|[The following essay, my submission for the Avant-garde blog-a-thon, is a reworking/abridgement of an article I wrote several years ago on the films of Shuji Terayama for the magazine Cashiers du Cinemart.]|
A group of pre-pubescent children clad in military uniforms rebel against their parents and begin hunting adults. A choir of schoolgirls strips while singing 'when I grow up to be a whore'. A young man struggles in vain to break through his cousin's chastity belt. These are but a sampling of images culled from the mind of revolutionary poet, playwright, and filmmaker Shuji Terayama. Virtually unknown in this country (the exception being 1981's Fruits of Passion, an uncharacteristically mainstream bit of erotica with Klaus Kinski), Terayama was a major figure in the heady wave of Japanese experimental cinema in the 1970s.
Born in 1936, Terayama spent a good portion of his formative years in hospital being treated for nephritis (the disease that would ultimately kill him). It was there that he began writing Tanka poetry, while at the same time developing a voracious appetite for books. His most significant discovery was the French surrealists, particularly Lautréamont, whose Les Chants de Maldoror was to have a tremendous and lasting impact on his art (including a short film adaptation of the poetic novel in 1977). Though he continued to write poetry, he soon took to composing 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' riff 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 the name of a Stereolab album), Emperor Tomato Ketchup is one of Terayama's most challenging and controversial works. Lacking a conventional narrative, the film's rough, often over-exposed imagery at times resembles a home movie gone horribly wrong. Set in a Japan where 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:
But what of the film's sexual politics? Here we find the earliest example of a major theme that will recur through nearly all his films — the oedipal nature of a mother-son relationship tied to 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 whom Amos Vogel describes as "magical…yet protectively maternal."
|Emperor Tomato Ketchup isn't an easy film to watch. Its lo-fi realism and non-diegetic soundtrack only aid in enhancing the already taboo nature of the film — as if we've just discovered a 16mm roll of film buried in an attic that we're not meant to be watching. The children in the film appear to be having fun with the mayhem, but that doesn't reduce the chilling effect of seeing them play ping-pong over a bound and gagged nude woman, dragging a charred corpse through the streets, or cutting off the head of a chicken. The sex in the film is uncomfortably graphic, and it has prompted some to (unjustly) cry child pornography. There's nothing stimulating about Terayama's negative utopia, and the exploration of taboos, including incest and childhood sexuality, can be found in nearly all of Terayama's works. As revolutionary objects, these early films were intentionally provocative.|
If, as it has been suggested, the function of the avant-garde is to disturb the established order and to "keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence" (Clement Greenberg, Partisan Review, 1939), then this is very much in keeping with Terayama's ideals, though he was less interested in bringing about change in the art world than he was the real one. 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. An exaggerated form of this idea is at the core of Emperor Tomato Ketchup.
Equal parts anarchy and poetry, Emperor Tomato Ketchup is Terayama using the cinematic canvas to create a work that is revolutionary in both form and spirit.