Left: Terayama Shuji, The Trial, 1975. Performance view, Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, March 18, 2012. Photo: Brotherton/Lock. Right: Terayama Shuji, Pastoral Hide and Seek, 1974, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Photo courtesy of the Terayama Museum.

TERAYAMA SHUJI (1935–1983) famously did everything from offering refuge to runaway kids to providing the Japanese public with horse-racing tips, but he was foremost a poet. The liver disease nephritis, which killed him at a cruelly early age, kept him in hospital for longish periods throughout his life, and so he had all too much time to lie back and let his imagination soar. Despite the intermittent hospitalization, he led the theater troupe Tenjo-sajiki (“Children of Paradise”) to international acclaim in the 1970s; wrote novels, poems, and essays; exhibited highly crafted and manipulated photographs; delivered ringside commentaries on boxing matche; and made five and a half feature films plus numerous experimental shorts. Along the way, he nurtured such visual artists as Yokoo Tadanori and such actors as Niitaka Keiko, Wakamatsu Takashi, and Mikami Hiroshi. Much of his work remains current in Japan: There are revivals of his plays and films, the books are still in print, the photographs are still shown. He’s as much of a force in Japanese culture now as he was in his lifetime.

In March, Tate Modern in London hosted an exemplary tribute, curated by film scholar Thomas Dylan Eaton, showing most of Terayama’s film and video work—including all of the short films, which he described as “my poetry, my violence, my erotic jokes, and my visiting cards”—and various contextual odds and sods, all supplemented by a one-day symposium on the man and his work. (Full disclosure: I was asked to respond to the symposium papers, because Terayama invited me to work as a guest actor with Tenjo-sajiki for some performances in 1978.) There were many highlights, not least screenings of the three “expanded cinema” pieces Terayama made in the mid-’70s with help from his loyal assistant Morisaki Henrikku. Morisaki came to London to perform the live-action parts of these pieces. He still looks just about youthful enough to match his screen image from some thirty-eight years ago, but it will eventually become impossible to present Rolla (Laura, 1974), in which he enters the screen after being taunted by three painted harpies, only to be stripped, spanked, and ejected back into the auditorium naked.

Terayama’s remarkable feature Den’en ni shisu (Pastoral Hide-and-Seek, 1974) ends with the protagonist, a film director, talking with his childhood self in a countryside hut. Suddenly the wooden wall behind them drops to reveal that they’re actually sitting beside a busy intersection in Shinjuku, in the heart of Tokyo, with spectral figures from Tenjo-sajiki capering about on the sidewalk. The image cuts to the core of Terayama’s inspiration. During his first extended spell in the hospital, he found his childhood memories and fantasies of Mount Osore in Aomori Prefecture (legend holds it to be haunted, and it’s a magnet for shamans to this day) merging with his interest in the burgeoning ’60s counterculture that was becoming increasingly noisy on the Tokyo streets beneath his window. Like his contemporary Oshima Nagisa, his only serious rival as a culture hero for Japan’s student revolutionaries, Terayama was a nonaligned leftist who constantly warned that direct political action risked edging into fascism. Unlike Oshima, he was essentially a surrealist, dedicated to revolution in the head.

The speakers in the Tate’s symposium made a good fist of exploring Terayama’s complexities and occasional contradictions. Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei from UCLA brought to life the history of Tenjo-sajiki, tracing the company’s roots in circus and other touring entertainments and noting parallels with the theater work of Kantor, Beckett, Grotowski, and Artaud. The poet Matsui Shigeru from Tokyo University of the Arts uncovered Terayama’s involvement in a long-forgotten TV program of the mid-’60s, an absurdist collage of vox-pop interviews. Steve Ridgely from the University of Wisconsin traced the origins of Terayama’s first feature, Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Hit the Streets (1971), in a book and a stage show. And Julian Ross of Leeds University set Terayama’s experimental shorts in the context of the nascent intermedia art of the ’60s and ’70s.

Terayama’s continuing impact in Japan has a lot to do with the blockages and evasions in Japanese culture and public life, and his poetic provocations will never have the same meaning abroad that they had and have for the home audience. But the Tate events proved once again that Terayama was a colossus in the fields of cinema, theater, and literature. His photographs and collages drew on all three, and they, too, stand as iconic images of their moment. Terayama was one of a kind, the kind that understands, for example, that a love of cinema can sometimes drive you to hammer nails into the screen.

Tony Rayns

A retrospective of the films of Terayama Shuji ran Friday, March 16–Sunday, March 25 at Tate Modern in London.

At the author’s request, Japanese names are given in their traditional form: surname first.