‘I sometimes wish words could be my friends… you can’t shake hands with words, but they possess a feeling of nostalgic intimacy that even words themselves cannot describe.’ Shûji Terayama
Despite expressing such affection for words, Terayama, avant-garde poet, essayist, screenwriter, director and critic, called out for his readers to discard them in his 1967 collection of essays, Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go into the Streets. In Terayama’s universe, words escaped from the pages and found themselves elsewhere – and one place they found a home was on the screen. Perhaps more famous in Japan for his poetry and abroad for his theatre, Terayama first ventured into cinema as a scriptwriter for Japanese New Wave directors, before directing experimental films. Some readers may have heard his words spoken by the character of Nanami in The Inferno of First Love (Susumu Hani, 1968), screened in last summer’s BFI season devoted to the Art Theatre Guild. Yet, despite his legendary cult status in Japan, Western audiences have had limited exposure to Terayama’s cinematic adventures, a deficiency the Tate Modern will remedy for Londoners in March with their film and performance retrospective, Shûji Terayama: Who can say that we should not live like dogs?’
The moving image was never a mistress for Terayama and nor was poetry ever his devoted wife. Bed-hopping between images and words, Terayama was also attracted to the spontaneity and liveliness of performance-art theatre, the capacity for sonic exploration in radio, and the bodily exertion in boxing and horseracing, for which he provided insightful public commentaries. He never kept these relationships a secret; in fact, what he preferred were chaotic cross-pollinations and rampant art form orgies, with him as the voyeur. The words in Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Streets were hurled onto the stage in his stage vérité theatre production, and tossed onto the streets, only to get lobbed back onto the cinema screen for his first feature-length film of the same title (1971).
Terayama not only spoke, but also graffitied his poems onto the walls of Shinjuku and, most memorably, chalked them onto a football pitch, only for the letters to disappear into dust when trampled on by teens. In A Tale of Smallpox (1975) and Les Chants de Maldoror (1977), words are written onto the -image to obstruct our view. If words were indeed his best friends, Terayama certainly found a way to mess around with them, with his art as his playground.
Just as he forced his words to escape from the pages, Terayama saw the confines of the proscenium arch and the cinematic screen as limitations to overcome. In Pastoral: Hide and Seek (1974) and his play Inugami (1969), the walls of the sets collapsed to reveal their artificiality, as if he wanted the cinema, as well as the theatre, to burst out of their illusionary space and invade the streets. For the TV film American, Who Are You? (1967), made for TBS, and screened outside of Japan for the first time as part of the Tate’s programme, unsuspecting passers-by were suddenly confronted with a list of questions, thereby mutating a film shoot into a performance-art ‘happening’, then in counter-cultural vogue. In projections of Laura (1974), performer Morisaki Henriku literally jumped into the screen and appeared as an image. In screenings of The Trial (1975), performers and audiences hammered nails into the screen, most infamously at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1984. Terayama’s cinema refused to stay static, and was never at home when simply projected. It’ll be exciting to see whether his screen experiments, always interrupted by words or actors, still hold any relevance for us today.