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  • Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shūji and Postwar Japan
  • David G. Goodman
Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shūji and Postwar Japan. By Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei. University of Hawai'i Press, 2005. 340 pages. Hardcover $45.00.

Terayama Shūji was one of the most prominent creative personalities in Japan in the 1960s and 70s. As poet, filmmaker, scenario writer, playwright, and director (not to mention lyricist, horse-racing commentator, and all-purpose provocateur), he was ubiquitous. He was the darling of the international theater festival circuit and, between 1969 and his death in 1983, took his theater troupe, Tenjō Sajiki, abroad to perform in Europe and the United States virtually every year. As Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei notes in her valuable new book, critics "praised [him] as the artistic equal of Peter Brook, Robert Wilson, and Jerzy Grotowski" (p. 2). Since his death at forty-seven, the indirect result of the chronic kidney ailment that plagued him throughout his adult life, Terayama has become a cult figure. There is a Terayama Museum and a Terayama Prize for the Performing Arts. In Japan, his books continue to sell well, books about [End Page 432] him proliferate, and his plays and films are often reshown. Given his fame, it is surprising and regrettable that no study of his work has appeared in English until now. Sorgenfrei's monograph is a welcome corrective to this situation.

Sorgenfrei's book consists of four introductory chapters, English versions of three of Terayama's plays, and an abbreviated translation of one of his important theoretical texts. Sorgenfrei suggests, and I agree, that readers should begin with the plays. The Hunchback of Aomori (1967) is a vividly imagined, allegorical account of the circumstances of Terayama's birth and his conflicted (to put it mildly) relationship with his mother. The first play produced by Tenjō Sajiki, it confirms Sorgenfrei's view that Terayama's extraordinary relationship with his mother was a major source of his creativity. La Marie-Vison (1967, rev. 1970) is about a transvestite prostitute who keeps her butterfly-collecting "son" imprisoned in their apartment, where she tries to mold his identity. It is a reworking of Arthur Kopit's 1960 play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad. All identity is constructed, the play argues; everyone wears a mask, and beneath the mask there is no "true" identity to be found, only countless layers of other masks.

Terayama's most notorious play, Heretics (1971), makes a related point. We do not control our own fate but are manipulated by unseen forces, who themselves are manipulated by unseen forces, and so on ad infinitum. We can never identify the ultimate manipulator (Derrida would have said signifier). Terayama dramatized the point in performance by presenting his actors as puppets manipulated by malevolent puppeteers dressed and hooded in black (kurogo). To show that those watching the performance are also subject to the same kind of manipulation, he had the kurogo terrorize and manhandle members of the audience as well. This led to much controversy and, in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, to bloodshed. Terayama defended these practices and explained his vision of the theater in the theoretical text The Labyrinth and the Dead Sea: My Theater (1976), portions of which are translated here.

The translations are fluent and readable, if not impeccable-Sorgenfrei's repeated rendering of Blanquism as "blank-ism" is particularly revealing. Don Kenny translated La Marie-Vison. The rest of the translations were done by Sorgenfrei with the help of various native-speaker assistants. We get a good sense of the "strongly poetic, visually stunning, nostalgic, folkloric, and autobiographical plays and poetry" (p. 170) that were Terayama's forte.

Sorgenfrei is a professor of theater at UCLA, and she is at her best in describing Terayama's theatrical practice. In her first chapter, "Cultural Outlaw in a Time of Chaos," she provides a rendition of Terayama's life story. Terayama once gave his profession as "Terayama Shūji," and Sorgenfrei shows how inventing and performing "Terayama Shūji" was in fact his life's work. Chapter 2, "Masks...


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