TOKYO (TR) – To step onto the platform at JR Ome station is to begin a journey back through the history of cinema. A stoic John Wayne, cowboy hat set atop his head, stares at arriving and departing passengers from a billboard for the film “Stagecoach.” Waiting inside the tunnel leading to the ticket gate is Audrey Hepburn, black sunglasses dangling from her lips in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Outside, and throughout the city’s streets, the fronts of many shops and the sides of buildings feature yet more ominous imagery of film legends past, each brimming with action and vibrant colors: Charlie Chaplin peers from the edge of a brick wall in “Modern Times” and Toshiro Mifune raises his sword in Akira Kurosawa’s samurai flick “Yojimbo.”
Noboru Kubo, perhaps Japan’s last remaining painter of old-style film billboards, is the man behind this nostalgic tour.
“The reason I do the old movies is because I like the retro look,” explains Kubo, who in 1941 was born in this sleepy Tokyo suburb, one-hour by train from Shinjuku. “Today’s movies seem to be too detached from the feeling I want to express.”
On Kubo’s business card, the first name reads “Bankan,” a lighthearted pronunciation twist on kanban, or billboard, and for much of his five decades in the business he has been delaying that inevitable day when this craft’s last brush stroke hits the paper.
Kubo’s cramped studio is filled with blank veneer boards leaning on their edge. The floor beneath his chair is splattered in specks and drips of color. To either side of him are plastic tubs of paint with wood mixing sticks sitting inside. Torn and wrinkled film posters, mainly from his favorite genre, chanbara (sword-fighting), are taped to the walls and scattered about the tables and floor.
Kubo, who always works in a bandanna and sandals, starts with a pencil, which is used to carefully make an outline of the main stars — for example, the distinctive curves and low neckline of Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot.” The mangled posters serve as guides for making certain that each character’s image and physical traits are replicated properly. “Of course I want to emphasize the main characters,” he says of each billboard’s layout. “But as well, I want to make it seem as if the characters are going to move as soon as you see them. I want the picture to seem dynamic, as if it is alive.”
In his rendering for “Shichinin no Samurai” (Seven Samurai), the hero, once again Mifune, legs slightly spread and mouth about to let forth with a scream, swings his sword high above his head. For “Bonnie and Clyde,” Warren Beatty grips the getaway car’s steering wheel from behind its bullet-hole-filled windshield as Faye Dunaway slightly tilts her head and laughs.
Colors are applied so that the background scene, perhaps the airplane lifting from the runway in “Casablanca,” appropriately blends with the larger characters in the foreground. “There is no plan,” Kubo says of his approach. “I just go with my instinct. All of the ideas pop into my head so I have no idea what I am doing from the start.”
The billboards are not without their quirks. Audrey Hepburn appears to be disillusioned as she peers from a near ninety-degree pivot of her head in “Roman Holiday.” Equally awkward is Richard Thorpe’s zombie-like stare at a herd of elephants in “Tarzan Escapes.”
Kubo’s beginnings in the trade go back to when he was 13, a time when he frequently saw billboards posted in front of a theater near his family home in Ome. One in particular that caught his eye was for a film starring Denjiro Okochi as the fictional character Tange Sazen, a one-eyed and one-armed samurai. “It was so catchy, so very impressive,” Kubo recalls.
Soon after, he started drawing pictures and characters of his own in a notebook. Then following a six-month apprenticeship at an advertising company, where much of his work unfortunately included cleaning dishes and floors, he approached a theater with samples of his work to request a job painting the billboards for nothing but the cost of the paints and brushes. By the age of 19, he was in charge of furnishing billboards for the three theaters in Ome.
Speed was crucial. In an average day Kubo completed one billboard, but during the peak season, when three films might be screened at each theater in a week, his pace had to be increased.
While many now might see his work as a form of entertainment, back then the works were strictly for functional purposes. “They were up for a week and then we stripped them down in favor of announcing the next feature,” Kubo explains.
During the golden age of Japanese cinema in the 1950s and ’60s, a time when legends like Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kurosawa directed some of Japan’s most legendary films, the number of screens ballooned to over 7,000. But many shut following the popularity of television: by 1970, only 3,000 were in operation. When Ome’s last theater closed its doors in 1973, Kubo had to find other work. “When I was young, I dreamed of working at a big theater in the center of the city,” he says. “But I had to give up hope when I became obsolete.”
Festival signs, political posters and funeral curtains then became his focus. But when he found himself yearning for the films of old, Kubo started painting the billboards again. Following an art festival in Ome in 1993, various businesses discovered that Kubo’s billboards provided a nice tourist draw when placed outside.
Today his output has slowed to where each billboard might take a week. He receives approximately 30 orders a year, with various painting work on the side taking up the remainder of his time.
Even though modern film billboard-makers use computers to create posters in a mass-produced fashion, the methods used by Kubo, who estimates he has produced over 3,000 billboards in his career, have remained largely unchanged. The lighting is the only item in his studio powered by electricity. For paint, such natural materials as seashells and charcoal are crushed and powdered to form his five basic colors — red, yellow, blue, white, and black., These natural pigments, called doroenogu, are held together by a binding element (nikawa), which is a paste made from an extract of boiled whale and animal bones.
This traditional style of painting, which was commonly used in the Edo Period (1603-1868), results in colors that nearly jump from the board – like the crisp yellow blazing torch clutched in the hands of the seaside hero in “Abashiri Bangaichi” (The Man from Abashiri Jail).
But since the paint is organic and most of Ome’s billboards are exposed to the elements, the sharpness is not everlasting. Rain and sunlight cause discoloration and fading. The non-permanence inherent in the work is a problem, too, in encouraging younger generations to take up the craft.
“Modern Japan is creative enough,” Kubo says, “but it is extremely difficult to get people interested in painting with such rudimentary materials. So many young students go to universities where they make graphics on fancy computers.”
Kubo is reluctant to comment on his work, but he will say that his passion lies in an appreciation for films from an earlier time.
“I would not say that this is art,” he says. “I am a just professional who happens to be able to paint slightly better than the average person. So I’ll let the public decide whether or not to call my work art.”
Like many things in life, Kubo believes that true appreciation will come once it has disappeared.
“I believe that in 100 years nobody will be doing this,” he says. “It will be then that people will come around to realize just how valuable it is.”