With a body of work spread out across various mediums as wide ranging as radio drama, boxing commentary, fantastical poetry and prose, avant-garde theater and short and feature-length films, it’s impossible to neatly sum up Shūji Terayama with one-word descriptors like “poet”, “playwright” or “filmmaker”. If, however, Terayama were to be summarized by one word, “countercultural” might be the one. An obvious tag, and one that might even seem a bit trite at this point. However, the ideas Terayama introduced to not only the sociopolitical discourse of postwar Japan, but whichever media he was working in were indeed countercultural. Revolutionary even, in the purest sense of the term, perhaps going even too far for the liking of other Japanese supposed “radicals”(1). Terayama’s work was also multicultural in the organic sense, his fiction melding the lore of his birthplace of the Aomori prefecture with various international influences, surrealism especially (2), into an immediately identifiable poetic, literary and visual style. Similar to Walerian Borowczyk, another polymath who also happened to be a great admirer of Terayama’s (i), there is perhaps a temptation to compartmentalize Terayama’s talents. Yet like Borowczyk’s animations, graphic works, shorts and features, Terayama’s entire creative output was, as the title of his short story collection Stories Sewn Up with a Red Thread indicates, threaded, with ideas from his writings, plays and films all overlapping. Terayama’s short story “Hide and Not-Go-Seek” found in the aforementioned collection for instance is reflected in the opening of Terayama’s 1974 feature Pastoral: To Die in the Country (Den-en ni shisu, 田園に死す), its alternate title being “Pastoral: Hide and Seek”.
While Terayama quickly gained a reputation for his early poetry in his homeland, it was his activities in the theater with his Tenjō Sajiki troupe and later on film that made Terayama’s name one to know internationally. Formed in 1967, Tenjō Sajiki, the name derived from Marcel Carné’s film Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise, 1945) became a leading name in “Angura”, or Japanese underground theater with the troupes bizarre, nightmarish imagery and the at times surprise interactive nature of the performances with audiences suddenly finding themselves part of the show. As was his takes on 31-syllable tanka poetry and classic fables, Terayama’s approach to theater with Tenjō Sajiki was wholly unique and deliberately provocative, Terayama even openly challenging theater goers perceptions of what was being staged. “I prefer the audience to reconstruct things for themselves according to their imagination”(3) Terayama once said, one of Tenjō Sajiki’s tactics being to separate sections of the audience, purposefully presenting something different to each attendee. Terayama also directly invited the audience on stage during performances of what Terayama would eventually turn into his debut feature film Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (Sho o Suteyo Machi e Deyō, 書を捨てよ町へ出よう, 1971)(4). Other Tenjō Sajiki stunts however posed potential hazards. The troupe infamously blacked out any and all source of outside light and handed out matches to the audience during performances of Mōjin Shokan (Letter on the Blind, 盲人書簡), inviting the crowd to strike the match paper stuck on the performers roaming the crowd.(5)
While some merely expressed aggravation towards having portions of their view of the stage deliberately obscured (6), other were more direct in their criticism of Terayama and Tenjō Sajiki. As infamous as the troupe handing out matches was, critic Roland H. Wiegenstein only gave the troupe more exposure, hysterically anticipating critical discourse of the here and now by titling his Der Spiegal review of a Tenjō Sajiki performance “Hitler Was Better”(7). “This is the madness of Faust combined with karate chops”(8) claimed Wiegenstein. By contrast, respected and influential Japanese theater writer Senda Akihiko christened Terayama and his work “the eternal avant-garde”(9). Similarly, Terayama’s film work was championed abroad with successful showings at Sanremo for Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets and Cannes for Pastoral: To Die in the Country and Terayama’s final feature film, completed in 1984, a year after his passing, Farewell to the Ark (Saraba hakobune, さらば箱舟). Pastoral: To Die in the Country even found Terayama compared with Fellini (10). Terayama’s film work and projects with Tenjō Sajiki were especially tightly threaded with the troupe also appearing on-screen for Terayama in both his features and shorts. Terayama’s acknowledgment of the audience from Tenjō Sajiki performances also carried over into his films, Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets playing out like an interactive, interarts experience whereas Pastoral: To Die in the Country concludes with a scene of street theater; zooming out as the film set wall falls followed by the troupe in full costume congregating in the Tokyo streets. Theater and performance were also incorporated into Terayama’s 1974 short Laura (ローラ’) as well as Fruits of Passion (Les fruits des passion, 1981). Perhaps Terayama’s most traveled film outside of Japan, Fruits of Passion was a French-Japanese co-production and a sequel to Just Jaeckin’s The Story of O (Historie d’O, 1975)starring Klaus Kinski also featuring the likes of Robbe-Grillet favorite Arielle Dombasale as well as Steely Dan’s Aja (1977) cover model Sayoko Yamaguchi, a longtime associate of Tenjō Sajiki.
The same year as Fruits of Passion also saw Tenjō Sajiki stage their final performance, One Hundred Years of Solitude (百年の孤独, 1981) an interpretation of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel of the same name which also served as the basis for the posthumously-released Farewell to the Arc. Terayama passed in 1983 at the age of 47 from nephritis which he had battled throughout his life and with Terayama’s passing came the official closure of Tenjō Sajiki. However, in its place arose the Laboratory of Theatre Play Ban’yū Inryoku. Born from a motto of Terayama’s, “Ban’yū Inryoku is a power of solitude that makes people attract to each other”(11), Ban’yū Inryoku was formed by members of the original Tenjō Sajiki with J.A. Seazer, Terayama’s musical right hand for his theater and film endeavors, at the heart of operations. Born Takaaki Terahara, later adopting the stage name of “Julius Arnest Seazer” (or Caesar), Seazer had previously scored Terayama’s early 1962 short The Cage (Ori, 檻囚) and immediately become a crucial part of Tenjō Sajiki upon joining, becoming, at Terayama’s insistence, his “pivotal composer”(12). Composing the scores for Terayama’s shorts and features as well as Tenjō Sajiki’s major productions and assorted music that found its way onto records released under the banner of “Tenjō Sajiki Records”(ii), Terayama and Seazer’s collaborations were akin to a David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti partnership, both working side-by-side with Terayama contributing to the songwriting, providing Seazer lyrics. With the formation of Ban’yū Inryoku, Seazer began pulling double duty, composing but also directing the troupe’s productions, keeping the memory of Terayama alive with performances of classic Tenjō Sajiki pieces like The Hunchback of Aomri (Aomori-ken no semushi otoko, 青森県のせむし男), A Story Sewn and Bound With a Red Thread, based on a poem of Terayama’s, and Nuhikun – Directions to Servants (奴婢訓).
Taking its title from Irish satirist Johnathan Swift’s Directions to Servants, posthumously-published in 1745, Nuhikun, or Directions to Servants, was first performed by Tenjō Sajiki in 1978 and is generally considered to be among the very best of Terayama’s stage works. Also among the most toured by both the original Tenjō Sajiki and in turn Ban’yū Inryoku, Directions to Servants perfectly encapsulates Tenjō Sajiki’s modus operandi, featuring some of Terayama’s most surreal, arresting and grotesque imagery. Swift’s essay, a parody of the conduct book, a popular genre of Swift’s time intended to educate the reader on the “correct” modes of societal conduct, lampooned what Les Editions de Londres refereed to as “the absurdities of the Eighteenth-century English social system”(13) by giving ridiculous advice to those in a variety of servant positions from from the Coachman to the Chambermaid. Taking off from Swift, Terayama’s said of his interpretation in 1978 “What I hope to describe in the play is the present situation in the world. A society without strong leaders or politicians. But the problem is not the absence of leaders or masters, but the fact that society needs masters in the first place.”(14). Set in a house where no masters are present, each servant takes on the role of master with the use of an imposing machine, one of several contraptions constructed for the piece. The caveat being the self-appointed masters are only recognized as such as long as the other servants allow. The evenings ceremonies are equally directed by both Terayama and the compositions of Seazer.
With no international distribution, like a lot of Terayama’s writings, many of Seazer’s recordings have remained out of reach for many outside of Japan save for dedicated second hand import hunters. Directions to Servants for instance was initially only made available as a cassette and sold where Tenjō Sajiki staged performances of the play until it’s 2012 Japanese CD release from Fuji. In late 2021 however, Polish record label Devoted Art Propaganda became the first label outside of Japan to issue a Seazer album with their release of Nuhikun – Directions to Servants on October 19, 2021 in both digital formats and a 2×12 gatefold vinyl release limited to 300 copies. Just as the play itself is seen as a benchmark for the Terayama and Tenjō Sajiki aesthetic, Seazer’s score is similarly considered a signature recording. Like Terayama and his multiple disciplines being impossible to put in one box, Seazer has long been resistant to easy pigeonholing, his work often discussed using umbrella genre terminology like “progressive” or psychedelic” rock. Certainly possible inspirations and comparisons can be drawn from other artists who’s work is also viewed through prog or pysch lenses, though just as Terayama filtered his influences into something entirely singular, so too did Seazer with his scores, particularity with Directions to Servants, existing within his own corner of rock opera. With a ten-piece line-up featuring guitar, bass, drums, piano, electric keyboards, flute, tuba, two violinists, multiple singing voices and other assorted instrumentation, Directions to Servants is more than indicative of the expansive sonic palate Seazer drew from in his musical creations for Terayama.
Seazer greets the audience entering the theater with ominous piano followed by the first of several spoken vocal pieces. Slight variations on the opening piano theme appear at various points during the soundtrack such as “Servants’ Appearance”, largely a piece for strings and piano. The later becoming increasingly gothic and melodramatic in the second half of the track. The strings take on a similar, even more melancholic tone in the solo cello piece “Goshu’s Theme” as well as “YOU-Play” and the first section of “In Search of a Master”, “Eyeball Game” set against exotic textural flute flourishes later in the album. Equally exotic is “Lunar Eclipse”, its Italian flavorings recalling Seazer’s Euro progressive score contemporaries Goblin. Other instrumental pieces scattered throughout the album such as “Vinegar Bottle” the second installment of “In Search of a Master”, “Reverse Table” and “Dogs Coronation” continue with the almost horror ambient of the opening piano keys, the later serving as an introduction to “Human Dog”. The album’s first hard detour into metal, “Human Dog” showcases an early example of wretched vocalization with the cast, as the title indicates, barking like dogs over Seazer’s stomping, distorted riffing. Somewhat recalling Seazer’s countrymen Flower Travellin’ Band, “Bandage River” highlights Seazer’s heavy psych stylings and although not quite as metallic, album highlight “Cinderella Maid” is driven by a creeping, weighty bass grove accentuated by piano.
“Cinderella Maid” features the choir vocals that marked many of the tracks on Seazer’s soundtrack to Terayama’s Pastoral: To Die in the Country. The choir and operatic female vocals are prominent throughout Nuhikun in selections like “Gacelas on the Other Side of the Mirror”, “Huang He Sisters”, “Singing Wardrobe” and “The Maid Servants Opera”. The piano during the outro of the later sounding interestingly like the into to Genesis’ “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”, seguing into “The Last Supper”, Seazer ending the precedings as he began, with eerie piano.
Directions to Servants was first performed by Seazer’s Ban’yū Inryoku in 1989 who then took the production to Europe in 1990 (15). Ever since the production has more-or-less become the troupes signature piece with numerous performances throughout the years in Japan. Seazer and Ban’yū Inryoku took the production to Brazil in 2015 and even Hong Kong in 2019. The irony of the timing considering the political situation in Hong Kong not lost on anybody (16), though perhaps the timing was perfect given the temperament of Terayama, the play and the source material. Seazer and Ban’yū Inryoku also staged Directions to Servants in Poland the same year, celebrating 100 years of diplomacy between Poland and Japan (17). There was also a bit of humorous irony in staging such a play for an celebration between two governments, though perhaps the performance was ultimately Terayama having the last laugh. The Polish performance was in invitation from the InlanDimensions International Arts Festival (18) which is where the photography adorning the Devoted Art Propaganda release originates, giving buyers of the vinyl a good visual idea of the sights of Tenjō Sajiki kept alive by Ban’yū Inryoku. While the visuals and music in Directions to Servants are intrinsically linked, Seazer’s compositions are as independently vivid and evocative, the lack of a greater visual component not at all a hindrance to unaccustomed listeners. With the efforts of Devoted Art Propaganda, there should be little to no hindrance for listeners either unfamiliar or well-versed well in Seazer to access Nuhikun – Directions to Servants, an essential representation of the equally essential sonic side of Terayama and Tenjō Sajiki’s revolution of the senses.
1. Armstrong, Elizabeth L. Introduction to “The Crimson Thread of Abandon”. MerwinAsia. July 31, 2014.
2. “Shuji Terayama | TateShots”. April 26, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IPovpcxwXg&t=143s
3, 6, 14. BBC Arena: Tenjō Sajiki. 1978.
4. Rayns, Tony. “Where the mountain meets the street: Terayama Shuji.” BFI. August 3, 2017.
5. Sas, Miryam. “Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Engagement, Encounter and Imagined Return.” Harvard University Asia Center. 2010.
7-8. Sorgenfrei, Carol Fischer. “Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theater of Terayama Shūji and Postwar Japan.” University of Hawaii Press. 2005.
9, 12, 15-18. Nikodem Karolak. 2021.
13. Les Editions de Londres. 2015.
(i) Terayama’s 1979 short film Grass Labyrinth (Kusa meikyū, 草迷宮) was the centerpiece of the anthology film Private Collections (Collections privées, 1979) which included Borowczyk’s short L’armoire (The Wardrobe) along Just Jaeckin’s L’île aux sirènes (Island of the Sirens). As noted by Daniel Bird, the leading name on Borowczyk in the commentary track to the Kino Lorber release of Borowczyk’s Love Rites (Cérémonie d’amour, 1987), Borowczyk had in fact turned the down the opportunity to direct what would develop years later into Terayama’s Fruits of Passion, the rights to the sequel to The Story of O, as opposed to The Story of O itself, having been optioned by the producer.
(ii) Curiously none of Seazer’s scores for either Terayama’s films or Tenjō Sajiki productions were ever issued under the “Tenjō Sajiki Records” banner, Seazer’s albums typically released by the Japanese wings of labels such as Victor, Columbia or CBS/Sony. In truth Tenjō Sajiki Records was a bit of shell company, the actual records pressed and distributed by other labels. Tenjō Sajiki Records releases include the likes of Naomi: The Inferno of First Love (Hatsukoi Jigoku Hen, 初恋地獄篇), a 1970 recording of a radio play co-written by Terayama which had been turned into a feature film in 1968 directed by Susumu Hani. Hatsukoi Jigoku Hen featured a track with Tenjō Sajiki member Carmen Maki who recorded many Terayama-penned songs, the most famous being “Sometimes Like a Motherless Child” (Toki Niwa Haha No Nai Ko No Yo, 時には母のない子のように). Seazer’s 1972 non-soundtrack album Baramon was also a Tenjō Sajiki Records release as was a live recording of a 1970 performance of Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets.