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Asian Theatre Journal 19.2 (2002) 367-369

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Faultlines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism. By Miryam Sas. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999. xiv + 250 pp. Cloth $49.50; paper $19.95

The subconscious character of surrealism makes explanations and critiques problematic. Japanese surrealism and its interactions with the French become even more difficult to explicate through a scholarly text in English, a third language that was also, at times, the medium of those interactions. Thus the task Miryam Sas sets herself in Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism is complex. The task is further convoluted by Sas's attempt to revise critical views of Japanese surrealism. She does this through a review of the literary movement in Japan, commentary on the criticism, and some critical analysis of specific authors and theorists, finishing with comments about the influences of Japanese surrealism on postwar performance art, specifically butö (spelled Butoh in the book) and the angura (underground) theatre of the 1960s and 1970s. [End Page 367]

Neither the book's title nor its table of contents makes any explicit reference to performance. Unless one is already aware of surrealism's influence on butö, for example, one might be inclined to wonder why a journal on Asian theatre and performance would give space to a book of literary criticism. Sas uses most of five chapters to critique the writing of and about Japanese surrealism. At the end of Chapter 5 and in the Epilogue she finally turns to performance and looks at the explicit influences of early twentieth-century Japanese surrealism on Hijikata Tatsumi and the development of butö. More useful for considerations of performance in general is her attempt to provide another point of entry for explicating and developing a critical point of view for cross-cultural analysis.

In the prologue Sas states: "The anger with which certain factions attack the Japanese cultural imitation of things Western vented itself in force upon the Surrealists" (pp. 1-2). In response to these attacks, Sas's close reading of texts by the surrealists and their detractors rehabilitates much of Japanese surrealist writing. Yet Sas is attempting to go beyond simple rehabilitation of a body of literature. She writes: "Japanese Surrealism is striking and important both for the specific questions it raises and for its exemplary place as an encounter between cultures, literary movements, and languages" (p. 2). Sas argues that these critical "fault lines" give contemporary critics paradigms for analysis today.

In her reinterpretation of some of the most important thinkers and writers in the Japanese surrealist movement such as Takiguchi Shüzö, Kitasono Katsue, and Nishiwaki Junzaburö, Sas emphasizes how their language is full of allusions, complexities, elisions, hesitations, and slippages intended to evoke actuality. Japanese critics of the time, unable to pin specific meanings onto the protean words the surrealists used, castigated them for appropriating foreign forms without understanding them. But the surrealists were also criticized for being too beholden to Japanese traditional forms. In this rehabilitation, Sas provides a model for reframing cross-cultural borrowing—a model that views the artists' creative impulses as honest efforts to make art rather than as ideological sellouts to a foreign agenda or as another proof of cultural Darwinism. Sas argues that the foreign-language borrowings of the prewar surrealists were done for the same reason they are done today by many Japanese. Language is a "play of veils" where "the 'original text' is seen as a 'pretext for' revealing while hiding—a pretext, the site of a pretense, an excuse, thus one more layer of concealment" (p. 101).At the end of the book, Sas describes the nostalgic quest of butö. This quest is not for national or traditional essences, for which it is often mistaken, but a paradoxical encounter "that requires a continual refusal and renegotiation between the dancer and the viewer" (p. 177). This is a legacy she attributes to surrealism.

The major drawback to Fault Lines is its handling of Japanese-language equivalents. The book is full of translations of Japanese poems as well as literary essays and criticism...