PRINT May 1986


HOW DOES ONE ACTUALLY stand in the shadow of another, and begin to understand the other’s history, the other’s ghosts? In the gulf that still separates Japan from the West and the West from Japan, we remain in the roles we began with—the roles of traders exchanging contracts, for shipments of art, televisions, domestic appliances, names. Caught in a state of mutual ignorance, East and West shadow one another, chasing the exotic, hungry for the alien, eager to transplant the riches of the other’s world. For centuries this dialogue has cultivated hybrids that are more often mirrors of the culture they spring from than doorways into the other. The pictorial graces of Japanese prints were reduced to decoration by the 19th-century European fad of japonisme. Today, the visual language of Japan as embodied in the country’s fashion and graphics fascinates the West, which imports them wholesale to satisfy an appetite for a new perspective. And in Japan, many artists have absorbed and re invented contemporary Western painting. Western women such as Lisa Lyon have become symbols of a quasi-divine female power in Japanese eyes; paradoxically, the image of strength they offer has ultimately been employed to commercial ends. These transpositions suggest the ways in which translations between the two worlds both divest and enrich.

The encounter with the alien is the raw material of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, 1982. The film describes Tokyo as a comic strip, as Planet Mongo, a voyeuristic zone where past and future are constantly synthesized. In Marker’s view, Tokyo remains a jungle where the polarities of East and West are never resolved. “A city crisscrossed by trains, tied together with electric wire, she shows her veins.” In no city is the problem of communication so explicitly defined as in Tokyo, with its thickets of wires that clutter the sky Nowhere else are translations between cultures so insistently visible (and in such parodic form), and nowhere else is the sublime reduced to such mundanity, or the trivial details of the mundane elevated to such mystery It is in the jungle, not in the well-lit, organized space, that we trip over each other’s shadows.

The myth that history and ideas proceed in linear advances holds hands with yet another myth—the idea that communication also moves in straight lines. This may be true of some technologies, like satellite signals, which are beamed through space by the shortest route between transmitter and receiver. The history of communicating art and ideas, however, is actually circuitous. A French painter notices a Japanese print on a Paris quai, pins it to his studio wall, and begins to fantasize about the East. The fantasy is elaborated, and over time unwinds like a spiral. Culture is a mesh of these spirals. Somewhere in this mesh is the creative epicenter from which art radiates back and forth. The ’80s, a time in which the spirals have never been so fast and so crossed, have proceeded like a fin de siècle shadow theater, where earlier decades dance together like ghosts and echoes, contradicting simple linear histories. The deepest shadow is thrown by the ’60s.

In a Tokyo basement adjoining a gas station on an avenue of quiet two-storied houses, away from the blazing pivot of the Shinjuku district, is a performance space called Plan B. The theater’s name is as nondescript as its interior, with its rough walls, bare lightbulbs, and wooden benches. Here the fertile energy that characterized the tumultuous late ’60s is more than just a nostalgic memory. A particular Tokyo subculture—from which surfaced the cinema of Nagisa Oshima, the theater of the poet Shuji Terayama, the dance of Tatsumi Hijikata, and the graphics of Tadanori Yokoo—has spawned a new generation. (The deaths of Terayama, in 1983, and Hijikata, in January of this year, may draw wider attention to the artists’ stature, and to the scale of their influence.) Plan B serves as Tokyo’s vital laboratory of performance.

The dancer Min Tanaka frequently performs at Plan B. Like many others, Tanaka in his formative years was drawn to Butoh, the dance theater that Hijikata pioneered with Kazuo Ohno in the late ’50s and early ’60s, subverting both the conventions of Japanese theater and the imported styles of Western dance. In contrast to Hijikata’s expressive dance innovations, but with respect for them, Tanaka developed a form of dance that was sculptural, almost without motion. He understood that at the furthest point from Hijikata, he was in fact closest to him.

At the 1984 Venice Biennale Tanaka performed Moduli in Viola—Omaggio a Kandinsky (Forms in violet—homage to Kandinsky). In 1914, Wassily Kandinsky had done an outline for a performance to be called Der violetter Vorhang (The violet curtain); he made suggestions for set and costume colors and for key imagery, but did not complete the piece, which was never staged. Tanaka choreographed his own version of Der violetter Vorhang with paintings by Giulio Turcato and music by Luciano Berio. At Plan B, later in 1984, he created sections of the drama in a bare space under the title Viola. He had recently begun to collaborate with Hijikata, and his original, sculptural style had become much more expressive.

Out of the darkness of Plan B appeared two men and two women, in black jackets, mouths agape, with white, rolling eyes. They advanced in a shuffle. They wore their clothes like straitjackets; their sleeves were empty, armless. The whites of their eyes began to flicker and they twisted their bodies in blind embraces. Sweat dripped from their faces but no sound emerged. This silent scream suggested a collective anguish. The dancers repeated their shuffle from three directions, at times so slowly that they appeared almost like a sculptural frieze, or like the forms of a morbid monumental statuary. In subsequent, individual dances they disrobed, sometimes thrusting forward their thighs, sometimes jerking like studies in locomotion. From behind the spectators Tanaka appeared in a long coat, spitting arcs of white rice from a wild grimace, to be ravaged by the two women, naked but for men’s shoes. As the dance reached its climax, one of the women screamed, and the silence, which like a window had separated the action from the voyeur audience, was broken.

Before Terayama died, Tanaka often discussed collaborations with him. A filmmaker, poet, playwright, and theater director, Terayama was a product of the ’60s; he was directly involved in the social explosion of the period. He frequently toured the West with his Artaudian theater-laboratory/circus group Tenjo Sajiki. His film Sho o Suteyo, Machi e Deyo (Throw away the books and get out in the streets, 1971) is anarchic. At one time his group consisted entirely of runaways. As a theatrical outlaw, Terayama, like Hijikata, enjoyed the support of Yukio Mishima, who extended his patronage to the most audacious elements of the avant-garde at the same time that he also reinforced classical Japanese tradition Tanaka was in New York at the time of Terayama’s death, and he performed an inspired requiem for him at the LaMaMa Experimental Theater Club, dancing to John Lennon’s version of the Ben E. King song “Stand by Me.”]

In a 1975 manifesto Terayama declared,

Those of us who consider ourselves dramatists take it as crucial to be able to organize our imaginations in such a way as to change any location into a theatre. In the view of the Tenjo Sajiki group, to reflect upon theatre is to reflect upon the city. The theory of the theatre is also that of the urban community and its topography. “The place” is not just a geographical occasion. It is also a historically rooted structure dependent upon specific, indigenous traditions.1

What Terayama and Hijikata achieved was to find their indigenous tradition and reinvent it, armed with the strategies of Antonin Artaud, in forms so erotic or frightening that they remained on the very edge of publicly acceptable Japanese culture.

In 1960 Terayama made his notorious film Catology (in which he filmed the death plunge of a cat). He was already involved in experiments with Hijikata, who had achieved some notoriety the previous year for a shocking performance, based on Mishima’s novel Kinjiki (Forbidden colors, 1951–55), during which a chicken had been slaughtered on stage. Hijikata had stunned audiences with his mixtures of blood and eroticism. Mishima was fascinated by him, and the photographer Eikoh Hosoe began to take pictures of him. Publicly he was regarded as a dangerous dancer, but his work was pivotal in generating images of the tensions that postwar Japan had experienced but not yet expressed. “Classicism and ultra-modernism have come to a crisis,” wrote Mishima in a catalogue for an exhibition of Hosoe’s photographs of Hijikata in 1960. Hijikata’s most celebrated dance, Revolt of the Flesh, was first performed in 1968. One evening in the summer of 1984, in Hijikata’s studio, l saw a crude but extraordinary film of the performance. Before showing the film Hijikata projected a number of Hosoe’s early Butoh photographs. He grabbed the projector and beamed the images of his black-hooded, almost naked body over the walls and ceiling of the studio, distorting his form. Even the private occasion of viewing historic film footage became another performance. The quality of the film, made with a hand-held camera, is resonant less of 1968 than of a turn-of-the-century shamanistic rite. Hijikata appears demonic. He is carried onstage in a palanquin beneath a sunshade. A rabbit is carried on a pole; a cockerel is suspended by its claws. Stripped down to a G-string and phallus, Hijikata takes on a jerking, spasmodic gesture before switching sexual roles by appearing in a dress. His finale involves being lowered across the stage entwined in ropes, as if he is being torn apart; in strange juxtaposition to this section of the film, Hijikata put on a record of the Beatles singing “Oh darling, please believe me” as I watched.

Later that evening, Hijikata spoke about the images that motivated him. His original sources were from a rural culture, beyond the city; he grew up in a village in the far north of Honshu. But he talked of Francis Bacon and Edvard Munch as well, and, more significantly, of Artaud. (One of the possessions he most valued was a tape of a radio broadcast by Artaud.) Hijikata also discussed Spain and the poetry of Federico García Lorca. In some ways the Spanish and Japanese cultures are antithetical, which makes Spain very attractive to the Japanese sensibility In their most refined forms, however, Spanish characteristics like duende, born out of an intimacy with death, have affinities with a morbid lyricism in the Japanese imagination. Ohno, the other great progenitor of Butoh, drew his inspiration from the Spanish dancer La Argentina. After Hijikata’s withdrawal from dancing, in the ’70s, he choreographed his pupil Yoko Ashikawa, saying he was “the image” and that she was “the dictionary”; in 1983 Ashikawa performed a great dance under Hijikata’s direction at Plan B, and it was called Sakura a la España.

Hijikata’s talk of Spain and of Artaud was not intended to provide me with a rationale for his work, but with a looser, more illogical set of associations. He had unleashed Butoh as a theater Japanese in its essence, yet the poetic territory he inhabited was drawn from both East and West. He was conscious of his role as a “man of the body,” especially in contrast with Mishima’s cerebral brilliance. Hijikata’s speech that night had a poetic rhythm to it—it became a performance. Five hours into our discussion he needed ice for a drink. He took a huge block of it from a bowl and smashed it on the corner of the immaculate table at which we were sitting. When I admired the table, he stubbed his cigarette into the perfect grain, overthrowing my projections and conventional notions of the “Japanese sensibility.”

The dramatic element of performance that links Terayama, Hijikata, and Japan’s urban topography has explicit parallels in the photographs of Daido Moriyama, the most innovative and surprising of contemporary Japanese photographers. Moriyama grew up in the back streets of Osaka, in the years immediately after World War II. He spent his adolescence wandering the entertainment districts of the city Seeing William Klein’s first book of photographs, Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels (1956), around the time that it was published, he was overwhelmed by Klein’s style—its grain, contrast, blur, and fierce graphic elements. To Moriyama, it corresponded perfectly with his own perceptions of the desolate postwar landscape of Japan, an environment of the fragmentary, the transitory In Klein’s book Tokyo (1964) the tom signs, the billboards, and the layers of that urban landscape became the subject of the American photographer’s own work. One of the images in the book, of Butoh dancers performing in a back alley, perfectly illustrates Terayama’s ideas of theater’s place in the urban community (Klein, of course, produced the image independently of Terayama, shadows tripping over each other and all.) Blackhooded dancers such as these were part of the current of the city in the early ’60s; in Klein’s image they are performing an interpretation of Jean Genet’s Notre-Dame des fleurs (Our Lady of the flowers, 1946).

Moriyama moved to Tokyo in 1960, and apprenticed with Hosoe. Taking pictures around the American base in Yokosuka, he stalked the alleys and bars, photographing in his own predatory style. Terayama greatly admired Moriyama’s photographs of garbage around the coastal town of Atami, and in the mid ’60s he asked Moriyama to provide photographs to accompany a forthcoming essay They met briefly at a café; Terayama quickly led Moriyama to a car and took him to an underground theater. Moriyama’s work among the strippers and performers in the streets and clubs of Shinjuku became the subject of his first book, Nippon Theater (1968). The book’s numerous extraordinary images include a photograph of an entertainer on stage, his face distorted in an anguished grimace—like one of Tanaka’s later silent screams. In fact, the whole book is pitched at the intensity of a silent scream. Moriyama’s pictures often include the photographer’s shadow, clearly visible at front center. We see the image of the scream without its sound; the image of the body without its presence.

The events of Antiwar Day, on October 21, 1968—the biggest riots in Japanese history—repeated the image of the silent scream. At the height of the fighting, according to Moriyama, the clamor was contradicted by a sense of silence. At the point of greatest social fracture, a silent countertone endowed the violent spectacle with the quality of old newsreel, the shadow of history The social order established by the reconstructed nation met in head-on collision with all the repressed tension of a volatile generation. It was a street battle on a common map that stretched through the ’60s from the East to the capitals of the Western world. Terayama once declared that the history of maps is older than literature, and that even in prehistory men drew maps to understand where they were and where they were going. It’s time to put the work of these artists on the map. That work has the power to disrupt our usual sense of the cardinal points; the old map, the old orientation, leads nowhere. To redraw the map, we have to stand in the shadow of an other.

Mark Holborn’s latest book is Black Sun: The Eyes of Four; Roots and Innovations in Japanese Photography (Aperture). The exhibition it accompanies can be seen at the Serpentine Gallery, London, from May 17 to June 15, and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from August 9 to October 26.



1. Shuji Terayama, “Tenjo-Sajiki Manifesto,” The Drama Review vol. 19 no. 4, New York, December 1975, p. 84.