Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

August 16, 2008

Book Review: "Kaleidoscope, selected tanka of Shuji Teruyama"

Terayama Shuji (1935-1983) was Japan's infant-terrible of the sixties of the last century. Genius, avant-gardist, iconoclast, photographer, director, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, cultural critic and poet. In his time, his work incited scandal and outrage. Today, he is a cult hero. In his all-too short life, he wrote 200 literary works and made 20 short and long experimental films (the most famous is Denen ni shinisu or "Pastoral: To die in the country"). Terayama was obsessed with the borders between fiction and reality.

Although best known as a playwright (see for some translations and an analysis Unspeakable Acts listed below), Terayama was also an excellent poet. He started writing tanka in his teens and even won an award for emerging tanka poets. His tanka are unique in that they are not based on his own experience, but should be seen as fiction, as scenes from a play or a film. He did have complex emotions, however, as he was an only child whose father had not returned from the war, and whose mother - he claimed - had abandoned him. He grew up with family in Aomori and as his uncle owned a movie theater, he saw countless films until he moved to Tokyo in 1954.

Terayama's first tanka collection was published in 1958, when he was 22. After his third collection, published in 1964, he switched definitively to the theater - in 1967 he set up his own experimental theater company. His films and theater productions went on to win several international prizes.

The Hokuseido Press has published a beautiful book with 201 translations of Terayama's tanka poems. They have been expertly translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden and both Japanese and English versions are included in the book. It is a lavishly illustrated publication. (The Hokuseido Press is a publisher of language text books. In the past, they have also published the haiku books by R.H. Blyth, a series I would like to see in print again!).

To give an impression of Terayama's haiku, here are a few characteristic ones from Kaleidoscope:
I come to believe after all
I look like
my dead father,
shaving my face
on the day swallows appear

[naki chichi ni | kakute nite-yuku | ware naran ka | tsubame kuru hi mo | hige sorinagara]

let's sever
my stinky blood relationship
the winter axe is placed
upside down
in a sunny spot

[namagusaki | ketsuen tatan | hiatari ni | sakasa ni tatete aru | fuyu no ono]

on my wall I stick
the corpse of a winter butterfly -
this should be
the family crest
of a deserted child

[waga hei ni | fuyu-choo no kabane wo | haritsukete | sutego-kakei no | mon to suru beshi]

Kaleidoscope was published to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Terayama's death. These forceful tanka are warmly recommended to all poetry lovers.
Kaleidoscope, Selected Tanka of Shuji Terayama, selected by Kozue Uzawa, translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden (The Hokuseido Press, 3-32-4 Honkomagome, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, 2008). Unfortunately, the book is not listed on Amazon, so I give full contact details for the publisher. I found  my copy in the foreign books section of Junkudo in Temmabashi, Osaka.

Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-garde Theatre of Terayama Shuji And Postwar Japan by Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei (Hawaii University Press, 2005)