‘A person receiving letters from an unknown sender… will develop a tense relationship with the ‘hidden half-world’ where the sender resides.’
Shūji Terayama, 1976
Terayama was simultaneously a poet writing in traditional form and a prolific horse-racing commentator whose outrageous predictions, based on word associations and literary allusions to the horse’s names, parodied the game of predicting winners. Not surprisingly, the rich textual and visual imagery of his film and video work contains remarkably diverse combinations of words and images. In Les Chants de Maldoror, Terayama deconstructs Lautréamont’s proto-surrealist book with ‘a reading film’ in which text from the Japanese translation is embedded within delirious imagery juxtaposing the book itself with glowing nude forms and the interaction of human and animal counterparts. The world of Les Chants is a world of fluid frontiers and free flowing forms.
Grass Labyrinth appropriates the look of pre-modern Japanese sideshows for a cinematic fantasia held together by the refrain of an enigmatic tune; a boy on the cusp of manhood is haunted by a lyric his mother sang to him as a child, only to leave the audience with this riddle unanswered.
In Video Letter Terayama and Shuntarō Tanikawa use rudimentary video equipment to compose Renga poetry, an ancient Japanese tradition for the exchange of letters. Terayama and Tanikawa, as senders and receivers, play both parts in this ritual correspondence, which recalls the Letter Drama of Tenjō Sajiki in which the protagonists were simultaneously actors and audience. The writer, Barbara London has described video letter as ‘a kind of epitaph or mourning poem for Terayama’. It was one of his final collaborations, which took place over two years and came to an end with his death in 1983. Renga poetry can be seen as equivalent to the Occidental practice of literary correspondence and in this consumer video variation we can discern a portrait of Terayama that is elegiac against the more familiar image of an explosive enfant terrible.
Les Chants de Maldoror (Marudororu no Uta)
Shūji Terayama, 1977 Japan, 16mm, 27 min
Grass Labyrinth (Kusa-meikyū)
Shūji Terayama, 1983 Japan, 35mm, 40 min
Shūji Terayama & Tanikawa Shuntarō, 1983 Japan, Video, 74 min