Kouga Hirano

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The current issue of the Japanese IDEA magazine (#345) celebrates a typographic master, Kouga (Kago) Hirano. I wrote about him for Print in the 90s. Here is an excerpt of that profile.

Before the New Wave hit America in the early 1970s, some Japanese graphic designers were already playing with the visual forms and discordant relationships of Western Postmodernism. Before the Swiss grid was torn apart in Europe, Japanese typography was already entering an anarchic, deconstructed phase. In fact, contrary to the myth that Japanese graphic design leans heavily on Western culture, some progressive contemporary graphic experiments were conducted in Japan before they were introduced in the Europe or the U.S.

A few key Japanese designers — all but one little known in America — can lay claim to these accomplishments, including the renown Tadanori Yokoo, as well as Akira Uno, Kiyoshi Awazu, and Genpei Akasegawa, but none was more dedicated than [Kouga] Hirano, who since 1964 has defined the alternative graphic design movement through literally thousands of posters and book jackets. Before counterculture design movements that rebelled against the International Style began to emerge in the West, Hirano became the poster, program, and scenic designer for one of Japan’s burgeoning underground theater companies, the June Theater. The “theater of outside theaters” is how Hirano describes this company, whose name was changed to the Black Tent Theater in 1968 because the actors played under a big tent as it traveled around the country. Their repertoire included politically and socially confrontational plays and dance, including anti-war, anti-capitalist, and anti-conformist themes, as well as adaptations of vintage Brecht and other socio-political Western drama. Farce and musicals were also performed.

The posters and brochures Hirano created between 1968 and 1982 for the Black Tent Theater were stylistically varied, but often consistently designed with transparent layers of color and muliple levels of type. These graphics uniquely responded to and defined the Japanese underground culture scene of the late ’60s and ’70s which was known for its radical theater, experimental films and avant garde profermances. Influenced by the ’50s Gutai group, or Japanese beats, and the early ’60s happenings of American John Cage, these guerilla theater collectives expressed an increasing revolt against Japanese tradition. Western-styled anti-establishmentism was also pervasive among the coming of age postwar youths of this otherwise ultra conservative nation. Despite the infusion of Western ideas, however, Hirano did not develop or copy his methods directly from Western design movements but rather tapped into the same historical sources that fed them all. One notable influence is Berlin Dada which Hirano translated into a distinctly Japanese graphic idiom by combining the two conventional methods of everyday Japanese writing – horizontal and vertical – which are usually not combined on the same page as he did it, and thus demanded that the reader to come to the texts visually and physically from different vantage points.

This approach can be metaphorically interpreted as both an aesthetic and politically critical approach to Japanese tradition. In the 1920s the traditional vertical typesetting of most Japanese text was altered to accomodate horizontal setting, but as Richard Thornton points out in Japanese Graphic Design (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991), it was quixotic, without any directional consistency — sometimes left to right, other times right to left. This setting problem continued until After World War II when at owing to American influence the Japanese government adopted the standard that horizontal writing should be read from left to right. Hirano’s intersecting directional typography exploits the complexity of language in the service of youth culture’s visual codes, and pushes the rather arbitrary typographic decree. In addition, he also customized and contorted Chinese derived kanji characters to create word images and cut and pasted photographs and drawings onto layouts that looked as if they had been designed only minutes before going to press. The casualness was deceptive.

Hirano’s posters look as though they could easily have been influenced by Dutch, English, or American avant-garde graphic design of the early 1980s, as produced respectively by Studio Dumbar, Neville Brody, or Art Chantry, but they were not. Much of his signature work was done in the late ’60s and early ’70s before such methods took hold in the West. Although Punk was influencing certain Western graphic design by the early ’70s, it too was profoundly influenced by the adhoc nature of early Dada. Hirano’s approach was more in keeping with other alternativists (or anti-design designers) like Tadanori Yokoo who is the most notable proponent of Swiss influenced Japanese graphics. Given the many Japanese graphic arts organizations and annuals devoted to exhibiting native and international trends and fashions, it is likely that Hirano saw an examples of contemporary work; and some of it may have even been assimilated into his book work, but his most defining posters are decidedly predated avant-garde Western styles with which he might be associated.

Hirano compares his method of action design with the clean, staid stolid boardwork of the more internationally known Japanese corporate designers, which he calls “desk work.” Yet not every poster was slap-and-paste, however. During the period of the Black Tent Theater, which overlapped with his other other book and poster projects, he did not adhere to a single style. Some of his most exquisite posters combined 19th-century Japanese woodblocks with typographic twists that brought the colorful retro llustrations up to date. Occasionally, he added lines of neutral typography to a powerful black-and-white photograph simply to underscore the force of the image.

Although fluent in many forms of graphic expression before joining the alternative movement. Hirano credits many of the same influences that had had an impact on left-wing, anti militarist and socialist Japanese graphic designers of the late 1920s and early ’30s, such as German Expressionism — through the work of Georg Grosz — and the Russian avant-garde — particularly the graphics and poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky. The closest native spiritual antecedent of the Hirano and the alternative culture movement is the 1925 MAVO group, formed by Murayama Tomoyoshi, an illustrator who spent 1922 in Berlin and upon his return promoted Expressionism, Dada, and Constructivism through its perodical (MAVO), events and performances. The Bauhaus theories, brought back to Japan by design pilgrims, such as Murayama Tomoyoshi and graphic designer Yanase Masamu also had an impact on between the war Japanese graphics. While the emergence of the nationalism in 1936 put a halt to foriegn influences, Hirano effectively rekindled the spirit decades later.

According to Kohei Suguirua, a Japane
se design scholar, Hirano’s book work is responsible for introducing both lage 1960s French ad hocism and the German grid to Japanese graphic design. Europe has long influenced Japanese design, though. In the 1920s, Modern and moderne methods were introduced to Japan through various trade magazines, and a 26-volume encyclopedia titled Commercial Art showed how to apply these graphics to everything from trademarks to window displays. It was published by Commercial Art magazine in 1926 and distributed widely through bookstores to advertising, display, and interior designers. Hirano has simply extended that legacy. “I’ve never consciously tried to do my work in a European style,” he states. “Nevertheless, I think the European taste was within me before I became a designer.”

Even his book jackets Japanese reprints of European and American titles, he may borrow an illustration or some other element of the original design, but his work is rarely a direct translation. “Turning western idioms into something Japanese is not part of his approach,” writes James Fraser in a 1993 catalog for an exhibition of Hirano’s work at Fairleigh Dickinson University Library. “Yes, there are influences, but more in that subtlety in which a master draws the viewer’s eye into the unfamiliar by giving an illusion of the familiar. . .”

. . . Despite his rebellious nature, Hirano prefers the medium of book jackets precisely for its limitations. “I have to be given some restrictions for my work-in colors, size, etc.,” he says. “I can come up with more interesting ideas by trying to be as eccentric as possible within the restriction.” He points to a particular series of books for Shobuon-sha as an example: Each of the jackets in this multi-book series are printed in bright yellow with a hard-to-read bold, black ideogram on the front. Individually, the designs look abstract, but when more than five different books are displayed together, the characters reveal a message.

Hirano also prefers book publishing because he does not want to be an “outsider” with respect to the editorial process. “An ideal system for book designers is one where they are the exclusive designer for the publishing company. I say this because I myself cannot be merely a designer. I have to be in the working group of people who know the plan.” As an intimate member of this group-the one who gives the project a visual identity — Hirano insists that he tries not to reflect any “personal matters” in his work. Within the group, which comprises an editor, assistants, marketing people, and others, everyone must have an ideal image of how the book is supposed to look. The editor, however, is in charge of “coordinating” the members so that everyone shares the same ideal. Sometimes, of course, this is impossible. In such cases, Hirano draws his image from the conceptions of different members, and “from there I create my own design.” This seemingly contradictory procedure, says Mari Hyodo, a design scholar, stems from the “typical mentality of Japanese groupism where public and private affairs cannot be completely separated.”

Hirano is passionate is in the realm of letterforms. “Designing a character is almost like awakening the original soul in it,” he says. Hirano recognizes in Kanji, the Chinese ideograms that compose one of the three principal Japanese writing systems, a tool without visual equal. “As a rule, each Chinese character is a picture. People from cultures using the Roman alphabet often say that a Chinese character is like a well composed abstract painting. That may be true for them, but for us these characters are given an all too concrete picture. . . . One would be amazed by its descriptive and symbolic impact, but also experience a moment of bliss in which shape and meaning coincide and reveal themselves simultaneously.” This precisely describes what Hirano hopes will happen when he does his job well: “One would no longer need to wonder which came first, the shape or the meaning. It becomes a composition demanding that the reader receive it with all five senses. . .”