What you see: A 1954 Japanese movie poster for Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai). It is the only known example of its type. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $20,000 to $50,000. The kanji on the poster translate to: “The dream awaited by 70 million finally has come true! A massive spectacular samurai drama which is created, for the first time, by the fighting spirit of the Maestro!”
Do we know how this Japanese movie poster for Seven Samurai was discovered? Grey Smith, director of vintage movie poster auctions at Heritage Auctions, says it came to him via a friend who knew the owner. The poster had been in Japan from 1954 until three or four months ago. “I’d never seen it before,” he says. “I’m not aware of another copy.”
The poster is 21 inches by 58 inches–long and skinny. I’m wondering if this is a standard size for a Japanese movie poster, or if the poster was made at this size to imitate a Japanese scroll or painting. “You would think it might, but it was a commonly used size in Japan,” he says, adding that it’s comprised of two panels that are stacked on top of each other. Look for the samurai dressed in a green top and brown pants at the center of the poster, and you’ll see the join. (The samurai’s left hand doesn’t quite line up with his wrist.)
Is the design of the Seven Samurai poster typical for Japan in 1954? “I’ve always admired Japanese movie posters from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s,” he says. “They were ahead of their time in photo montage work, they really were. America just wasn’t as interested in movie posters then, and you can see it. All the interest was in television by then. Compare it [the Seven Samurai poster] to Cat Ballou—that poster is totally lackluster.”
I’m pleasantly surprised that women appear on the Seven Samurai poster. I was under the impression it was a manly-man type of movie. “It had romantic elements, but it was a male-dominated film about war,” he says, adding that featuring women on posters was not unusual in Japan in 1954: “On Japanese posters from the ’50s and ’60s, 85 percent of the time, there’s a female lead on it.”
What condition is it in? Heritage Auctions calls it Very Fine – (Minus), which Smith deems “A pretty good grade. It was folded. Most Japanese posters were. It has little nicks and dings in it. But it doesn’t need to be archivally restored. You could frame it like it is.” He also explains that in Japan, theatre owners sometimes stuck a snipe–a piece of paper that listed specific screening dates–to the bottom of a poster. Posters can suffer damage if someone tries to remove the snipe, but it doesn’t look like a snipe was applied to this Seven Samurai example.
We’re talking on March 20, 2018, and this poster already has a bid of $10,000 on it. The auction is almost three weeks away. How do you think the poster will do? “I hope it will be north of $25,000 or $30,000, but we just don’t know,” he says. “I think the estimate was $20,000 to $50,000. I’ll be disappointed if it sold for under $20,000.”
Do you know what the auction record is for a Japanese movie poster for a Japanese film? “I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say specifically, but in 2005 at Heritage Auctions, I sold a 1954 Godzilla poster for $21,850,” he says.
What will make this Seven Samurai poster stick in your memory? “I’m excited about it because it’s never been seen before,” he says. “Personally, I always love to get new items into auction.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
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