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Japanese Counterculture: The Antiestablishment Art of Terayama Shūji (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 211-216 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0014

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By framing his study on the “antiestablishment art of Terayama Shūji” in terms of the “Japanese counterculture,” Steven C. Ridgely addresses overlapping historiographical problems. Properly locating Terayama’s art in the global counterculture and the moment of the 1960s demands that one account for its specifics and globalized solidarities outside false original-copy or global-local oppositions. Moreover, the subjects of inquiry (both Terayama and counterculture) were themselves engaged in theorizing such relations as part of their very politics. An adequate treatment of their work must capture this reflexive dimension and avoid reductive sociological, biological, or teleological perspectives. By embracing these challenges and opportunities, Ridgely has produced a work relevant to comparative realms of inquiry beyond Japan.

In his 47 years, Terayama’s contributions across poetic, literary, and critical writing and theater, radio drama, film, and agitational performance left a legacy impossible to treat comprehensively in a single volume. As Ridgely notes, Terayama’s personae remain reductively understood as “multi” when these diverse moves remain unhistoricized. By exploring the “historical embeddedness” of these works, Ridgely reveals tactical engagements within genre, society, and politics. He provides not just another perspective on Terayama to add to those of Carol Sorgenfrei and Miryam Sas,1 but a coherent model for work “that honors the principles of the countercultural position—oblique opposition, synchronic orientation, indeterminacy” (p. xxvi) in addressing the politics of art and culture.

Ridgely argues for the irreducible politics of Terayama’s fictions: “[d]emythologizing Terayama, or counterculture, or the sixties may actually be a reactionary response, one that serves mainly to assimilate that deviance back into the technocratic establishment” (p. xxiii). That is, the crux of Terayama’s politics lies in its attack upon hidden forms of domination in “reality” by fostering critical practices freeing people from unexamined forms of conformity and repetition. This conclusion parallels Kristin Ross’s argument in May ’68 and Its Afterlives that 1960s politics lies in the disruption of recognized positions of the visible and sayable (the “police”)2 ; conversely, reductive biographical and sociological “confiscations” can re-impose the very categories rejected in the 1968 mass movement. Ridgely embraces the political productivity of the works through “creative engagement,” matching the openness of Terayama’s work with expansive, risky readings (p. 181).

Ridgely’s first chapter, “Poetic Kleptomania and Pseudo-Lyricism,” addresses the “plagiarism” controversy over Terayama’s tanka poetry in the late 1950s through a close reading of the disputed works. Ridgely reveals Terayama as subverting formal conventions, attacking both the ideology of artistic originality and the stultifying definitions of tanka through satire. Terayama violates and expands the reverential, quasi-religious practice of quotation, honkadori, by borrowing instead from contemporary poets and then vitiating their aesthetic sense. Saitō Sanki’s haiku image of paper cherry blossoms becomes a manure bucket; his angelic winter sparrow is shot dead, becoming grist for a tanka about the associations of the subsequent gunsmoke. The particularly notorious borrowing of 14 syllables from a haiku from Nakamura Kusatao effectively creates a new tanka with the addition of 17 syllables, that is, a haiku length: Terayama is “literally composing haiku within the genre of tanka” to dislocate the boundaries of both (p. 17). Terayama’s acid practice of quotation transforms the “selfless” original figure in the poem into a glib “chatterbox.” The original, self-involved aesthetic is effectively taken out and shot, in the service of reenergizing the poetic form to focus on the possibilities of the present moment.

Other readings present further possibilities of extension and association for Terayama’s poetic practice: a speculative exploration of Terayama’s match-strike image via Casablanca suggests possible associations beyond the tanka universe, while a torn up and restitched photo of Terayama’s mother methodologically parallels his approach to poetic quotation. Ridgely sees Terayama’s award-winning tanka collection, “Chehofu-sai” (The Chekhov festival), as presenting an engaged, cosmopolitan practice of avant-garde tanka against the solipsism, self-involvement, and gerontocracy of establishment poetry. If anything, Ridgely downplays the extent of Terayama’s acid wit. His lampooning of self-directed seriousness may have extended to the previous year’s winning author, Nakajō Fumiko, and her vivid discussion of her experience of recent mastectomy: Terayama...

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