Kunio Hagio’s poster art for “Raging Bull” smolders with a ferocity that might make a boxer facing such an opponent want to flee the ring.
Using oil paint, pencils and an airbrush, he created a hyper-realistic, bruised and sweat-soaked portrait of Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta who depicts a battered pugilist stalking his prey .
His painting for the 1980 Martin Scorsese film has become one of the most recognized images in film history.
Mr. Hagio, 74, who had heart and lung problems, died in his sleep on May 8 in Arizona, where the Skokie native moved years ago.
According to his daughter Allison Hagio-Conwell, who is also an artist.
Dawn Baillie calls her “Raging Bull” illustration a “masterpiece”.
“It’s a case where the painting puts on more intensity and emotion than I imagine the reference photo was capable of,” said Baillie, who has designed numerous film posters, including this one for “The Silence of the Lambs” which shows star Jodie Foster with her mouth hidden by a death’s-head sphinx. “Points of reflections, veins, bruises. The design of the sweat, the gaze, the hair – it all comes together to give you a taste of what the experience of this film will be like. We strive to achieve this goal when we make a poster for a film: to encapsulate the experience in a striking image. Kunio Hagio’s masterpiece is a classic cultural icon. You can’t remember the movie without first remembering the poster.
Christie’s described De Niro’s portrait of Mr. Hagio as “eerily realistic” when it was offered at auction in 2000. It sold for $35,250.
“Kunio was probably the greatest ‘face’ that ever picked up a brush or a pencil,” said Jim Costello, his friend and agent. “He made faces like no other.”
His true-to-life images of currency once caught the attention of federal agents, according to his daughter: “He made six paintings in a row that had money in it that looked so realistic that he was reported.”
Her parents were held as U.S. government prisoners during World War II, incarcerated for being Japanese Americans. His father Allan was imprisoned at Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center in Arkansas and his mother Toyoka Miyata in Poston Internment Camp in Arizona. Eventually they settled in Skokie, where young Kunio grew up on Main Street.
Her father owned and operated Graphic Finishing, a printing and binding business, Allison Hagio-Conwell said.
One of the reasons he was named Kunio was the kindness he showed towards his father, according to Costello. Being a Japanese-American in the post-war United States, “the only job his father could get was at Cuneo Press,” he said. “Kunio told me.”
Mr Hagio credited his mother for her ability to stay focused for long hours at a stretch.
“She could sit for hours, concentrating on precision sewing, whatever the distraction, making every stitch perfect,” he said in a 1988 interview with Communication Arts magazine. “I’m sure it’s his example that still inspires me to sit for hours and hours in front of a drawing board.”
Young Kunio used to go dancing at Way Out, a teen club on Dempster Street in Skokie.
Even as a student at Niles East High School, “He could draw almost like a photograph,” said Dale Wickum, a friend and former student at the long-closed school in Skokie.
He took classes at the School of the Art Institute, but told Communication Arts he found the place too “cliquish”. My only friends there were two nuns.
He continued his studies at the Chicago Academy of Art.
His favorite artists include Norman Rockwell and Frank Frazetta.
Early in his career, he drew furniture ads for Sears.
He went on to do illustrations for Playboy, Penthouse and other magazines and for clients such as United Airlines. He also created cards for Magic: the Gathering.
“He started illustrating fictional articles for Playboy when we were all struggling with lousy jobs, going to school or hanging out,” Wickum said.
Mr. Hagio thanked Art Paul, the designer who created the famous Playboy bunny logo, for giving him work at the magazine.
“He was extremely talented,” said photojournalist Suzanne Seed, Paul’s widow.
His detailed illustration of a carnival worker’s tattooed face was “exquisite,” Seed said.
He produced artwork to promote “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. His “Conan the Barbarian” image adorned his VHS boxes and DVDs, Costello said.
Merv Bloch said he and his advertising agency, Rosebud, which specializes in advertising and movie trailers, designed and developed the “Raging Bull” poster and hired Mr. Hagio to bring the poster to life. Bloch said the artist’s work caught his eye while leafing through a design magazine.
“I came across a work of art, a face that I found exceptional,” said Bloch, who has also worked on commercials for films such as “Chinatown”, “Heaven Can Wait”, “Lawrence d ‘Arabia’, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘Saturday Night Fever’. ‘I thought, ‘That would be wonderful for ‘Raging Bull’. We didn’t want to sell it as another ‘Rocky’ movie.
When Mr. Hagio finished the poster, however, the movie studio producing the film “didn’t really respond favorably,” Bloch said. “It was very important to mobilize the enthusiasm of Scorsese and De Niro.”
“Scorsese loved the art, and so basically it was his endorsement and De Niro’s endorsement. They basically got United Artists to go into this campaign – which was a very austere campaign – and, as you know, it became an iconic movie poster.
“It’s a very sharp work of art,” Bloch said. “It’s black and blue. It’s really difficult.
Mr Hagio enjoyed riding his Harley, his long hair flowing behind him and spending time with his dog Muffin. He took her in after a grocery store employee told her she needed to find a new home for the dog.
When Communication Arts magazine asked Mr. Hagio about his favorite activities, he replied, “Playing with my family and riding a motorcycle.
“He was simply the kindest, most generous man,” said Rich Bleiweiss of Bleiweiss Design, former executive art director of Penthouse magazine. “If you were with Kunio, he would always pull out his wallet and pay for the meal.”
Once Bleiweiss said, “He bought me a motorcycle.”
Long before the days when you could send artwork electronically, receiving a crate in the mail containing Mr. Hagio’s artwork “was like Christmas morning,” Bleiweiss said.
Mr Hagio deeply missed his wife Paulette, who died 17 years ago. He had his face tattooed on his arm.
When their children were growing up, he asked them each day to write down one thing they had done to help around the house and one thing they had learned.
“He let us be who we wanted to be,” his daughter said. “The only thing he wanted for us was for us to be happy.”
“My whole family,” he once said, “roots for me.”
Besides his daughter Allison Hagio-Conwell, Mr. Hagio is survived by his children Kitty Pesetsky, Erich Hagio-Nelson, Tina Hagio-Fuller, Jenifer Hagio Woolstenhulme and three grandchildren.
A memorial for Mr. Hagio is scheduled for 1 p.m. July 31 at the Midwest Buddhist Temple in Chicago. His family asked everyone present to wear masks and to check the temple’s website regarding its COVID-19 protocol.