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7 Sept 2020 / by Ikko Yokoyama

‘When You’re Ready, It Will Speak to You’: Nagai Kazumasa’s LIFE Series

A poster featuring a stylised depiction of a red monkey with a mouth full of sharp teeth. Its body is covered in a transparent green textured shape that extends to our left and becomes its hands. It is set against a background divided vertically into a black section and a yellow section.

Nagai Kazumasa's poster, Kazumasa Nagai Exhibition (1991). © Nagai Kazumasa; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, 2018

The environmental themes of Nagai Kazumasa’s LIFE series, started in 1987, still resonate today. M+’s Ikko Yokoyama revisits it during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Japanese graphic designer Nagai Kazumasa started creating his LIFE series in 1987 and is still producing it today. The series comprises hundreds of posters that use animals and plants as motifs. Ikko Yokoyama (Lead Curator, Design and Architecture) revisits the series during the COVID-19 pandemic, gaining in the process a new appreciation for its consistent environmental message—one that is as relevant today as it was thirty years ago.

Poster covered by wave-like shapes, created through white lines on a black background, indicating an ocean. A stingray with eyes and a grinning mouth features in the centre. The words ‘save nature’ are printed in white in the bottom right corner.

Nagai Kazumasa. Save Nature, 1995. Screen print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, 2018. © Nagai Kazumasa

Repeated over decades, the message of the LIFE series is very simple: it’s about coexistence between nature and humans. If you look at Nagai’s posters from the late 1980s, and then from today, the consistency is remarkable. When he started the series in 1987, he had already proclaimed that this would be his life-long project, and he hasn’t stopped producing it since.

Nagai Kazumasa is ninety-one years old and has had one of the longest graphic design careers in Japanese history. He was one of the designers in the early 1950s who led and shaped the Japanese post-war graphic design scene, alongside names like Tanaka Ikko, Kamekura Yusaku, and Awazu Kiyoshi. He was a co-founder of Nippon Design Center, which was founded in 1959 by Japanese designers, copywriters, and photographers and funded by eight prominent companies, including Toyota and Asahi Breweries. This team of experts wanted to develop the artistic qualities of advertising. They believed that culture and commerce could work hand-in-hand to positively impact Japan’s image and economy after the war.

For the first thirty years of his career, Nagai worked in advertising and was focused on abstract, geometric images. But, as he has said in interviews, he ended up feeling uninspired, repeating the same methodology over and over. He started exploring what else he could do.

Poster depicting a stylised porcupine against a grey background with a blue semicircle in the bottom left corner. The porcupine’s mouth, which is filled with sharp teeth, is over the blue semicircle. The porcupine’s black-and-white spines point straight upwards and light orange flame-like shapes rise up from out of them. The text ‘WATER IS LIFE’ is printed in black underneath the porcupine.

Nagai Kazumasa. Water is Life, 1989. Offset print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, 2018. © Nagai Kazumasa

Nagai started the LIFE series in 1987. He has said that he started it because he needed inspiration and a break, but my guess is he was also reflecting the society around him. Graphic design can be a very internal journey, but graphic designers are also meant to reach out to people. They capture changing societies and therefore communicate with those societies.

So, what was society like in late 1980s Tokyo? It was the end of a bubble economy. Japan had achieved a so-called economic miracle after the Second World War by managing to reconstruct the country’s economy, symbolised in the success of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and Expo ’70. The 1980s was a time of high consumption and waste, resulting in serious environmental concerns such as pollution, deforestation, and animal extinction. Nagai had been through the poverty of war and knew what Tokyo was like before it was a large, advanced city. Although he never directly commented on these issues, I think reflecting them came as quite a natural part of his graphic design profession and journey.

Poster depicting a black wolf-like creature covered in blue dots rising up on its hind legs, which disappear into the grey background. The creature’s head is repeated four times, and out of the top head’s mouth bursts a light blue beam containing silhouettes of the creature. In the top left is a wavy blue shape with black tree silhouettes rising up from it. In the bottom left are the words ‘I’M HERE’, with the smaller words ‘Save Being and Save World’ underneath.

Nagai Kazumasa. I’m Here, 1992. Screen print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, 2018. © Nagai Kazumasa

As a medium, posters are democratic. They can be printed and mass-produced, rolled or posted, and just put up on the street. This is why Nagai chose to use posters to disseminate his message. For him, it was important that each one was not a unique work but a reproducible image with a broad message that could create a continuous echo. Rather than using clear promotional messages, the LIFE series consists of amazing depictions of different animals and plants with almost no text. These are posters without a client. They are advertising nothing, but are also promoting a bigger message: that of the relationship between humans and nature.

Poster featuring half of a deer-like creature’s face depicted as a detailed black illustration on a white background. The head is depicted vertically, as if on a 90-degree angle. Underneath the head is the word ‘LIFE’ printed in an uneven black circle. In the bottom right corner are the words ‘THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, TOYAMA’, above the smaller words ‘DESIGN KAZUMASA NAGAI’.

Nagai Kazumasa. Life 2005, 2005. Screen print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, 2018. © Nagai Kazumasa

Very often, the goal of a poster is to evoke the same emotions in everyone who views it. An advertisement should make everyone want to buy the same product. With the LIFE series, Nagai wants to achieve the opposite. He wants everybody to have different emotional feedback to his posters. He wants to touch on the complex emotional layers that we have, and the individual differences hidden within these layers.

Poster featuring a lion’s head and tail attached to a body made out of a simplified blocky red line, similar to a stick figure. Its tongue sticks out of its mouth, which is lined with sharp teeth. The shape of the head is repeated in a white silhouette behind it. One of its legs sticks out behind it as if in a running motion, surrounded by a halo of small brown triangles that may indicate movement. The words ‘KAZUMASA NAGAI DESIGN LIFE’ are printed at the bottom.

Nagai Kazumasa. Kazumasa Nagai Design Life, 1993. Screen print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, 2018. © Nagai Kazumasa

That’s why he depicts animals in the ways that he does. He never depicts something that looks exactly like a lion, for example. It’s always a bit abstract. His images avoid reproducing our preconceived ideas about what those animals are—for example, that a cat is cute, or a lion is always strong. He has tried to detach animals from the ways in which we’re used to seeing them. For him, nature provides never-ending inspiration if you don’t stick to just one idea of what it is. Even a simple bird egg is endlessly fascinating, with different colours, patterns, and shapes, depending on the species.

Poster depicting a large bird’s egg with the pointed end downwards. The black-and-white egg is covered in intricate black lines. A small silhouetted bird created through small black dots is in the bottom left. In the middle of its body is a black egg shape with the word ‘Life’ in cursive.

Nagai Kazumasa. Life 1999, 1999. Screen print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, 2018. © Nagai Kazumasa

There’s darkness to Nagai’s animals. These creatures are not cute—they’re almost monstrous. They build on the darkness of Japanese folklore, and the characteristically Japanese design elements of flatness and symbolism. They evoke the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm: children’s tales with scary elements that reflect the dangers of society. Nagai captures the dark side of Japanese society. He lived through the war and saw some of the worst devastation in human history. Things recovered and improved in the following years, but if you had seen the war, you knew that life could be very different. I take this as an important message from his generation.

Poster featuring a large bird in green, purple, and blue against a black background, with a crest of intricately designed head feathers. The bird is sitting on a fern. Its red beak parts to reveal rows of sharp teeth. Two white breasts with red nipples stick out from its chest. In its belly is a blue oval containing a small monochrome baby bird.

Nagai Kazumasa. Poster, Kazumasa Nagai Design Life, Abe Publishing, 1993. Screen print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, 2018. © Nagai Kazumasa

The images in the LIFE series are all hand-drawn. Nagai experimented with different techniques to free himself, in a way, from his training; to create lines that were more unconscious and expressive. For example, he sometimes draws using his left, non-dominant hand. He also frequently creates textures through etching on copper plates rather than using the pens he was trained with. He believes that hand-drawing is the physical and unconscious transition from his brain to the paper. These are effects that a computer could not achieve in the same way.

Poster depicting a lion drawn with a wobbly black line against a bright yellow background. It appears to float in space with its legs limp underneath it. The word ‘SAVE’ is written in the same wobbly style in the bottom right corner. A round, detailed, realistic drawing of a lion’s face sits right underneath the wobbly lion.

The screen print Save 1998 is example of an image that Nagai drew with his left hand. © Nagai Kazumasa; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, 2018

The other tool Nagai uses is a Rotring pen, which can produce an even amount of ink. When this pen was first invented, it was a revolution for architects, because it enabled them to draw an almost computer-like line. Rather than being expressive through different types of brushstrokes, the Rotring pen is almost dry and characterless. Nagai challenged himself to use that pen to characterise, to give life. For example, if he wants a thick line, he has to repeat a line multiple times.

Poster in which an elephant’s intricately textured face fills the entire image. Its eyes are large, oval, and white. In the left eye is the word ‘LIFE’. In the bottom right corner are the small words ‘THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, TOYAMA’ above ‘KAZUMASA NAGAI’.

The intricate textures of this elephant from Life 2007 were created through etching on copper plate. © Nagai Kazumasa; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, 2018

The central message of the LIFE series—that of coexistence between humans and nature—is as simple as it is effective. Nagai doesn’t use slogans like ‘Don’t Litter’ or ‘Sort Your Recycling’. That’s probably what makes his work still feel so relevant today. A design usually reflects a specific time—the trends, shapes, colours, and even technology. But over more than thirty years, the LIFE series hasn’t changed. What does this mean? Probably that we never achieved the environmental messages of the early works. We should be impressed, but also a little ashamed, that after thirty years these works still don't feel outdated.

Poster featuring a stylised buffalo-like creature’s face against a cream background. One of its hoofs sticks out from the right side of its head. Its open mouth, shaped like a horizontal oval, reveals lines of sharp teeth. A large red cross emerges from the top of its head. Underneath it are the words ‘Save me, please. I’m here.’

Nagai Kazumasa. Save Me, Please. I’m Here., 1993. Screen print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, 2018. © Nagai Kazumasa

The COVID-19 situation made me revisit and reconsider this series. I was always more interested in Nagai’s earlier geometric work, but suddenly, the LIFE series spoke to me. I wasn’t aware enough until now to really take on and be confronted by its message, which the artist has been offering for over three decades now. And when you’re ready, it will speak to you too.

Poster in which a simplified human body with no face, depicted with white lines against a black background, lies down with an arm outstretched. A large, intricately textured tree emerges from the side of the human body. In the bottom centre are the words ‘LIFE TO SHARE’ in red.

Nagai Kazumasa. Life to Share 1996, 1996. Screen print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, 2018. © Nagai Kazumasa

As told to Ellen Oredsson. This discussion has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Ikko Yokoyama is Lead Curator, Design & Architecture at M+.

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