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Shuji Terayama - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Shuji Terayama

by Gabrielle Schaad


Where should we start with the story of Shuji Terayama, theater director, filmmaker and writer, as an introduction to our Theater der Überforderung, or Theater of Excess? The work of this artist, who died in 1983 and came from the Japanese province of Aomori, has its origins in Tokyo in the late 1950s. Bedridden in hospital for three years in his early 20s due to an illness, Terayama spent his time envisioning visits to an imagined past or possible present and recorded these impressions in two volumes of poems. When health permitted, he worked in bars, all the while putting his studies on hold. How does his multi-facetted work, including about two hundred plays and more than twenty films, show up against the urban stage of Tokyo? Conceivably, being shut away in his hospital room sharpened his eye for the rapid changes in Japan during the economic miracle. In any case, he developed his montage technique while writing short Haiku poems and traditional 31-syllable Tanka poems. After recovering, he used this technique in radio plays. The recently invented “blind” stereo radio served as his medium for using imagined genre pictures to address listeners about their bodily experiences and inter-personal events. In doing so, he set quotations from literature and advertising next to family destinies and both factual and invented daily news items. This made it clear how strongly the various “languages” and clichés influenced and shaped everyday life.

While the inhabitants of Tokyo, whose city had been turned into rubble a mere twenty years earlier, experienced the density and lively activity of the capital in a mixture of pride, belief in the future and suspicion, the rural villages were depopulated. Seen from the city, the places of origin and the ennui of village life were glorified with nostalgia. Yet such romantic images were confronted with the increasing uniformity of an overpopulated, polluted landscape. Rather than joining the countrywide student revolts or the protests of the conservationists, Terayama filmed marginal wastelands, as in “Prisoners” (Kanshu, 1962-64/1969) or colorfully mixed entertainment quarters in Tokyo with their nocturnal figures. Terayama’s stories made people trapped in the margins of society into surreal-looking figures, and sometimes disturbing image sequences. The films showed gaps in the urban weave, where destinies intertwine with roles and life stories multiply on the far side of established logic.

The Trial

As a youngster Terayama spent his afternoons behind the projector in his uncle’s cinema in Misawa (Aomori), and in Tokyo he went to cycles of films at the Sogetsu Art Center (including one of Jean-Luc Godard in 1970). Experimental films as a genre became known in the Japanese art scene as early as the 1950s due to such exhibition sites as the Sogetsu Art Center (1958-71), a progressive Ikebana school, or thanks to the works of the artist collective Experimental Workshop (Jikken Kobo, 1951-58). What mattered to the artists in this case was testing the possibilities for art of the latest technologies for images, sound and narration and for discussions with like-minded people even beyond local boundaries. The electronics industry and media concerns supported projects with money and equipment, in order to develop their products further through the artists’ experiments. In the 1960s the Art Theatre Guild (1962-84) extended the idea of inter-media work with small budgets, at first as an independent production company and then with an art-house cinema. Here and in the Sogetsu Art Center Terayama performed plays, and later showed films. By holding conservative Japanese traditions and avant-garde practices from inside and outside Japan up against each other he etched harmonious combinations and unifying concepts of culture from East and West. When the artists active in 1967 were debating whether and how they should use the world exhibition planned for Osaka in 1970 as a platform for their works, Terayama worked across borders in a radical direction and, for example, brought an amateur theatrical group onto the streets of Tokyo. With unspectacular parades in extravagant costumes he staged masked plays as an alternative to the protest marches against Japan’s self-imposed economic dependence on the USA (Anpo, 1960/1970) and the Vietnam War. If passers-by were thus overtaxed with theater as an ongoing process, this was not done to provide instructions for action or to propagate conceptually conceived art as a consumer product, but to develop an art practice with text, staging, kitsch, camp, porno, through breaching taboos and playing with psychic violence: Tenjo Sajiki (天井桟敷) was born.

Cheshire Cat

Tenjo Sajiki was a shifting ensemble that included runaway schoolboys and schoolgirls alongside well-known figures such as the graphic artist Tadanori Yokoo, from 1967 to 1970. The name came from the Japanese title of Marcel Carné’s film Les Enfants du Paradis (1945, Tenjo Sajiki no hitobito). With a wealth of references, Carné processed the theatrical milieu and the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France in this film. As an image for his “underground” theater, this story of heroic outsiders was just right as a paradoxical and grinning commentary. Thus Tenjo Sajiki‘s logo, a laughing mouth with moustache and the eyes, stands for a many-sided reading of reality, sometimes with a grin. Whether Tenjo Sajiki was perhaps thinking of the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Caroll’s children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) is uncertain.

Tenjo Sajiki stands for a form of theatrical activism that deals with everyday life and, at the same time, uses quotations of a great variety of kinds, emptied of meaning, to sow speculation and doubt. Like headwords in a secret dictionary, Terayama’s images never employed new values, a new order or meaning, but dissolved systems and hierarchies. From the desolate fundus made available by his knowledge, he picked out a piece from here or there, set it next to another and looked to see if they went together: “That meaning for this image or this image for that meaning. The result can never be foretold; for there is no natural communication between the two,” as the culture and media critic Walter Benjamin once remarked, although his writings appeared in Japanese only from 1969 when they contrasted with the popular media and communications theory of Marshall McLuhan from 1967.

Powers of Horror

The game with cultural codes served especially to reveal in sometimes exaggeratedly mannered, sometimes masked-mimic ways the un-naturalness of given roles. This was done with simple confrontations but went beyond so as to make room for constellations that unmasked power relationships with polysemous references. While the actors shocked their audiences with the brusque actions, while simultaneously making fun of them, they held up a mirror that reflected the audience’s consumerist passivity. With a range of pieces that constantly circled around family and educational institutions, Terayama showed that “causing pain” and “thirsting for pain” feed each other mutually. By emphasizing these contradictions, simultaneity and process, he also turned his back on the idea that time, and consequently action, runs directly towards a goal. In place of this he suggested that humans are capable of deciding their course of action, and that they evolve through the moments of interchanging relationships – so that they playfully yield to diversions and breaches rather than disguising them. When Shuji Terayama died in 1983 after a long illness, he left an extensive fundus of films, poems, radio plays and other pieces, which reveal different aspects at any time.

(February 2015)