Oedipal Ketchup The Cinema of Shuji Terayama By Andrew Grant. A group of pre-pubescent children clad in military uniforms rebel against their parents and begin hunting adults. A choir of schoolgirls strip while singing "when I grow up to be a whore...
A group of pre-pubescent children clad in military uniforms rebel against their parents and begin hunting adults. A choir of schoolgirls strip while singing "when I grow up to be a whore." A young man struggles in vain to break through his cousin’s chastity belt. Images culled not from some drug-induced dream, but from visions of the revolutionary poet, playwright, and filmmaker Shuji Terayama. Virtually unknown in the United States, Terayama’s work is extremely important in the history of Japanese experimental cinema, and he belongs in the ranks alongside Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, and Hiroshi Teshigahara. With the exception of 1981’s Fruits of Passion (a quasi-sequel to The Story of O), none of Terayama’s films have been available in the United States.
Born in 1936, Terayama was primarily raised by his mother after his father died of dysentery while in Indonesia. Unable to earn enough in their town, she would seek work in Kyushu at the American military base, leaving young Shuji in the care of his aunt and uncle, owners of the village movie theater that became a second home for him. At eighteen, Terayama was diagnosed with nephritis (the disease that would ultimately be responsible for his early death) and spent nearly four years in and out of hospitals. It was during one of his extended hospital stays that he began writing tanka poetry, which would win him the prestigious Chekhov Poetry prize in 1954. The hospital years also afforded Terayama the chance to become a voracious reader. He devoured Gide, Sartre, Freud, Malraux, Capote, McCullers, and Mayakovsky. He also discovered the French surrealists, particularly Lautreamont’s The Song Of Maldoror (of which he would make a short film of in 1977). This book, over any other, was to have a tremendous impact on his art. In the years that followed, Terayama continued to write poetry, but he also ventured on to compose novels, essays, plays, and screenplays.
When Terayama was twenty-one, he wrote and produced a radio play (Adult Hunting) that was presented in the form of an emergency news broadcast à la Orson Welles’s take on War of the Worlds. The broadcast claimed that a revolution was taking place, and young children were rising up to claim Tokyo as theirs. This theme would later be reworked into one of his earliest films, Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1970).
With its cryptic title (more commonly recognized as an album by electronica band Stereolab), Emperor Tomato Ketchup is one of Terayama’s most challenging works. Lacking a conventional narrative, the film’s gritty, often over-exposed imagery at times resembles a home movie gone horribly wrong. Set in a Japan in which children have mysteriously gained control, its revolutionary gaze is as much sexual as it is political. Some of the rules that the young dictators establish include:
- Adults who upset children, use physical strength, or are too protective will have their civil status removed
- Adults who steal children’s snacks, who deprive them from freedom of speech or sex, who try to impose their prejudice in matters of education will be given the death penalty
- In the name of God, all children will enjoy their freedoms: freedom of conspiracy, freedom of treason, freedom to practice sodomy, and the freedom to use The Bible as toilet paper.
Terayama has referred to Emperor Tomato Ketchup as a joke, but not a comedy. Japan at this time was caught up in a wave of protests; the renewal of the Japan-US Security Treaty, the corporate dominance of Osaka Expo 70, the Vietnam War, and corruption at the universities drew students to the streets by the thousands. Is the film a parody of these protests, or rather an exaggerated representation of the public’s worst nightmare -- that is, what if the revolutionaries won?
But what of the film’s sexual politics? Here we find the earliest example of a major theme that will reappear in several of his later filmsthe Oedipal nature of a mother-son relationship tied with the boy’s sexual initiation by an older, more experienced woman. It is in Emperor Tomato Ketchup that this idea is (literally and figuratively) at its most explicit. A young boy brandishing a rifle makes sexual advances on a nude woman. "I seduce my mommy and I become my daddy" appears as an inter-title on the screen. Later in the film, a boy is the sexual partner of three women described by film scholar Amos Vogel as "magical...yet protectively maternal."
Terayama has cited an Oedipal crisis as a key factor in the problems besetting Japan. At the same time, he was interested in a sexual revolution where women would take the active role in heterosexual relations. As film scholar Steven Clark puts it, "women should stop marrying ugly balding men with secure jobs for their money." By taking younger lovers, they will in effect breed such men out of existence, leaving a world where youth reigns supreme. Though highly exaggerated, this is one possibility of what he wished to express with Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Terayama would be far less vague in his follow-up, Throw Away Your Books, Go Out Into The Streets.
Originating as both an experimental theater piece and a book of the same name, Throw Away Your Books, Go Out Into The Streets (1971) is one of Terayama’s greatest achievements. Voted one of the ten best films of the 1970s by the prestigious Kinema Junpo magazine, it vividly captures the youthful rebellious spirit that was sweeping Japan at this time. Once again eschewing narrative, Terayama’s first feature still manages to tell the story of a decaying urban family as seen through the eyes of the teenage son, Eimei Kitamura. Entwined with this are poems and stories written by teenagers recruited during the theatrical production as it toured Japan. On top of that, the film boasts several musical numbers that would fit nicely in a Japanese version of Hair.
The film’s theatrical roots are made clear from the opening scene. Eimei breaks down the cinematic fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, mocking our passiveness and encouraging us to put our hand on the knee of the girl sitting next to us. After a brief introduction to the members of the dysfunctional Kitamura family, the film takes off in collage-like fashion. Intertwined with Kitamura’s story are songs, confessions, dreamlike interludes, and bits of agitprop that on first impression appear unrelated to Eimei’s story, but on subsequent viewings reveal them all to be part of his own experience.
Taking a cue from the titular command, much of the agitprop throughout the film occurs on the streets of Tokyo. Quotes from Malreaux, Fromm, and Mayakovsky are spray painted on walls. An American flag is burned, revealing a fornicating couple behind it. A young woman encourages people at a crowded intersection to release their anger by hitting a phallus-shaped punching bag. Another tries to discourage people from going into a cinema. Shot in vérité style, these scenes brilliantly capture the revolutionary energy that was present at this time.
The Kitamura family is a polar opposite to Terayama’s own. Whereas Terayama was raised in the countryside without a father, motherless Eimei lives in a tiny Tokyo apartment with several family members who treat each other with disdain, aggression, and an overall lack of respect. Eimei’s man-hating sister Setsuko spends all her waking moments with her pet rabbit. Their grandmother, thinking it best for Setsuko, has the rabbit killed and makes a stew out of it. Eimei tries to help his chronic-masturbator father find a new job not out of love, but out of a desire to stop taking care of him. In turn, the father secretly plans to have his mother sent away to an old-age home. It is only between Eimei and Setsuko that a semblance of compassion can be found even though an incestuous relationship is hinted at.
The film continually questions the hierarchy of the Japanese family. As one character puts it, "when the family fulfilled different functions it still had some meaning; economic, hierarchical, educational, recreational, protective, and religious. But now the state and society have taken over those functions. All that’s left is affection. Blood ties are still at the heart of it all." The film implies that the family is a tyrannical, cruel unit whose destruction should not be mourned. Yet this change does not come without a price; the old traditions (now destroyed) have been replaced with cheap imitations of American culture. Eimei compares Japan to a lizard trapped in a Coca-Cola bottletoo big for its prison, but lacking the strength to break out.
Of great concern to nineteen year-old Eimei is his virginity. Beyond base sexual desire, he wishes to destroy the greedy sexual bonds that (in fantasy) bind him to his dead mother. His initiation by a prostitute is far from romantic and quite unpleasant. In one of the lengthiest sequences in the film, we watch as Eimei uncomfortably squirms and struggles to get away (writhing on sheets adorned with erotic poetry), but is ultimately overcome by the woman. Though not a positive experience, it will ultimately contribute to Eimei’s evolution from the meek but curious introvert into the angry rebellious character he is at the end of the film.
The film ends much at it begins, with Eimei once again addressing the audience, though this time he is reflecting on the film’s fantasies and his own experience which in effect unwinds the illusion of cinema. Here is Terayama made real, and he will go on to play an even greater role in his next film, Pastoral: The Die in the Country.
After a three-year hiatus from film, Terayama returned with his second feature, the introspective Pastoral: The Die in the Country. A personal exorcism of his past, the film is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Martin Scorsese has championed the film on several occasions, and a proper release in the states is long overdue.
The film reveals its autobiographical foundation from the onset. The setting is a village at the foot of Mt. Osore in Aomori, where Terayama was raised. Renamed ‘Terror Mountain’ in the film, Osorezan is famous for both its strong sulfur smell and for the existence of itako, female shamans who act as mediums to communicate with the dead. The village and its inhabitants are presented through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy who is being raised alone by his mother. The boy (nameless, as are all the film’s characters) suffers from typical adolescent angst, but finds little understanding from his overbearing mother. Desperate, the boy visits an itako to speak to his deceased father, but finds little solace.
The life of the villagers is dominated by the inherited weight of rural tradition, something Terayama considers dangerous. Superstition abounds in the village. A young unmarried woman giving birth has rules barked at her by a gaggle of black-clad old women peering in from the doorway; she suffers a miscarriage, and as a result is tormented by the women. Such superstitions are used as a metaphor for the burden of the past in present-day Japanese consciousness. Traditions are carried out, yet nobody can actually explain why. Conformity is critical to the point that every house in the village is governed by the time of the family clock.
Standing in opposition to this conformity is a traveling circus that has arrived in the village. The life of the circus members is equally as ritualistic, though unlike the obscure nature of those in the village, theirs are often about sex, violence, work, and play. The boy, peering through the tent flap, sees his first example of hedonistic behavior in the form of an all-out orgy, which causes him to flee in terror.
Falling in love with the married woman next door, the boy asks her to elope, offering them the chance to escape the oppressiveness of their village lives. At their moment of escape, the narrative suddenly stops and we are in Tokyo where the director has been showing this film to friends and colleagues. The director (clearly Terayama) worries that in choosing to make a film about his past he might end up exploiting his childhood and creating little more than a cheap spectacle. At a smoke filled bar his art-critic friend assures him that he must go on with the film, adding, "if one isn’t freed from one’s own memory, then one isn’t free." The director, still living with his mother, meets his teenage self and decides to return with him to re-correct the mistakes of his past.
This time around, things are slightly different in the village. Accompanying his younger self, the events this time are somewhat more akin to the truth. His mother now physically prevents him from eloping, and the woman he loved has run off with a lover. The young unmarried woman gives birth, but drowns her baby and runs off to the city. Witnessing this, the director convinces the boy that the mother is at the root of all these problems and that he must kill her. By doing this, he will be free to escape his own history. This odd twist on the Oedipal fantasy is further enhanced when, on his way to kill his mother, the boy meets the woman who had fled the village, now returned as a prostitute. Against his will, she takes his virginity in a lengthy scene that mirrors the one in Throw Away Your Books, though instead of a brothel the scene takes place in a temple. Whereas Eimei suffered from his mother’s absence, here the boy is smothered by her overbearing presence.
Terayama stated in a 1977 interview that "if we wish to free ourselves, wipe out the history of humanity inside of us and the history of society around us, we must begin by getting rid of our personal memories." That the boy berates his adult self by accusing him of distorting his youth shows how difficult it was for Terayama to reconcile his fantasies with reality. As the final shot of the film proves, the line between the two is often blurred.
After Pastoral, Terayama made his most commercial film, The Boxer (1977) for Toei studios. Made after the success of Rocky, the film tells the story of a retired boxer who leaves his family in order to train an up and coming fighter. He then contributed a segment to the erotic triptych Collection Privees in 1979. In 1981 he went on to create the aforementioned Fruits of Passion, his only non-Japanese produced feature. Though not a bad example of European ‘art-core’, it is a far cry from Terayama’s earlier, personal works. However, Terayama does tread on familiar groundone of the characters tells of her incestuous past with her father.
Terayama’s final film was Farewell to the Ark (1984), which he made while he was dying. Unfinished at the time of his death, members of his production team completed the film for him. Set once again in a village lost in time, the film is loosely based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years Of Solitude. As he did in Pastoral, Terayama presents a village ruled by traditions and superstitions even more confounding than the Aomori of his childhood. Whereas the villagers in Pastoral were slaves to the family clock, Farewell to the Ark begins with a mass burial of all but one clock. The family that owns the one clock now rules the village. At the film’s core is a story of a young man who wants nothing more than to have sex with his cousin. Though the other villagers warn him of the danger of having a child with her, his desire continues. Frustrating the situation is the cousin’s iron chastity belt that yields to no amount of attack. After stabbing the head of the ruling clan, the cousins flee to begin life anew. Those familiar with Marquez’s book will recognize elements of the novelthe cockfight early on in the film, the warning about the offspring of their union, as well as the modern gadgetry that are scattered throughout.
Sadly, the film is only available without subtitles. Complicating matters is the strong Okinawa dialect that, with my limited understanding of Japanese, left me in the dark. However, the sheer beauty of the images was such that I could not pull myself away from the film. Terayama’s grand swan song, the film is a summing up of his ideas, and it is brimming with the most extraordinary visions he could conjure up.
When Terayama died at the young age of 48, he left behind a staggering amount of poems, stories and plays, many of which are revived for new productions year after year. In 1984 there was a nationwide retrospective of his plays, and several of these were recorded for Japanese television. One of these, Our Age Comes Riding In on a Circus Elephant, is made of up of small vignettes and songs. First performed in 1969, the play is very critical of America, its policies, and the re-signing of the Japan-US Security Treaty. While the energy of the 1969 performance might be absent, it is nonetheless a rare chance to see this odd little musical.
If there is any justice in the world, a complete retrospective of Terayama’s films will be forthcoming, with new prints and subtitles. They certainly belong in the canon of post-war Japanese films, and their lack of availability leaves a gaping hole in our ability to fully understand and appreciate the independent Japanese cinema of the 1970s. Discovering Terayama was, for me, a major cinematic find. See these films at any cost.
Article revised and available in the Impossibly Funky Collection
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