The Art of the Poster. Interview with Makoto Saito.

The following interview by Jan Kubasiewicz and Elizabeth Resnick was originally published in the catalog of a retrospective exhibition of Makoto Saito’s 100 posters at Massachusetts Collage of Art and Design in Boston, organized and curated by the interviewers.

The following interview took place at Westin Hotel in Tokyo on June 30, 1999. Choosing this location instead of his office, Makoto Saito intended to create an informal atmosphere of a casual conversation, rather than business meeting. In attendence: the artist, the interviewers and June Tanaka, translator.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
What does it mean to be a poster designer, as compared with other kinds of designers?

Makoto Saito:
I am a poster designer, however, I have always felt resistance towards the way posters were handled: once their purpose is served, they are discarded. I devote a lot of time and effort into poster making. I take full responsibility from choosing the paper to the very end of production process. That is very important to me. Since I’m using valuable paper, valuable natural resources to make a poster, I just cannot tolerate the fact that it will be discarded after its use. I want to create a poster that, after its mission is completed, someone would steal and keep it, treasure it, and really enjoy it.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
You would like to preserve a poster as a piece of art. But what does the poster do for your clients?

Makoto Saito:
First of all, the first question I ask a client is, “What do you want to accomplish? What is it that you want the poster to do?” I ask because people have different opinions and
look at things in different ways. One person might ask, “Would this sell a product?” Or, another might ask, “What in the world is this?” Another might say, “This is beautiful. I want to keep it so please sell me one.” People have different opinions.

To give you an example: the fashion company Ba-Tsu was not doing very well—the company’s sales were declining. The owner of the company is a well-known poster collector and has a huge collection. He loves posters. I suggested that we should create something, what he really loves. This had nothing to do with marketing strategy. But as a result, the company business picked up, too. Something that started just between me and my client.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
This is a good example that your own mission as an artist and the client’s mission matched perfectly. Can you give us an example where the client’s expectations were different than your expectations as an artist?

Makoto Saito:
I want to emphasize that I’m a professional artist and, no matter how much money the client is willing to pay, I will not accept any job I do not agree with. But, I’m a good salesman too. I can sell things very well, including selling myself. Not only do I sell myself, but whatever my clients want me to sell. That’s what I do for them. Companies like Juno or Umword, over the past 20 years, have really picked up their business. Some companies have even reached the level of 4 billion yen and I helped them to do this. Actually, more than half of my income comes from being a consultant of marketing strategy to various companies. It appears that people only view me as an
artist, but that’s really not the whole truth.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
Is there a difference between the poster and a limited edition fine art print?

Makoto Saito:
Most large Japanese corporations do not understand this difference. Their main motive is to make money and to increase their sales. I’m willing to work with them and provide my skills as an art director, but I have no intention of really giving myself as an artist. I do not intend to devote my efforts as an artist and work with people who don’t understand nor appreciate art. If they prefer me to work as an art director, this is what I’ll provide. It’s easier for me. And I charge them a fortune.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
Posters usually include images, words, a combination of verbal and non-verbal messages. How do you see this dichotomy in your vocabulary?

Makoto Saito:
I really don’t trust words. You can say anything in words. When man could not speak, no on lied. They were just moaning or groaning or emitting sounds to sense what the other person was feeling. They were able to make good judgments about others. You could not hide in any way when there were no words. You could not lie or disguise anything.

Instead of believing in words, I make judgments by observing the energy emitted by things or people. I make a judgment as to whether I like that person or thing, or not, by the type of energy. This is something that I absorb through my pores, my cells, my nerves and my mentality. I make a judgment based on that, not on words. With words, you can say very nice things but, maybe deep inside, it could all be just a bunch of lies.

In the very beginning, when I started working, I made it a general rule not to use any words. I think I started this fad, the non-copy type of poster. When ten people look at my poster, they can imagine ten different things. If a hundred people see it, maybe there will be up to a hundred different interpretations.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
Do you think imagery that does not need translation is the source of your international recognition?

Makoto Saito:
The answer is, “Yes.” Ever since I was young, I was not happy or satisfied unless I was evaluated highly on an international level.

Elizabeth Resnick:
It is a common belief that artistic talent often surfaces in one’s youth. When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?

Makoto Saito:
In elementary school.

Elizabeth Resnick:
Did you draw in elementary school?

Makoto Saito:
Yes, and I still do. Ever since elementary school, I have not read even a single book. I don’t like Japanese writing. I’m not suggesting this is a good thing. I do not have this resistance with English. Even if I don’t understand the meaning of the words, I feel English has the right feeling for me. When I read in Japanese, I have to try to follow the meaning of it I’m a feeling person. I always like to feel things and do not wish to be influenced by anything. When you read a book, of course you will be influenced like, “Oh, maybe that’s right.” or “Ahhh, that’s one way to think about it.” right? But I don’t want to be influenced by anything. If I don’t read books, I can stay pure, good or bad. I always want to be myself.

Elizabeth Resnick:
Can you describe your early art training?

Makoto Saito:
I have no formal art training. I started out by creating prints, but I became discouraged. Japanese modern art is very sterile so I diverted to media arts instead. I thought it would be more interesting to just keep throwing things out to the public.

Elizabeth Resnick:
Did you go to university?

Makoto Saito:
No, no , no, no, although I sometimes teach at universities now.

Elizabeth Resnick:
Can you recall who your early influences were?

Makoto Saito:
There are not too many people I can think of who influenced me. There were people that I admired like Stanley Kubrick, my favorite movie director. Especially in his film “A Clockwork Orange.” I liked the visuals, the colors and, well, the “nerves.” It sort of hits on your nerves like, “Oooh, that’s burn­ing or that seems hot,” or “Oooh, that looks like it really hurts.”

Elizabeth Resnick:
And now, who inspires you?

Makoto Saito:
There are people that I admire but they did not influence me: Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in the 60s, Cy Twombly and Philip Guston. In design I admire the Stenberg Brothers, Russian avant-garde. Their work was very strong. I would say, they are the only people who really have strongly impressed me as a designer. The others, I don’t think much of.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
How do you express your ideas? How do you choose an appropriate visual form? What comes first?

Makoto Saito:
Imagination comes first. When I am creating an image, questions arise. Should it be a photograph? Should it be hand-made? My decision is based on how much I can look ahead to the finished product. If I can imagine all the way, from the beginning to the finished product, it’s not interesting. It really doesn’t turn me on. But, if there’s some potential of something that’s still not visible, still not clear – I can look forward to it. The more uncertainty in the process, the more I look forward to seeing the final product

Jan Kubasiewicz:
Yesterday, you said that, from time to time, you have to do something other that posters. Do you experiment with different processes and media?

Makoto Saito:
I’ve been a film director. “Makoto’s Story, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5” was aired on NHK – the public channel of national television for 5 days, from the 1st to the 5th of January, 7 or 8 years ago. It won the Grand Prix at a competition in Germany. Each story was about ten minutes, filmed in black and white in a genre of surrealism. Now, I’m into sculptures and murals.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
What is your opinion about new media and the emerging digital craft?

Makoto Saito:
It is like a flowing river. It’s almost like information itself. But there is no feeling conveyed in the media today. I’m not like a flowing river. I’m on the bank, and walking with my own feet at the pace that I want, and that to me is to live. When suddenly something inspires me, or imagination suddenly hits me, my body disappears and I’m like the river flowing very fast. I can surpass the speed of the river instantly. There’s no time involved. I just suddenly warp to another place. No matter how fast a computer can work, my imagination i much faster. No matter how hard it tries, the computer cannot surpass the human mind or the human imagination. It’ just a tool. You can go anywhere you want inside your mind.

People who work with computers use the same tool. It’s just like everybody’s using the same hands. They’re working with the same face. Technically, they’re very skilled people, and they’re good at what they do. But I feel there’s no individualism. That’s why it is boring to me. Let’s say I hand-draw a line. If it’s drawn on a computer, of course it’s a straight line, it’s a perfect straight line but it’s dead. It’s different from a hand-drawn line. The perfect line drawn by the computer is really not attractive because it’s too perfect. Anything that’s totally perfect is not attractive or appealing at all. When there is a disorder, a mistake or something is broken, that’ where individualism shows. When an object is too perfect, or a person i too perfect, this is not interesting to me.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
Appreciation of things which are imperfect or falling apart is quintessentially Japanese. Do you follow this principle in your design process?

Makoto Saito:
Of course I aim at perfection, but I fail, naturally. This is a matter of a degree of failure, and a degree of imperfection. If you look at the finished work as a whole, this element of imperfection strongly influences the entire completed work. Then it’s a matter of whether this is good or bad. I follow my instincts or my senses or my imagination. It’s what my body feels.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
Between an attempt and impossibility to be perfect, how do you know when a solution becomes the final solution?

Makoto Saito:
I feel it’s perfect. This is it. Then, let’s say, in the process of photographing, I realize it was a mistake. It’s too late of course, and if I am going to redo it, it’s going to be too much of a hassle, and it’s going to cost tens of thousands of dollars so I can’t change it anymore. I really have to work with whatever I have. Sometimes I realize at the very last moment some mistake that I’ve made. That really upsets me but at the same time that’s what so interesting.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
Has it ever happened that something accidental triggered that energy to say “this is it”?

Makoto Saito:
It happens all the time. Of course to a certain degree. In a sense I go up on the ring knowing only vaguely what I am going to do. I look around and try to do whatever is possible to come up with the best possible work. So, maybe it will fail, maybe it won’t. But, that’s how I actually start the process. I don’t do any presentations to my clients. I don’t show the work until the very end, until it is done.

Elizabeth Resnick:
When Jan and I visited your studio we noticed several young people assisting you. How many people work in the studio and how do they serve you? Are you the only one who designs?

Makoto Saito:
There are three other assistant designers. Basically, I do everything and they help. There is also one manage­ment person.

Elizabeth Resnick:
Can you describe your design process?

Makoto Saito:
When a project comes into the studio I come up with a rough idea. I take bits and pieces and cut things up while an assistant stands by to bring me supplies. When I have a rough image I ask the assistant to leave and I work on my own. After the image is set, I have an assistant save it on the computer. I personally do not operate computers. I give directions to my assistants and they work on the computers.

Elizabeth Resnick:
You enjoy an international reputation as a poster designer. How does that affect your role in the Japanese design community?

Makoto Saito:
I am a member of the Tokyo Art Director’s Club. Out of the seventy members of this group, perhaps three or four really know what they are doing. The rest are good guys, but they don’t know what they are doing. Whatever is decided by majority vote is just ordinary. Because I am so outspoken my work has to be maybe ten times better than other person in order to win. It’s tends to get very political.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
Will the poster as a medium survive in the 21st Century?

Makoto Saito:
It will survive, but not necessarily as we know it. Posters have existed in the past as information tools, but the way information is conveyed has changed over the years. From a designer’s perspective, the poster seems important as a tool of communication. However, if the society no longer considers it necessary the poster will deteriorate. But I am confident, that no matter what, my posters won’t disappear.

Elizabeth Resnick:
What do you see yourself doing in the future?

Makoto Saito:
I really don’t know if I am going to continue my life as a designer, I might suddenly move in a totally different direction. My ultimate ambition is to to buy up my own media some day. I would choose seven major cities of the world, perhaps London, Paris, Tokyo, New York and simultaneously send my own personal message to those cities. I do not really feel this is impossible so I am trying to accumulate money for this purpose. Designers usually don’t do meaningless and stupid things. They usually look for some kind of meaning. I want people to remember me as this outrageous designer who did such a foolish thing. I am determined to go through with this plan within 3-5 years.

Elizabeth Resnick:
What do you mean by “buying up a media?”

Makoto Saito:
I would buy up all media in selected cities for a period of 3 weeks to one month to send my message. Each city would wake up one morning to billboards, newspapers, etc., promoting my message.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
What would the message be?

Makoto Saito:
I can’t say yet. I haven’t decided. It’s just a vague idea now, I haven’t fully decided yet. I want to do something where I won’t have to think about clients at all, do whatever I want to do. I will be my own client.

Jan Kubasiewicz:
What would you tell a design student if asked about the most important point to become a successful designer?

Makoto Saito:
First I would ask “Do you have any weapons?” Next, “What is your weapon if you can name one?” If you have that, you’ll be fine, you’ll be ok, but if you’re empty-handed you really won’t get anywhere. It is something very fundamental. I think that’s the key. I think the same is true for design or painting, architecture or business. It is a question of whether you have the weapon or not. This is something you are born with. This is what you are going to. fight with. It could be something very vague, but you are very sure that you have it. That is something that drives people. That’s how I feel.

© 2018 Jan Kubasiewicz

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