Books | THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Japan shattered stereotypes in the '60s

by Donald Richie

ANGURA: Posters of the Japanese Avant-Garde, by David G. Goodman, with a foreword by Ellen Lupton. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999, 92 pp., 90 color plates, 17 b/w, $19.95.

The 1960s was a time of extraordinary creativity in the arts in Tokyo. As Alexandra Munroe has said, it was “undoubtedly the most creative outburst of anarchistic, subversive and riotous tendencies in the history of modern Japanese culture.”

There was the “angura” (underground) theater of Shuji Terayama, Juro Kara and Makoto Sato, the dance of Tatsumi Hijikata, the films of Susumu Hani and Nagisa Oshima. All of these artists and the many more who filled the venues of that time had grown up in the midst of the extraordinary freedom created by the chaos of the immediate postwar period.

They believed that anarchy is conducive to creativity and set about dismantling what corporate culture they could get hold of.

The counterculture movement was worldwide, and healthily subversive groups battled governmental constraint and consumerist intentions on many fronts in both Europe and the United States.

In Japan, as Ellen Lupton has explained, artists resisted old-fashioned, international-style “modernity” and “sought erotic rejuvenation in the indigenous arts of Japan, whose forms and iconography they aggressively combined with elements of Western popular culture.”

And splendidly aggressive it was. I remember the 1967 premiere of Kara’s “John Silver.” It turns out that after “Treasure Island,” the one-armed hero set off for Japan, got a job as scrubber on the ladies’ side of the Benten public bath, is living in happy poverty with his innumerable children under the Tokyo-Yokohama superhighway, but comes to the red tent at Hanazono Shrine to entertain us.

And Terayama’s 1969 “La Marie Vision,” where the lovely heroine is discovered in the tub as the Shinjuku Bunka curtain rises, having her armpits shaved by the butler. And as it descends, the tub is overturned and a naked man, her victim, rolls into the footlights.

And Hijikata inventing butoh before our eyes in the 1965 “La Danse en Rose,” held in a crematorium. And at the Sasoriza, a very old lady standing up, black parasol erect, as she — Kazuo Ono, of course, mind going but heart intact — remembers the Taisho days of l’Argentina.

Kara said “I want to shock people out of their routine lives,” and so he did. He gave us Oedipus sired by Dracula, Ophelia by Frankenstein, pop samurai Jirocho from Shimizu, laying anything he could. Manon Lescaut arrived in Shinjuku with only a pair of fresh panties in her reticule and is soon the toast of the Diet. Chased by the cops, Kara took to his red tent. There was a black tent, too, where Sato gave his “Shakespearean version” of “The Rat: Nezumi Kozo.”

Terayama held plays in public baths, (“please leave clothes at the door,”) or bused his audience to a different locale for each act. Tadashi Suzuki took the Waseda Little Theater, eventually, to the mountain village of Toga, eight full hours from Tokyo.

Since international “modernity,” with its fixation on the orderly, the rational and the profitable, was to be opposed, a premodern Japan was sought. The world that surfaced in the late ’60s was a universe of vanished popular culture: ormolu, feathered boas, the Victor dog, ice-cream Fuji, striped country kimono, Betty-Boop bobs, bright, innocent colors, hard cartoon-like drawings, a pre-pop Pop.

The look was captured (and to an extent created) by the posters of Yokoo Tadanori. It was he who in 1969 so thoroughly disrupted the deliberations at the Japan Advertising Artists Club that no prizes were awarded that year. He, Hirono Koga and many others revolutionized the advertising poster.

Their posters were not, of course, intended to advertise. They wanted to define, to identify. Often they were not even ready until the day of the performance and, in any case, they were usually too large to post in space-starved Tokyo. A few ended up in such counterculture coffee shops as the Shinjuku Fugetsudo, but many (says David Goodman) “wound up on lavatory ceilings — the only vacant spaces available.”

And they are all that is left of that wonderful decade. Terayama, hounded by the conservative press, died at 47. Others dropped away. A sign of the end came when Seibu opened its Shibuya theater, setting off an entertainment-structure boom throughout Japan. Under its Parco label, it began merchandising counterculture. Kara now had a comfortable theater with a capacity of nearly 500 for his later work.

Issey Miyake was eventually to command an entire museum show. Tokyo Designers Space rounded up nearly 100 designers. Eika Ishioka designed corporate identity posters for Parco featuring Faye Dunaway. Disneyland was already under construction.

With everyone incorporated, defected or dead, nothing would be left of the decade (so intensively were counterculture attributes turned into standard product) were it not for a few long memories and the work of Goodman.

Editor of the journal Concerned Theater, author of “Japanese Drama and Culture in the 1960s,” and currently professor of Japanese literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he has kept us informed and interested.

It was he who put together a show of these posters that traveled to various museums including the Cooper-Union and the Smithsonian Institution. This well-designed and beautifully written book is the program, and it is now available to all of us.

It contains reproductions of the posters, descriptions of authors, directors and works; a glossary and bibliography, as well as biographies; and a chronology that gives us information that would otherwise have been lost. Open the pages and experience a vanished world that, from the standpoint of our homogenous, regular, corporate culture, seems wonderful indeed.

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