Thirty years on from the death of Shuji Terayama, Japanese theater’s most avant-garde provocateur continues his renaissance with a show of his films, photography and, most importantly, theater works at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, which follows on from the recent showing of printed ephemera at the Poster Hari’s gallery in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.

Shrugging convention from an early age, Terayama used his own personal form of art, theater and film to renounce social norms. His obsession with taking his own picture as a child evolved into writing poetry, and in Tokyo, when writing essays for his own brand of taishu engeki (theater for the masses), he invited photographer Daido Moriyama to photograph his troupe Tenjo Sajiki, promising to publish the images alongside his own prose. Though the photos were never used as intended, Moriyama later published them under the unspecific title “Japanese Theater.” Terayama’s essays meanwhile remained incomplete.

Encouraged by others, Terayama immersed himself in film and photography, spurred on by supporters who were keen to see him exhibit his work. On display at the Watari-um, his absurdist-art of unsent postcards hang next to an array of films that defy conventions. His 9-minute entry to a shorts film festival, for example, had him submit three films, each three minutes long, all to be played simultaneously.

However, Terayama would ultimately see his talents best represented as a mass choreographer of people. At 3 p.m. on April 19, 1975, he began his most ambitious work to date: “Knock” — 30 hours of live performances through the back streets of Tokyo’s Suginami Ward.

Seeing theater as bourgeois and elitist, he wanted to return it to something more impromptu, unorthodox and honest — and he did so by drawing on fragments of both fact and his imagination, at times merging the two, for each event.

“Invitation to Knock” involved an assembled audience who were given maps that would guide them through 19 performances. Some of these were rehearsed, some impromptu — all required audience participation. It began things with 1,000 leaflets placed in 1,000 copies of that morning’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, each one asking by way of an introduction, “Are you happy with your current reality?”

Other performances included “Letter play” — a set of instructions that promised if followed they would change the lives of those involved. “Map exchanger” had audience members exchange their residency certificates for a map of the area. “Family Relay Broadcast” saw cameras film and broadcast the life of a family to televisions outside where passers-by stood and watched curiously — a strange precursor to today’s reality television. “Audience in Search of the Theater” had a tour guide abandon the spectators, leaving them to wander the streets aimlessly, while the conclusion of the 30-hour marathon would see everyone simply disappear and leave Suginami as the final performance “Moving Out (Epilogue).”

What this all constituted was never clear — was it theater, a happening, a covertly staged event or a group spontaneously coming together? Terayama refused to commit to a definition, claiming that “Knock” was all these things and none of them at the same time.

Despite his avant-garde peers seeing Tenjo Sajiki as merely an echo of experimental European theater, Terayama resolutely pursued an uncompromising, unbridled and spontaneous form of performance. In the case of “Knock,” the audience became masters of their own performance — wandering the back streets in search of female characters, real or otherwise (“Maria of the Toilet”); blindfolded on bus tours of nearby Shinjuku (“Whimsy Bus A” and “Whimsy Bus B”); exchanging elderly relatives (“Spinster Exchange”); party to audience abduction (“Human Boxing”); and witnessing the drama unfold as irritated and disturbed locals call the police to report a case of momentary hedonism (“Incident of Man in Public Bath.”)

Tokyo, its countless shopping complexes and tourist epicenters aside, is often old and labyrinthine, retrofitted rather than rebuilt. It all seems incredibly fragile, and Terayama exploited this. He exposed the city by exploiting the sublime and the ridiculous aspects of the everyday, unafraid that exposing a delicate interior may give way to its eventual disintegration.

It would have been extraordinary if the Watari-um had taken this show outside to engage with Tokyo’s present streets, instead of displaying it inside to explore the past. It’s hard to imagine how these works relate to Japan today, some 38 years later. The former and current city feel like completely different places, strangers to each other. And Terayama remains an outsider, making his 30-hour experiment as potent and visceral as ever — even if it is, at times, hard to follow.

His “laboratory of play” — Terayama’s own description of his theater group as well as words written on a sign that appeared above the entrance to his apartment — is a reference that is vital and relevant as ever. And while his laboratory would later go on to be associated with a more clandestine artistic underground in Japan, the merging of his imagination with a public setting, turning street into stage, makes “Knock” a unique piece of theater that demands another look.

“Shuji Terayama — Knock” at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (Watari-um) runs till Oct. 27; open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Wed. till 9 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. except for Sept. 16, Sept. 23 and Oct. 14. www.watarium.co.jp

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