Japanese avant-garde writer, poet, playwright, and photographer Shuji Terayama died of nephritis on May 4, 1983, at the age of 47. During his brief time on earth, the prolific Terayama published almost 200 literary works, produced 20 films, and staged more than 30 theater productions. His provocative and controversial plays were performed by his theater company, Tenjo Sajiki, breaking down the traditions of a conformist and homogenous Japan while addressing the country’s social issues.
In 1970 Terayama brought Tenjo Sajiki to New York to perform La Marie Vison at La MaMa ETC, and ten years later he returned to La MaMa to direct the play Directions to Servants. After Terayama’s death, La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart held a memorial service in his honor.
The spirit of Terayama returns to New York on January 21, when world-famous Tokyo underground theater group Ryuzanji Company stages the counterculture hero’s musical comedy HANAFUDA DENKI at HERE. Co-sponsored by New York-based multi-disciplinary theater company Crossing Jamaica Avenue, HANAFUDA DENKI is set at a funeral parlor in Tokyo during the Taisho Era. A dead girl falls in love with a living man, prompting her father, the undertaker and patriarch of the parlor, to take action.
JapanCulture•NYC interviewed Show Ryuzanji, Artistic Director of Ryuzanji Company to discuss the importance of Terayama and their production of HANAFUDA DENKI, more than 45 years after it was written.
JC•NYC: You have performed HANAFUDA DENKI in New York before, so why did you return?
Show Ryozanji: When we brought HANAFUDA DENKI to New York in 2012, we received the Overall Excellence Award at FringeNYC and extremely good reviews from many theater critics such as The New York Times and Time Out. We were actually asked to present this show again at that time, but we couldn’t make it because the world tour of HANAFUDA DENKI was still going on. In the last two years, HANAFUDA DENKI had a show at a Kabuki theater and a Japan tour. Now I’m happy to present this show again in New York, the Mecca of entertainment, with my great touring staff members. I hope New York audiences enjoy this upgraded HANAFUDA DENKI.
JC•NYC: Why did you choose to perform HANAFUDA DENKI, which was written by Shuji Terayama more than 45 years ago, instead of doing a newer piece?
Show Ryozanji: Having many “theatrical” elements such as geometrical movements like Kabuki and Takaraduka Theater, world/Asian music, and costumes and make-up inspired by Japanese animation, I believe a 45-year-old drama can be the most unique musical in the world. And this is HANAFUDA DENKI 2014. Shuji Terayama was a pioneer of Japanese counterculture. You can experience his world and these theatrical elements with your senses.
JC•NYC: Why is it important to introduce Terayama’s work to non-Japanese audiences?
Show Ryozanji: I think the “Japanese view of life and death,” which HANAFUDA DENKI is based on, is a universal concept. As an artist, I’d like to make something that’s difficult to coexist – such as the contradiction of the world and the root of conflict – visible. “Artists can create only half of the drama. Audiences will create the other half of the drama,” said Terayama. I want New York audiences to be involved in HANAFUDA DENKI and enjoy this “dramatic moment’” together.
JC•NYC: How do you describe “Tokyo Underground Theater”?
Show Ryozanji: For me, “Tokyo Underground Theater” is a “present” form of a group of artists that has fought with the hierarchical society and has placed the criticism of the times as their artistic core. As Nanboku Tsuruya, a famous Japanese playwright, predicted, I’m afraid that Japan might go to the Neo-Fascistic direction, where economy dominates everything, everyone becomes more conservative, and “the freedom of expression” is threatened. Theater is an art that can describe and stay with ordinary people in history. Can we, Tokyo Underground Theater, maintain this critical viewpoint against the world in order to win the freedom? Now, the value of Tokyo Underground Theater is being questioned. So, I’d like to declare that we’ll promote Tokyo Underground Theater movement with the spirit of “KABUKU” – being the crazy ones.
Special thanks to Sonoko Kawahara, co-founder of Crossing Jamaica Avenue, for facilitating the interview and to Sachiko Ninomiya for the translation.
HANAFUDA DENKI will show at HERE (145 6th Avenue at Dominick Street) from Tuesday, January 21 through Sunday, January 26. For details and to purchase tickets, please visit HERE’s website.