The Japanese Film Ephemera Collection at Yale

Wow, it has been a long time since my last post! Sorry about that! It's been a busy semester, but I also have found few things to write about. But now I have one.

The Yale University Library has finally made public an important archival collection on Japanese film that I helped create. It is the Japanese Film Ephemera Collection which is housed in Manuscripts and Archives, inside Sterling Memorial Library.

Those who study film history in general know that ephemera can be important sources for understanding the way cinema works. Ephemera can include such things as posters, stills, magazines, handbills, advertisements, and programs. One may think that the only real thing that matters in studying a movie is the film itself, but as years of research in film history have shown, especially under the rubric of reception studies, the actual meaning that real audiences garner from a film is not exclusively the result of the text or of the director's intention. Viewers play a significant role in working with the text to create its meaning, interpreting it and adding their own experiences and feelings. Critics and other figures try to shape the text as well, and film companies, knowing the role of audiences quite well, also try, in advertisements and other publicity material, to not just get people to fork out money, but to form certain expectations that will frame how they view the film (informing people of the genre is one of the main examples of this). The notion that reception shapes a film is old hat for those of us who study Japanese film, because we know that a major portion of Japanese film history was dominated by the figure of the benshi, a person who took what was never a complete text and worked with the audience to complete it. As one of the elements that shape or represent reception, ephemera are thus crucial for understanding how a movie came to life amongst real people in its own time, becoming an experience that might have been quite different from us watching a DVD of the film on our laptop.

Ephemera are also a vibrant and unique part of film culture in Japan. As anyone who has gone to the movie theater in Japan knows, the lobby is full of flyers (chirashi) and handbills for upcoming films and the concessions stand sells a pamphlet of the movie being shown. The handbills are not only one of the first pieces of advertising that a prospective viewer sees, they often contain critics' blurbs (written especially for the flyer) and themselves can be exciting examples of visual design. The programs can be a treasure trove of information, containing not only plot summaries, photos, and introductions to the cast and staff, but interviews, essays by critics, and even sometimes the script of the film. In recent years, they can be up to 100 pages long. I used these quite a lot for my book on Kitano Takeshi.

With this in mind, I have personally been collecting Japanese film ephemera from the first time I set foot in Japan. When I came to Yale, I proposed to the East Asian Library to create an archive of such materials for preservation and scholarly use. Printed matter such as flyers were long treated as disposable, so up until recently even in Japan, they were only saved by personal collectors, who did not show them to scholars, and not by public archives. These ephemera were also virtually unavailable in any institution abroad. At Yale, Manuscripts and Archives graciously got on board, and we began putting together the collection. Much of the material is mine, or is what I collected in trips to Japan, but we also got donations from a number of Japanese collectors and film companies. With the help of one of my grad students, Tsunoda Takuya, the first batch has been cataloged and is now available.

This is an expanding collection and more ephemera will be added over time. Right now, it is focused on flyers (chirashi), programs, and press kits. Given when we started, it is weighted towards films from the 1980s on, but already has material on over 600 films. Most are of films on their release, but there are also flyers, pamphlets, and catalogs from repertory houses showing older films and film festivals. Some are directed at foreign sales (and thus are in English). There are also newsletters and mini-magazines. 

The Library has put up a helpful online finding aid here. The first page describes the collection, and other pages provide a good guide to the contents of the collection. "Series I" is the part of the collection arranged by director name: if we have a flyer of a film by a single director, it is put in that director's folder; if we have a program or press kit on a film by that director, the title of that film is additionally listed. "Series II" covers other ephemera, including programs and flyers introducing either multiple films (as in film retrospectives or film festivals) or films made by multiple directors; the newsletters are also included here. I still hope a list could be made of all the flyers, but there are hundreds and hundreds of these. 

The best way to view items in the collection is of course to come to New Haven, Connecticut, and visit Manuscripts and Archives inside Sterling Memorial Library. But I have been told that copies of some of the materials can be obtained by interlibrary loan, so you might want to inquire with your interlibrary loan librarian at your institution or with Manuscripts and Archives about such possibilities.

Yale of course is not the only library or archive to house such ephemera. For a guide to other archives see the Research Guide to Japanese Film Studies that Markus Nornes and I wrote. For a guide to other Japanese film research resources at Yale, see my guide to such materials on the Yale Library web site. 

And by the way, if you have or know of any significant collection of Japanese film ephemera that is seeking a new home, please contact us!

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