Shuji Terayama (1935-1983), one of Japan’s most famous poets and playwrights, first wanted to become a photographer. While still a child he hung around the local photo parlor so often that his mother finally told him that so much picture-taking would make him dwindle away to nothing at all.
The magical properties of the photographic image, still or moving, stayed with him all of his life. In photographs and films as well as on the stage, he created his own kingdom, one based on his own childhood. In plays such as “La Marie Vision,” feature films like “Cache-Cache Pastoral” and in the shorter films here collected, he created a place where mothers kill their young and children do indeed dwindle away to nothing at all.
Their world is set in the Taisho Era, one that Terayama was not old enough to remember but here reconstructs: flapper frocks, cloche hats, windup phonographs and the Victor dog, gakusei (student) uniforms, fundoshi (Japanese loin cloths), Japanese wedding kimono, loosened obi. All of this in a chaotic clutter and yet also arranged with a certain sense of style.
Terayama has elsewhere written that it is not the camera’s ability to tell the truth that is interesting, but it is its ability to lie. He can make us truly believe in this claustrophobic, closed, dead world, where we are forced voyeurs. This four-DVD set of almost all of his shorter films (the very first, “Catology,” has been lost for years) drags us into his disturbing kingdom — a coherent and forceful expression of an imagination, dreamlike but startlingly real.
The earliest of these short films, “The Cage” (1964-69), introduces some of the recurring images: clocks, father-figures in black capes, body-builders. “Butterfly” (1974) reflects early memories — shadows, people walking in front of the screen. (When a boy, Terayama used to sleep under the screen of a local movie theater and awake to gigantic images above him, and the shadows of viewers in front of the projector.)
In “Laura” (1974), movie memories turn self-referential. Two strippers on the screen start talking back to the audience: “Hey, you in the front row, stop it. Oh, we know what kind of people come to see experimental films!” The “Movie Guide for Young People” uses three screens and offers various transgressions — including one actor who relieves himself on us (i.e. the camera lens).
“Labyrinth” (1975) takes us outside: two men trying to transport an entire doorway, complete with door. The door appears again in “Smallpox Story,” which also features nails being driven into skulls. “Der Prozess,” the last of the 1975 films, is an extended (34 min.) love scene that could probably not be shown in theaters even now.
“Father” is a portrait of his missing parent (killed in the Pacific War), and “The Eraser” (both 1977 films) includes a number of Terayama-like fetishes — old photos erased or torn up, or stitched together. “Isumboshi” features the love-life of a dwarf, and “Shadow Film” is just that, shadows on the screen.
There are several more of these short films and there are two versions of the infamous “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” (1970). This film is about children in revolt. Like the kids in Jean Vigo’s “Zero de Conduit,” they take over and (in the words of Amos Vogel in “Film as a Subversive Art”) “condemn their parents to death for depriving them of self-expression and sexual freedom.” There is a lot of nudity and much simulated sex — though killing a chicken on camera is perhaps the most distressful of the scenes.
The film has been often banned and the 75-minute original (here included) exists only as single 16-mm print. Terayama made a shortened version (27 min., here included) and there is an even shorter extract, the 12-min. “Jan-Ken-Po War” also included in this set.
Finally there is a compilation film, “Catalogue of Memory” (1977) by Michi Tanaka, a close associate of Terayama’s, one in which Terayama himself appears.
The package is quite foreigner-friendly. The menu is bilingual, and English subtitles are provided whenever the text is on the sound track. When the text is a part of the image, however, as in “Les Chants de Maldoror,” there is no translation. You can also buy these DVDs singly.
That the collection is sometimes upsetting is to be expected — it was intended to be. Terayama is not only the sleeping child, he is also the sinister magician and through the magic of film he reigns over his embattled kingdom.
It is embattled because it is a vision of childhood with all the terror and cruelty retained, and because mother was right: If you take too many pictures you dwindle away. This dwindling process is called maturity. When you have entirely evaporated you are an adult.