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  • Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return by Miryam Sas
  • Bruce Baird
Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return. By Miryam Sas . Harvard University Asia Center, 2011. 300 pages. Hardcover $39.95/£29.95/€36.00.

The late David Goodman inaugurated the study of postwar Japanese theater with his col­lection of translations titled Japanese Drama and Culture in the 1960s: The Return of the Gods (M.E. Sharpe, 1988). In his introductory essay Goodman argued that after the per­ceived failure of the anti-ANPO (Japan-U.S. security treaty) demonstrations, left-leaning socialist-realist theater was discredited, and theater practitioners brought ghosts and gods back to the stage. In Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan, Miryam Sas masterfully rewrites our understanding of the era by expanding the focus from what one might call the ortho­dox angura (underground) artists to include other experimental artists and thinkers of the times. Although theater, and particularly the theater of Terayama Shūji, is at the core of the book, the individuals featured here come from a variety of disciplines: theater (Betsu-yaku Minoru, Terayama, the group Dumb Type); philosophy (Sakaguchi Ango, Terayama, Watsuji Tetsurō); butō dance (Hijikata Tatsumi); film/video (Terayama, Tanikawa Shuntarō [with Takemitsu Tōru], Hosoe Eikoh, Jōnouchi Motoharu); photography (Moriyama Daidō, Nakahira Takuma, and other photographers of the Provoke magazine era); and the plastic artists aligned with the Mono-ha movement (especially Lee U-fan). Sas observes that the failure of demonstrations was not the only thing that loomed large for these artists: the abil­ity to know anything with surety had been brought into question, and hence the desirability of forceful, single-minded action was doubted. Moreover, the nature of human subjectivity and the language that subjects used-the basis of said action-were being reconsidered. In short, Sas explores the activities of various postwar artists and philosophers who sought to engage a world in which everything was in flux.

The reactions to the events of the day were varied-at times, the artists were decidedly anti-utopian, even pessimistic. Sas traces how Terayama works through the intricacies of power relationships in his play Nuhikun (Directions to Servants, 1977). Terayama's play sug­gests that many people want to be controlled by masters, and that often those who suc­cessfully revolt and attain the position of master will replicate the same power structures of dominance and submission they fought against. Other artists cautiously worked to­ward limited, provisional, and contingent forms of engagement. In his own life and in the lives of his characters in his 1962 play (The Elephant), Betsuyaku advocated casualness [End Page 369] (sarigenasa) in working toward one's goals. Later, in his 1973 play Shōgo no densetsu (Legend at Noon), Betsuyaku's character Veteran 2 finds something that he can throw himself into: he refuses to defecate. Sas reads this in light of Gayatri Spivak's idea of "strategic withhold­ing" and states, "agency is only to be found in the act of 'withholding,' when language itself is complicit and suspect" (p. 30). In this way, Sas argues that Veteran 2 foiled "the possibility of his being used to ground" other discourses (p. 32). Similarly, in Terayama's 1973-1974 play Mōjin shokan (Blind Man's Letter), a character called the Guarantor of Identity commands a character called The Other One to get angry, but The Other One responds with laughter. Sas reads this act as demonstrating "an alternate approach to the model of dominance and submission" by enacting a "compliance that fails to comply because it fails to be intelligible within the framework of identity, the power structure of the command. There is nothing there to grasp . . . and thus no space for power or identity to take hold" (p. 67). To a large extent, engagement is trying not to provide tools for those in power while at the same time not replicating the extant power structures.

Whereas Goodman had argued that gods returned to the stage, Sas treats the idea of returning not in terms of the characters who appear on stage, but in connection with the...


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pp. 369-371
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