This year marks the 30th anniversary of the passing of the great Shuji Terayama, film director, poet and icon of the Japanese counter-culture.
To commemorate the occasion, I’ve translated a collection of his essays into English and, together with Mark Pearson of Zen Foto Gallery, produced an attractive box that holds the translations in loose leaf format with copious notes. Also included are a facsimile of the original Japanese book and large-scale reproductions of the accompanying photographs by Japanese masters Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira, as well as some by Mr. T. himself.
Japanese Dream is a limited edition labour of love and, we think, the only example of Terayama’s prose available in the English language.
It would make a fine Christmas or New Year’s gift for anyone interested in the 1960s, movies, boxing, sex , horse-racing, post-war Japanese culture and great photography.
You can order this special collectors’ item here. Hurry while stocks last!
In the meantime, here is the preface.
SHUJI TERAYAMA REFUSES TO DIE
No bird exists that can fly higher than the imagination. Shuji Terayama
Shuji Terayama (1935-1983) is known outside Japan mainly as the writer-director of Fellini-esque films such as Death in the Country and Farewell to the Ark. In his own country it was his poetry that thrust him into the national consciousness at the age of eighteen. His experimental theatre troupe, formed in 1967, cemented his status as a leading figure in the boundary-challenging cultural ferment of the time.
Terayama’s creative energy also found expression in journalism, novels, radio shows, TV documentaries, photography, travelogues and song lyrics . Even the posters and fliers for his theatrical productions were ground-breaking, featuring hallucinatory collages designed by rising stars such as Tadanori Yokoo and Aquirax Uno. For most of the 1960s and 1970s, he was omnipresent in the Japanese media. As he liked to say, “my profession is being Shuji Terayama.”
Although battling serious illness for most of his life, Terayama was constantly in motion. He took his street-theatre provocations to Europe and spent several months every year overseas. Aware that his time on earth was short, he collected “Do Not Disturb” signs from hotels in dozens of different countries and instructed that they be put in his coffin.
Despite all the genre-hopping and media-mixing, Terayama’s pre-occupations remained consistent and deeply personal. The themes that recur in the surreal potpourri of his films appear in the writings that make up this volume, treated in a more reflective way and often with a salting of self-deprecating humour.
We see the teenage Terayama polishing his boxing gloves in an abandoned cinema. We share his delighted shock as a child when the traveling freak show comes to town. We watch a cockroach scuttle towards his head as he sits trapped in a steam-box, awaiting the attentions of a sex-worker who happens to speak his own Tohoku dialect. In Paris we feel Terayama’s discomfort when the middle-aged street-walkers remind him of his mother.
Like the films, these essays make use of collage, abrupt shifts of perspective and interpolations of songs, poetry and advertising jingles. The photographs, by modern masters Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira, offer a dynamic commentary on the themes. Predictability is always the enemy, in art as in life.
Yet despite his technical radicalism, Terayama distances himself from the political radicalism of the era. The activists that appear in these essays are angry, humourless fellows who sneer at the pop songs that Terayama enjoys. Terayama has no patience with political illusions, even his own. On his trip to Ghana, he notes that the exiled Kwame Nkrumah, former hero of the anti-colonial movement and a man Terayama had admired, is now despised even by the street-children.
Like Bunuel and Fellini, Terayama has a vision which is too individualistic and quirkily rhapsodic to share space with the concerns of political activists. His emphasis on self-realisation and liberation-from-belonging conflicts with the ethos of the radical movements of the time, which demanded a submission to the collective as total as the immersion of the salaryman in his corporate identity.
As well as being an avant -gardist, Terayama was a celebrated exponent of tanka, a poetic form that was formulated one thousand two hundred years ago. Despite his famous command to “throw away your books and run into the streets”, he expects a fair degree of literacy from his readers. Balzac, Dostoevsky, Pascal, Apollinaire and E.M. Forster all inhabit the Shinjuku of the mind to which he invites us, alongside the strippers, damaged boxers and stuttering housemaids with dreams of making it in show-biz. The streets that we are supposed to run into are made of words and images and designed with a poet’s sensibility.
In one of the most moving pieces, Japanese Dream, Terayama describes his feelings of isolation and rejection when his mother left home to work as a hostess in a tough mining-town. Yet rejection is fundamental to Terayama’s own philosophy of life – rejection of the hometown in favour of self-definition in the big city; rejection of the rigidity of judo and other traditional sports in favour of the spontaneity of boxing; rejection of consumerism in favour of the aleatory economy of lotteries and gambling; rejection of the salaryman lifestyle in favour of outsiders such as long-distance truckers, sex workers and freak show artists.
Japanese Dream presciently describes a whole generation losing their youthful spirit of adventure and rebellion and settling for lives of deadening routine – in the terms of the essay , losing touch with their inner “Huckleberry Finns” and turning into timid, obedient “Tom Sawyers.” Terayama himself is an eternal Huck Finn, always running away from home or ushering us into the freak show of his imagination or poking fun at the dull-witted Tom Sawyers that most of us become.
Like Coltrane, Hendrix and other iconic figures of the era, Terayama died too young to disappoint us by getting old and boring. Instead he remains frozen in time and yet timeless, observing our descent into comfortable mediocrity with amused detachment. Like the young adventurer Kenichi Horie, alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on his tiny boat, Terayama is out there alone, with only his talent and restless imagination to keep him afloat, forever creating but never finishing his own richly strange version of the Japanese Dream.
I don’t want to be the kind of guy that people may remember. I want to be the kind of guy they can’t forget. Shuji Terayama.