Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
The Glass Ceiling of Artistic Innovation – Causes and Conditions.
Case Study: Shūji Terayama’s Den’en ni shisu (1974)
Abstract: This study is focused on the politics of gender of avant-garde reflected in an experimental film by renowned Japanese artist Shūji Terayama. I address the possibility of innovation and revolution within the limits of a patriarchal paradigm. The primary framework of my interpretation consists of the poststructuralist literary analysis of scholar Susan Suleiman on European avant-garde (1990), but also critical theory by Henry A. Giroux and Taro Nettleton. Based on this approach, I reconstruct the causes and conditions which assisted the specific ideology displayed by this film.
Keywords: Art and Politics; Gender; Gynophobia; Japanese avant-garde; Film Theory.
Art and politics intersect in multiple ways. In the introduction of a book on cultural theory dealing with the ideology conveyed through Disney motion pictures, the editor Lynda Hass cites the explanation given by Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner related to the psychological and cultural effect of film “as certain specific rhetoric and representation techniques which, when internalized, give rise to particular ways of constructing (perceiving and acting in) the social world”. On a primary level, art is political because it can challenge, confirm or substitute the understanding of subjectivity in the social and political setting. It stands as an important player in the game of cultural determinism: „Culture becomes a crucial site and weapon of power in the modern world”. Although recent, around 90 years old, motion pictures represent in our post-modern, post-industrial society one of the most popular artistic expressions, offering an easily accessible reservoir of models. Henry A. Giroux, renowned scholar and founder of critical pedagogy, explains it through film offering at the same time pleasure and knowledge. He views film as text of public pedagogy, which shapes individual agency, builds representations of public spaces and mirrors the dominant ideology. In the article “Private Satisfactions and Public Disorders: Fight Club, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Masculine Violence”, Henry A. Giroux combines social commentary with film interpretation to ilustrate the entanglement between artistic practices and social and personal identity. The author debates the solution and the social critique provided by seemingly revolutionary movies which generate cult following among youth. He is interested in bringing light on problematic ideas that go unnoticed because they are common sense in the ideological environment of the spectator and insists they may have undesired consequences for the vision of social change and transformation. In the text mentioned before, the author suggests current social circumstances would profit by social equity and justice, yet the insurgency of the film, despite overt criticism of consumerism and capitalism (associated with the feminization of culture), actually legitimizes the conservative attitude of neoliberal mythology centred on individualism, rising fascism and sexism. This article prompted for me to further question the relationship between insurgency, art and negative representations of femininity.
“A site of cultural politics”, films tie the personal to the political. In a book on feminism and media, Sue Thornham justifies the important concern of feminist studies for the relationship between representations of femininity in cultural texts and the lives of flesh-and-blood women. These representations contribute to the formation and positioning of gendered individual identities. I began to question in a similar fashion a Japanese film, made in 1974 by avant-gardist author Shûji Terayama, Den-en ni shisu. I wanted to explore the social and artistic politics of representing the body of the Mother as a symbol for the retrograde, the dismissible, the unwanted.
Susan Suleiman, Harvard professor of comparative literature, aimed to offer a more thorough theory of the avant-garde by taking into account “the poetics of gender”. Subversive Intent consists of 8 essays combining gender theory with psychoanalytic, poststructuralist and postmodernist literary criticism of texts written by acclaimed avant-gardes artists (Alain Robbe-Grillet, Georges Bataille) and their lesser-known feminine counterparts (Leonora Carrington, Monique Wittig, Hélène Cixous, Jeanette Winterson etc.). She maintains reading is a political activity which confirms or disputes the status quo and interpretation can alter the future. It’s not farfetched, considering the explicit political statements of most avant-garde currents. Her speculations on the avant-garde provided a useful framework for my comprehension of the cinematographic discourse in question.
Peter Bürger states the original avant-gardist project was to challenge art as institution and make it part of everyday life. Avant-garde is about confrontation, revolution, contradiction. According to Susan Suleiman its core features are artistic experimentation, critique of tradition and of ideology. The stereotypes about Japan revolve around homogeneity and exoticism. The indigenous avant-garde film rebelled against these stereotypes undermining American authority, which represented a troubling force during the ‘60s. Another target was domestic social and ethical principles like group solidarity against individual desires, with its emotional drawbacks. What the avant-garde of the 60’s seemed to miscomprehend was that tradition is also patriarchal. Taking this into consideration, to what extent are their cultural products in a relationship of complicity with the dominant ideology?. Blind spots related to power and ideology are frequent in regard of gender. This is why I agree “a genuine theory of the avant-garde must include a poetics of gender”. Still, there is the question of how to conduct a feminist critique without being reductive. According to Suleiman, a proper feminist reading will take into account the medium of the message, but will also challenge the imaginary content according to sexual politics. An important issue here is the revolutionary potential, in form and in concept, of the avant-gardist practices that are restrained by unacknowledged patriarchal discourse.
Most of the Japanese avant-garde artists of the ‘60s were involved in politics, mostly left-wing radicalism and most of the times they were responding in art to the nefariousness of current social affairs. The avant-garde of these years was well aware of its instrumentality in “shaping political subjects”. History has confirmed reference traits such as: radical self-affirmation, accent on heterogeneity, new modes of creation, antiestablishment, violent rupture with tradition, reflexivity on its medium of expression, collage of techniques and modes of discourse, parody, a move from individual creation to group art, dissolution of boundary between spectator and art, between artistic spaces and public spaces.
In a dissertation thesis on Japanese underground art of the ‘60s, Taro Nettleton states that underground cinema became the most popularized form of avant-garde. The author insists on the effect it had for the redefinition of subjectivity. Other than that, important output came from the critique of modernism, of capitalist mythology (characterised by linear temporality and the oedipal narrative). In explaining what is typical to this cinema, Nettleton cautions that at that moment there was no “overground”. The influence from the West was strong and Japanese cinema was “a product of cultural intercourse”. Yet, what was imported from the West morphed on Japanese ground. One particular feature of the artists of the time was self-exoticization through pre-modern aesthetics as a revolt against modernity brought about by USA.
The focus of my text is one of the films of Shūji Terayama. He was one of the few who could be both an avant-garde artist and a public figure. His artistic work is up till now applauded, admired and controversial. He is considered a revolutionary both in form and in theory. Best known for theatre, poetry and underground film, his criticism is appreciated too. For me, Den-en ni shisu (1974) is a representative case for a resistant style which stays traditional due to its patriarchal overtones. In the following lines I will focus on the film itself.
Case study: Den-en ni shisu (1974)
Pastoral: To Die in the Country (Den-en ni shisu) renders in motion picture the third volume of tanka poetry by Terayama. It is also based on a collection of semi-autobiographical essays entitled Tareka Kokyo wo Omowazaru (Who doesn’t think of his home).
The film stabilizes the tension between impulse to revolt, expressed through laughter and parody, and nostalgia for tradition, for the original energy of the community and its customs, manifested stylistically through pastiche. Thematically and politically, the film promotes a technique of self-liberation. The problematic aspect is the negative connotations of femininity which limit the “adversary possibilities” of this artistic manifestation. In the following lines I intend to describe the historical specifics and intertextual relationship of the film. The main determinant for me are the ethical implications of the film for the female spectator whose identity possibilities are reduced, in Sue Thornham’s words, to the classical position of “sexual object, monster or obstacle”.
The instigation to freedom is conveyed through content strategies such as: violence, carnivalesque, parody, metafiction. In terms of style, the transgressive is applied through techniques like: pastiche and psychedelia. The film undermines linear narration and plays with cultural representations. When Suleiman discusses Alain Robbe-Grillet, she specifically states her principle not to fall in the “referential reading” trap, by imposing external order and coherence on a text which dispels it. I want to follow the same code in the following summary. It’s a story of coming-of-age and conflict. Contextual topics rendered in picture are the perception on the family, post-war trauma, tradition and modernity. The story is about a child raised by a single mother in a village. The Father is absent, he died in war, yet the mother takes on his attributes. She is domineering, neurotic, emotionally dependent. Incest is emotional. She is obstructing the normal development of the son. She is “the childhood millstone” and “for a man to get on his first train he must kill his mother first” (from the dialogue between the teenage ego and the adult self of the narrator from Den-en ni shisu, scene where they play chess). This child is a memory of the fictionalised artist who tries to objectify and detach himself from the past in order to become free. Filming becomes an exercise in emancipation. In the middle, the film is interrupted by the acknowledgement of another layer of the narrative – that of the movie director. The film ends with the collapse of boundaries between the imagined setting and modern Tokyo life. The allegory suggests the need for contemporary Japanese to take to heart the message to self-liberate from corruption and oppression, embodied through the trope of the mother.
It is relevant this issue was actually diagnosed as a psychiatric syndrome in the ‘90s under the tag “mazakon” (the disease of masculinity having to do with a mother complex). According to Katherine S. Newman, Japanese psychiatrists explained the perceived immaturity of the new generation as a result of the general neuroticism of women. The archetype of the consuming-demonic mother was easily accessible from the cultural landscape, says Newman.
The duality of the female nature is a frequent trope around the world to justify its inferiority. Kenneth Alan Adams traces psycho-historical explanations for the demonization of woman in Japan, beginning with archaic mythology. He makes reference to the practice of mabiki, a strategy of population regulation through infanticide. He cites sociological studies which document the extensive abuse on children in the history of Japan. Traditionally, Japan is a patriarchal society. Women may have expressed their dissatisfaction through abusing others who were less able than themselves, the children. In the home, gynarchi ruled the family system because men were afraid to take part to the domestic life to avoid being contaminated with femininity. At the outset of late XIXth century, the same as in Europe, capitalist economy changed social relations. Modernization affected values. Women’s union were organized and they began to change their status. This alteration in social relations challenged the status-quo and the collective mentality reacted with fictions about demon-women. Interwar Japan was troubled by the modern woman. She was the symbol of Western culture. She brought “diminution of male authority.” The culture was contaminated by “feminization” according to Lloyd deMause and Barbara Sato.
In the post-war era, the pressure on the community amplified and the demand to accommodate to democratic values implied alteration of gender norms. In a referential reading, Den-en ni shisu displays reactionary content to this crisis of masculine subjectivity. The foundational narrative of the film can be linked to another nationwide tension – the rapport with the USA. Critics noted a general narrative of infantilization. “Not only children, but the entire nation is infantilized by the state.” (Katherine S. Newman, 2012). The collective trauma was recounted in misogynistic language. This threat of feminization was underlined by Yoshikuni Igarashi, expert in Japanese cultural studies. The submission of the Emperor put Japan in a feminized role under American tutelage. Femininity was associated with consumerism, promotion of self-gratification and open sexuality, the plagues of USA. Shūji Terayama published and read in public from an essay called Iederon, Theory of running away from home. Nettleton cites a fragment where the author explains his destructive relationship with his mother paralleling it with the condition of the Japanese state. Historically, Japan was understood through the model of the family. The nation-state was structured as a family. The emperor was the patriarch. The mother’s civic duty was to raise the child according to the law. In this logic, mother becomes synonymous with the forceful weapon of an oppressive authority. The crises was national because the post-war family system changed due to „increased number of nuclear families, crowded housing conditions, the influence of media as a source of information, and the father’s relatively weakened financial position”. The figure of the mother becomes a personification of persecution. The rebellious son rejects „family structures and rules of filiation but stays phallocentric”. The revolution is incomplete.
Depreciation of mothers is not unique to Japan or to this artist. In her essays, Susan Suleiman presents the Oedipal quest as the paradigmatic narrative structure of Western art. It is a misogynistic construction because only the male is put in a subject position. The body of the mother represents the object of displacement for the antagonism between father and son. The Japanese version is the Ajase complex. A more aggressive version is the Evil Mother, as “upholder of the father’s law”, exemplified by Susan Suleiman even through feminist fictions like that of Monique Wittig or Jeanette Winterson. Then there is the passive version from the Greek myth of Orestes who, in the words of the protagonist, is just a womb for the active seed of the father. In one of the theorizing moments from the film, the character alter-ego of the director affirms “if you can’t control your dreams or edit your memories you are still not a true creator” (Den-en ni shisu). Fiction is theorised as strategy for self-liberation from the burden of the past. He takes the decision to go back in time 20 years ago, to experiment with the limits of his identity if his mother were killed. It is a fantasy of self-engenderement (a notion put forward by Susan Suleiman in her essay on reading Robbe-Grilet, p. 68) which fits a system that scapegoats women.
The film in itself offers multiple surprises and aesthetic pleasures. The avant-garde frequently questioned the boundary between fiction and reality. Not only in this movie, but in others by the same director, characters address directly the viewer. The film is organised as a surreal – psychedelic experience, a trip through memory. He tries to convince his teenage self to kill the mother as he should have done when he saw her in the arms of another man (the firefly incident). The ideology of desire depicted in the film is based on psychoanalysis. Like many other artists from his generation, Terayama appropriates and comments on psychoanalytic symbolism.
Other specific content disclose the intention to liberate through art. The pornographic imagery is one of them. Defying sexual taboos became a convention of subverting Order. Parodic perversion – overt sexual scenes, lurking in the background, more direct allusions are typical for the avant-garde and especially for Japanese avant-garde. The imagery can be connected with bakhtinian carnivalesque, too. One layer of the narrative dwells inside a circus, as a place upside down, beyond constrictions.
Stylistically, innovation is constructed through pastiche-– the imitation of a distinct, unique style – Japanese folk performing arts – as means to revive modern theatre and intertextual reference to European filmmakers. It is a technique of collaging various discourses. The technique imitates, but dismisses the historical specifics. It is also a strategy to reject Americanization. Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, the author of one of the few academic studies on Shuji Terayama, evaluates this technique as an aspiration to return to a more authentic energy.
This study questions the ethical and artistic implications of using the trope of the Mother as symbol for oppression. My aim was to explore the historical and intertextual context of the underground Japanese film Den-en ni shisu in the lineage of feminist critique which challenges the subject positions relegated to women even by revolutionary artists. From an ethical standpoint, I wanted to expose the limited narrative subjectivities available to women in a patriarchal discourse. Another scope was to enforce the political position of Susan Suleiman which incites to a new vision of art, one which will necessarily be feminist.
Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, “Deadly Love: Mothers, Whores, and Other Demonic Females in Japanese Theatre”, in Contemporary Theatre Review no.1.2, 1994, p.77-84.
Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells (eds.), From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Indiana University Press, 1995.
Katherine S. Newman, The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition. Beacon Press, 2012.
Kenneth Alan Adams, “Modernization and Dangerous Women in Japan”, in Journal of Psychohistory 37, no.1, 2009.
Henry A. Giroux, “Breaking into the Movies: Pedagogy and the Politics of Film”, in JAC, 2001, p. 583-598.
Henry A. Giroux, “Private Satisfactions and Public Disorders: Fight Club, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Masculine Violence”, in JAC, 2001, p. 1-31.
Hiroshi Wagatsuma, “Some Aspects of the Contemporary Japanese Family: Once Confucian, Now Fatherless?”, in Daedalus, Vol. 106, No. 2, The Family (Spring, 1977), p. 181-210.
Norimasa Morita, “Avant-garde, Pastiche, and Media Crossing: Films of Terayama Shuji”, 2006, p. 53-58.
Shogo Miura, Shall We Dance?: A Comparative Analysis of a Japanese Film and Its American Remake, Diss. San Jose State University, 2008.
Sue Thornham, Women, Feminism and Media. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Taro F. Nettleton, Throw Out the Books, Get Out in the Streets: Subjectivity and Space in Japanese Underground Art of the 1960s, Diss. University of Rochester, 2010.
 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, cited in Taro Nettleton, Throw Out the Books, Get Out in the Streets: Subjectivity and Space in Japanese Underground Art of the 1960s, Diss. University of Rochester, 2010, Introduction, p. 14.
 “Terayama recounted how his mother, after threatening to kill him if he escaped, explained that she had an obligation to the nation to raise him. „There was a reason”, Terayama wrote, “that my mother said for the nation, rather than‚ for the home’. Before the war, with the Emperor as our tie to the nation, kokka and ie [home] were equivalents. Kokka was considered one’s head family while one’s own family was considered a branch family of kokka.“ (Nettleton, Throw Away the Books, ch. 2, p. 111).
 “Misogynistic and gynophobic tendencies in traditional and contemporary Japanese culture represent to certain male artists an authentic, pre‐Buddhist, pre‐Shinto Japanese soul.” (Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, “Deadly Love: Mothers, Whores, and Other Demonic Females in Japanese Theatre”, in Contemporary Theatre Review no.1.2, 1994, p. 77-84).