Friday, December 5, 2008

Noboru Kubo: Keeping the art of hand-painted movie billboards alive

by Chris MaGee

I'd seen old photographs of Japanese movie theatres a number of times and I was fascinated by the bold, hand-painted placards for the films hung out on their marquees. I spent a lot of time searching around online for decent sized images of these old movie marquees, but for the longest time came up with nothing. Then on a recent trip to Suspect Video I found a book called "Japanese Movie Billboards: Retro Art from a Century of Cinema" by Brett Bull and published by DH Publishing. It's of course filled with wonderful examples of these hand-painted billboards, but most importantly it features the work of Noboru Kubo, a 67-year-old artist who I sadly found out is that last man producing these beautiful hand-painted marvels.

Born in Ōme, a suburb of Tokyo, in 1941 Kubo first became fascinated with movie billboards when at the age of 13 he saw one advertising a chanbara film starring Denjiro Okochi as the one-eyed, one-armed samurai, Tange Sazen (represented in one of Kubo's later billboards above). Six years of obsessively practicing drawing and eventually apprenticing with an ad agency led the young Kubo to eventually be put in charge of producing all of the handpainted billboards for the three movie theatres then operating in Ōme. It was a busy time for the artist. He churned out one and sometimes two or three billboards in a day featuring the likenesses of Toshiro Mifune, Akira Kobayashi, Ken Takakura, and Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn and Warren Beatty, but as the 1960s rolled on and television began chipping away at moviegoing audiences Kubo's livelihood was affected as well.

By 1973 the slump in the film industry caused the last of Ōme's theatres to close its doors leaving Kubo to scrounge a living by producing everything from curtains for funerals to political signs. Those wilderness years continued for the artist until Ōme held its own arts festival in 1993 and the light bulb went off over city official's heads when they realized the tourist potential of displaying Kubo's movie billboards. It seems that what would have once been a common site on Japanese streets had now become a curiosity piece.

This return to his first love hasn't changed Kubo's methods at all though. When he sits down in front of a panel he still has no preset plan as to how his billboard will be laid out. He also still uses the recipe for dried pigments that traces its history back to the Edo era. Called doroenogu the pigments use the gelatin from boiled whale and other animal bones as a binding agent.

While I encourage anyone interested in the history of Japanese cinema to search out "Japanese Movie Billboards" you can also check out a full galery of online images of Kubo's work at Sake-Drenched Postcards, the kind folks who provided most of the background information for this piece.

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