We chat with Max, the creator of Japan Poster Shop, a company that collects and sells vintage Japanese movie posters. Max has spent almost his entire life collecting these one-of-a-kind works of art. We delve into how he got started, what it’s like to be a collector and find out about some rare pieces available at their shop now!
Japan Poster Shop’s collection is a must-see for any cinephile. From rare Japanese adaptations of Hollywood movies to locally made masterpieces that’ll make you want to visit Japan, there are films here from every genre imaginable.
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What drew you to Japanese film posters? Why does it interest you?
Being half-Japanese and half-English, I grew up watching both Japanese and Western films, so Japanese film posters are a product that perfectly fits with me and my background. More so with my fascination for the vintage poster art’s captivating designs, and how films were advertised in the previous eras.
Tell us about yourself.
Collecting runs in the family. My father is an avid collector of items from the old Russian Empire, an extensive Babushka doll collection, antique miniature hand-painted soldiers, and more recently, large model battleships. This influence made it natural for me as a child to collect Pokémon cards, and antique wooden chests from the 1950s.
Similar to my mother, I had a knack for trading and thrifting. When I was 12 years old, I would travel to Asia and negotiate for goods there, then bring it back to the United Kingdom to sell.
At a young age, I appreciated the design of DVD covers and posters in the cinemas. I even made videos with my friends as a teenager because I love the idea of the critical story points, yet piquing interest and establishing a mystery remains unsolved. When my mother gifted me my first film poster, Seven Samurai, in my teens, this was the start of my film poster collection.
How do you source your posters for Japan Poster Shop?
We travel across all 4 islands of Japan to source our products from auctions, events, and visiting local suppliers at their warehouses, run-down cinemas, and even private home collections. When we first started, it was in Tokyo, then we traveled to Nagoya and Osaka, eventually making our way to Okayama and Hokkaido.
The poster industry is so close-knit. My contacts put me in touch with someone who can help me acquire more posters. I am the first person they call when they have something special in stock.
How did the idea of Japan Poster Shop begin?
In London, I worked as a Sales and Marketing Manager for property developer, Sir Stuart Lipton, one of the greatest developers and placemakers. He and his team helped me gain the necessary skills that complement my current business. After working in London, I moved to Japan to work in my family business as a Business Management Consultant. Only to later start my own business when my wife, Gabriele Raine Baljak, entered the picture.
Raine is very organized. She was shocked to find more framed film posters piling up on the floor than on the walls themselves. At the time, she jokingly said, “you might as well start selling these and make it into a business!”
My large private collection of vintage movie posters was my own investment. Whenever friends came over, they were always intrigued by the illustrations, which gave a glimpse of the film. With a great amount of encouragement from my wife, and her skills with making websites and running her own beauty and fitness consultancy business in the Philippines, she helped me set up our online gallery, Japan Poster Shop. We did a lot of research only to discover that many people had an appreciation for art, design and film. It felt right to share the mesmerizing art of these vintage Japanese movie posters with the world.
Fortunately, I speak Japanese fluently and I even put my wife in classes. This is an advantage when sourcing posters from across Japan to build up a sizable amount of stock to get our business running. Our suppliers are mostly in their 70s, they do not speak English, and this digital age is alien to them. It gives us great pride to support many multigenerational Japanese businesses, even some from my hometown. Over the years, based on these strong connections, Japan Poster shop has the largest collection of original Japanese vintage movie posters.
It gives me a sense of fulfilment and honour to provide our clients with the world-famous Japanese customer service, and Japanese items that grace many homes and businesses all across the world with a product that they can pass down.
What is the history behind movie posters in Japan?
Most suppliers I conduct business with received their vintage poster stock from either a friend or family of a deceased collector or former cinema owner. Historically, most small cities in Japan had their own little cinema that was family-owned. These small-town cinemas sprung up post-war to cater to the locals and advertise what could be seen with movie posters.
Over time, these cinemas were slowly replaced by large multiplex movie theatres which resulted in a lot of small local malls and businesses going out of business around the 1970s. When VHS became prolific in the 80s and 90s, it was the final nail in the coffin for these small privately-owned cinemas.
When these family-owned cinemas closed down, they had to discard a lot of their stock like movie posters, but many were taken home for safe-keeping and collecting dust. Normally three-folded and stored away alongside other old belongings in futon cupboards. These amazing rarities usually come up for sale through a close-knit community that trade off-market.
What about the major Japanese movie studios?
Production companies, like Toho, previously owned large warehouses based in the centre of the main Japanese cities. But in the 1980s, the Japanese economy grew, and so did Tokyo’s property bubble, so Toho founded its own real-estate company and cashed in on its warehouse spaces by turning them into prime real-estate housing developments. All movie memorabilia, production materials, and advertising were sold off into auctions, markets of collectors, and other companies.
So you must have come across a lot of vintage posters?
We once had around four thousand posters in possession, and it took 6 weeks to catalogue and archive! But like anything it is quality over quantity.
Who is your typical customer?
Anyone and everyone! People from all walks of life across the globe – the die-hard fan, the collector, or even, someone simply giving a gift! Anyone who cherishes a certain film, and wants to acquire this memorabilia for display purposes and find inspiration for their daily life.
I have discovered that true hardcore collectors end up storing these posters to preserve them in peak condition. I learnt from them that they don’t frame these posters to protect these vintage originals from UV radiation.
For me, I love displaying them, and I am pretty sure that 99% of our clients frame and display their posters across private and public walls.
How has COVID affected your business?
Prior to COVID a lot of our sales were offline. We had tourists and locals buying our products with walk-ins, but since the pandemic, we have moved online and have expanded our reach worldwide. We are really happy to have helped our suppliers, and B2B clients sell internationally during this unprecedented time. Our posters appeal to anybody who grew up loving and appreciating movies or the artwork themselves, and is now able to acquire a piece of one of their favourite films.
Tell us about the artwork and artists behind the poster.
One of the most famous Japanese movie poster designers is Seito. His name is attached to dozens of vintage and classic movie posters which you can even find online, like Conan the Barbarian (1982), the original Gone in 60 Seconds (1975), and the very popular, Star Wars: A New Hope (1977).
The most famous Japanese illustrator in the last 30 years is Noriyoshi Ohrai; known for the Japanese version of Return of the Jedi, and Ohrai’s poster affectionately known to collectors as “Nova” or “Starfall”. Starfall is extremely rare! For Star Wars collectors, this is one of the “Holy Grails” that we have in stock!
And of course, there is Hisamitsu Noguchi. He was a renowned cinema poster designer of pre and post-war films in Japan. Noguchi is very well respected in Japan and known amongst super collectors locally and abroad. There are almost 1,000 pieces of Noguchi’s work, including several posters for French films. Many film lovers, directors, and actors, as well as well-known artists, have praised his achievements.
What are your favourite posters, and why?
1. Godzilla (1954)
The very first Godzilla movie in 1954 is my number one favourite poster. When it was produced, no one expected it to be the longest-running film series in history! It was never mass-printed.
The production company was hesitant to go all-in with the marketing budget. I suppose they didn’t expect it to be so successful, which makes the posters of this film all the more rare and sought-after! The movie was released only 9 years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is a huge resonating connection between Godzilla and the modern history of Japan. For the Japanese, Godzilla 1954 is a serious film that has an underlying message against nuclear weapons.
2. Rear Window (1954)
I am a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock. My wife used to watch his films with her grandmother so she instantly recognized Grace Kelly on the beautifully designed poster for Rear Window. Our stock is in excellent condition, and the poster’s features have intriguing and vibrant colours. The orange colour is heavily saturated if you look at the camera. If you look into the lens, you can see the reflection of a woman. It is a fantastic film starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly that will have you on the edge of your seat in anticipation of what will happen next! To be fair, even the American poster is thought of as rare, but obviously, the Japanese counterparts are even more unique and rare.
3. 2001 Space Odyssey (1968)
This is one of our best selling products in B2 size. But the B0 size is humungous! Wider than one metre, which makes its size very unique. The normal 2001 Space Odyssey posters would show an image of space, but our version showcases spacesuits on a planet like that iPad wallpaper. The B0 poster design is so ahead of its time and incredibly rare.
4. StarWars ‘Starfall’ Return Of The Jedi Poster
This poster is amazing with very vibrant and saturated colours. It has a supernova in the background with R2D2 and C3PO, and none of the characters, which I feel is very symbolic from the original Star Wars saga. A New Hope begins from the POV of the robots and follows them around. Geoge Lucas took that idea from Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, telling the story from the POV of the two bumbling idiots — one tall, one short. The Japanese version of Return of the Jedi ‘Starfall’ really captures Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress.
5. The Hidden Fortress (1958)
This poster features Toshiro Mifune, the most famous actor with a sword almost ready to slash and the main female character with her face being quite ominous looking. This poster is double the size of a typical movie poster which makes it incredibly rare. Never has this size been seen in Japan, it is one of the rarest posters that we have in stock.