Michael Zimmermann on Theater der Überforderung
Around 1967 when Terayama’s underground theater troupe “Tenjô Sajiki” was formed, economic high-growth-era Japan saw the resurgence of a nationwide protest movement. Groups protesting Japan’s complicit role in the Vietnam War linked up with workers, environmentalists, and radical students. The following years saw a mass of demonstrations – peaceful and violent –, occupations of public squares, train stations and universities (at one point approx. 80% of universities were completely or partly barricaded) and bloody clashes between helmet-clad and bludgeon swinging students and the riot police in Tokyo’s commercial centers. In the streets and on campuses students even fought each other, sometimes to death. Terayama was admired by some of the student radicals and was even invited on to a barricaded campus where he spoke with the occupiers (although I read somewhere that he was eventually chased off by angry students after he had somehow offended them).
While most of Japan’s underground theater scene was explicitly politicizing art, Terayama (akin to a nihilist core-group among the student radicals that did not subscribe to any political ideology and instead of fighting police or other factions would rather stage poetry readings or absurd happenings inside the barricaded campuses) refused to engage in meaningful political discussion. His sympathetic stance toward the student radicals during this time can thus be interpreted as him offering support to a youth in revolt against authority more than really joining the political struggles. He would even alienate himself consciously from both the right and the left by shocking the former through the provocative nature of his productions and mocking the latter through satirical articles he wrote for magazines.
During this time Terayama, first mainly as playwright but soon also as director, lead his troupe through a productive early phase that spawned some of Tenjô Sajikis most memorable works such as The Hunchback of Aomori and La Marie-Vision (both 1967). The plays featured a very diverse cast that included at times not only professional actors but also circus performers and showmen of traveling carnivals. Themes were drawn from rural superstition, folklore, the realm of the dreams, and magic. Performance techniques and music borrowed from traditional Japanese genres were juxtaposed with psychedelic rock. Audiences and critics got worked-up over the sexualized imagery they were shown, as well as the unorthodox ways the actors interacted with the onlookers, which sometimes resulted in fist fights and small scale riots in and outside of the theaters. But nevertheless the troupe managed to gather a faithful crowd of followers who would regularly visit the performances. After 1969, these mostly took place in a building located in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. The ornate illuminated façade was created by designer Awazu Kiyoshi, who, alongside iconic artist and graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo, repeatedly collaborated with Tenjô Sajiki.
Tenjô Sajiki Building in Shibuya, façade design by Awazu Kiyoshi
Tadanori Yokoo: Tenjô Sajiki members recruiting poster, 1967
During the first period of Theater der Überforderung Terayama’s short film The Cage (1964) filled one of the large rooms on the upper floor of Kunsthalle Zürich with an intense green light and the sounds of a continuously playing repetitive bass-heavy rock theme. The film shows actors performing routines. Together with footage of a human figure serving as a sundial and the recurring image of a broken clock, these repetitive actions make the film itself into a time telling medium, and thus turned the room in the upper floor of the Kunsthalle Zürich into a mesmerizing waiting room. On the opposite wall the grinning mouth logo of Tenjô Sajiki was the only other thing to look at.
Now, since late April, actors and crew have begun to work on their interpretation of the play. Performances take place every week, between which the troupe can be seen rehearsing, working on stage props and participating in intense discussions.