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  • Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shūji and Postwar Japan
  • John D. Swain
Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shūji and Postwar Japan. By Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2005. 335 pp. Hardcover $48.00.

As an artist and person, Terayama Shūji (1937–1983) was, and will likely remain, enigmatic to people both inside and outside Japan. The ambiguities and seeming paradoxes in his work and life are highly charged examples of those that have always been found in Japanese society and culture. This long awaited book by Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei will go far toward helping an English-speaking readership explore Terayama's complexities, go beyond the essentializing and paradoxical binaries that are so often used to explain both Terayama and Japan, and move toward a better understanding of the theoretical, practical, and cultural aspects that make Terayama's, and much of Japan's, theatre enigmatic and provocative. In describing and analyzing Terayama's efforts to "expand the boundaries of" art (p. 4), Sorgenfrei provides a more nuanced way to view Japan.

Held up for years because of a dispute over Terayama's literary estate, Unspeakable Acts fills a void in Japanese theatre scholarship on a major figure from the politically, socially, and artistically turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Terayama, in addition to his role as theatrical playwright/director, was also a poet, photographer, and filmmaker. Like practitioners such as Kara Jūrō and Satoh Makoto, Terayama was arguably the "baddest" of the "bad boys" who worked in the 1960s angura (underground) theatre scene. These artists constructed counterculture personas. Kara and Satoh's personas were explicitly political and therefore fairly well defined, but much of what made Terayama so "bad" and enigmatic was his insistence on making his persona apolitical. The book explains two important foundations of the ambiguity in Terayama's persona.

First, it provides a thorough overview of Terayama's activities in the theatre and related genres, translations of some of his theoretical writings on theatre, and texts of three of his important plays. Second, it attempts to elaborate on concepts that are often simplified into dichotomies. Then Sorgenfrei synthesizes various social, psychological, and performance theories into a methodology that addresses intricate aspects of Japanese society, thought, and theatre. As a result, the book should be useful to both those interested in Japanese theatre and those whose interest lies more in Japanese aesthetics as a whole. [End Page 301]

Unspeakable Acts is divided into two parts. Part 1, titled "Performing Terayama/Terayama Performing," is Sorgenfrei's historical and theoretical explication of Terayama's life and work. "Translations" is the title of the second part and includes the plays The Hunchback of Aomori (Aomori-ken no semushi otoko, 1967), La Marie-Vison (Kegawa no Marï, 1967, rev. 1970, also known as Mink Marie or Maria in Furs), and Heretics (Jashūmon, 1971, also known as Gate of the Heretics or Gate of Hell), and excerpts from a collection of Terayama's writings on theatre, The Labyrinth and the Dead Sea: My Theatre (Meiro to shikai: waga engeki, 1976). The translation of La Marie-Vison included is by Don Kenny. Sorgenfrei translated the other works.

There is no particular order in which these two parts need to be read. The analysis in the first part of the book does not require reading the translations in the second part. Sorgenfrei provides specific quotations and references to Terayama's works that adequately illustrate the points she is making. Likewise, the plays and Labyrinth can be read and appreciated in their own right as dynamic examples of Terayama's dramaturgy and thought. The black and white photos throughout help illustrate the work, and a selection of color prints is also useful.

Having the translations collected in one volume is of great value to theatre scholars and practitioners, but Sorgenfrei's theatrical criticism and historical analysis is the heart of the book, providing keys to fundamentals of Japanese culture and performance aesthetics as well as Terayama Shūji's contribution. A passage from Labyrinth gives an indication of the challenges Terayama's work presents to the critic: "I want...


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