nocturnal emission — the hub of Shibuya fashion which opened in 1979 and whose cylindrical structure is a major stopping point for nearly every one of my Study Abroad students from the U.S. Their fascination with Gyaru/Gothic Lolita/Mori Girl/Time Slipper/Whatever-fashion-flavor-of-the-month-the-international-media-has-quantified-and-categorized-lately makes me sad usually — they are young and they are thinking about the veritable data, not the vessel. I’m aging (rapidly). I dwell on the less important things… like graphic design and architecture instead of sock glue.
6This bit of information speaks to me, somehow — Awazu was consistently dedicated to experimentation and visual research and chose to seal his progress in the most permanent way possible, as well as a method that is highly irritant to general human existence due to its toxicity. There is something devoutly poetic about this.
7Toppan is the Disney® of Japanese printing conglomerates. To date, my interview to pick up a paltry freelance project for the Toppan Printing Corporation stands as the single biggest epic fail of my career to date. (And that’s saying something — I have had my fair share of fuck-ups… trust me).
8This, too, is somehow poetic. No matter how hard the PR spin (or lack thereof), one cannot evade mortality.
ALittle-known fact: Hearn also had a bum eye due to getting punched in the face on a high school playground, and never allowed anyone to photograph him with his bad eye on display. Peep Wikipedia — Hearn is always posing to hide his eye, or has his baby blues closed.
BI am randomly excited about this. When I was 16 years old, I got an awful (but miniscule) full-color tattoo of a cartoon turtle sporting a top hat with a wilting flower on my ankle. 22 years later, I am married to a Japanese woman whose name literally translates into “Turtle Mouth.” She views the tattoo as being foreshadowing (and awkward for her family, as tattoos are taboo in Japan, particularly the rural area where her extended family resides). I just view it as evidence that I am highly prone to making really, really fucking stupid decisions.
CThis being said, it’s disclosure time: I was offered a live painting gig at Tokyo Big Site, Tokyo’s biggest auditorium, for a whiskey trade show a few years ago. The organizer, a friend, confused me writing about graffiti and lettering with being a tried-and-true graffiti writer/street artist, and asked me to paint a giant canvas in front of a crowd of hundreds alongside a real sumi-e ink painter working on a similarly-sized sheet of rice paper.
Due to scant design commissions on my part at that time, and a sizable commission for pictorially synthesizing the essence of a thirty-year-old single malt whiskey which was going to be dutifully poured down my throat on canvas during the painting process, I gratefully took up the task at hand. What resulted was the murkiest painting of deconstructed pop cartoon characters to ever grace an auditorium stage. And a mammoth hangover. A painter I am not. And now, a few years later, I consistently have to insist that I am decidedly not a painter to the folks I happen across who saw me flinging acrylic paint around onstage that day. Consider yourself warned.