The Spectacular, Wild World of Tenjo Sajiki and its Posters

Playwright, director, poet, novelist, provocateur: Shuji Terayama (1935-83) was a multi-faceted artist and a leader — perhaps THE leader — of the underground theatre scene (angura) in Japan during the Sixties and Seventies. Probably best known in the West as an experimental film director, Terayama was the head of a iconoclastic and often controversial troupe called Tenjo Sajiki. The name literally means “upper balcony” but comes from the Japanese title for the Marcel Carné film ‘Les enfants du paradis’.

Terayama was really different. He was heavily influenced by European artists and he always seemed to go one step further than his counterculture peers. His theatrical projects and films employed a host of shocking images, mixing taboos, the grotesque, all thrown together in a cheeky, playful way. Tenjo Sajiki’s frequently employed subtitle translates as “experimental theatre laboratory”. Terayama was part magician and part scientist, concocting scandals and freak shows.

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[Left] Poster for German performance of ‘Der Gott der Hunde’ (Inugami, The Dog God) (1969), Kiyoshi Awazu, silkscreen. At the time, this was the first overseas production by a contemporary Japanese theatre troupe and Awazu’s poster emphasizes the exotic.
[Right] Poster for ‘The Little Prince’ (Hoshi no ouji-sama) (1968), Aquirax Uno, silkscreen

The posters for Tenjo Sajiki’s productions reflect this anarchic atmosphere. Currently running at Poster Hari’s Gallery is an exhibition of all the major performance posters by the troupe. It is part of a series of celebrations for Terayama: this year marks thirty years since his death, plus the fortieth anniversary of Parco’s opening in Shibuya, whose theatre early on hosted Tenjo Sajiki’s work. Parco recently held a mini Terayama “film poetry exhibition” and some of his films have also just been released on Blu-ray. The current production at the Parco Theater is a revival of , a play from Terayama’s late period. Even Tower Records is getting in on the act; Shibuya Station’s Yamanote Line platform features a famous image of the playwright as part of the retailer’s ‘No music, no life’ advertising series.

Poster Hari’s is a small gallery in Dogenzaka, Shibuya. Its name comes from haru, to put up a poster, so not surprisingly the company handles posters and such advertising for theatre companies. It started up just as Terayama died, depriving the CEO of his dream to join Tenjo Sajiki. Luckily, at the same time, with the growth of commercial theatre in Japan, posters started to be handled by outside PR firms rather than individual designers attached to troupes, as was the case for the angura era. The perfect moment to start a poster design company.

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[Left] Poster for ‘Shuji Terayama & Tenjo Sajiki: All Posters’ Exhibition at Poster Hari’s Gallery
[Right] Poster for Parco’s recent Shuji Terayama ‘film poetry exhibition’

Poster Hari’s Company works with Terayama’s widow to archive Tenjo Sajiki’s output and other posters from the angura period. It also handles the maintenance now of the Shuji Terayama Museum in Aomori, as well as managing the rights to productions of Terayama’s plays through the Terayama World company. Every May at around the anniversary of Terayama’s death it holds a poster exhibition, though this time, being three decades since the artist died, the event is more ambitious, showcasing around forty posters of Tenjo Sajiki productions, including some unusual examples from overseas performances that were likely done by local designers.

The current exhibition is just the theatre posters, though it is packed with iconic work by the likes of Tadanori Yokoo, Kiyoshi Awazu and Aquirax Uno. Theatre posters today are rarely this big and will normally feature photographs of the stars, as opposed to such striking graphics. Fringe theatre now favors flyers and leaflets, which can be distributed to lots of people. Tokyo has always had limited wall space and it is only in a place like Shimokitazawa that you can find lots of theatre posters decorating the streets as both advertising and a form of public art.

shuji terayama tenjo sajiki posters
[Left] Recruitment poster for Tenjo Sajiki by Tadanori Yokoo (1967), silkscreen. Note the snake-charmer in the bottom right and the sinking ship on the horizon. ‘Jun’ is an advertisement for a retail chain that sponsored Tenjo Sajiki.
[Right] Poster for ‘Throw out your books, head out to the streets’ (Sho o suteyo! machi e deyo!’) (1969), Masamichi Oikawa, silkscreen. This is the poster for the original theatre ‘docudrama’ that then became an influential experimental film. The black armbands signify a funeral, the youth throwing out their old lives and escaping from their bonds.

Even before you know anything about Tenjo Sajiki you have probably already seen the posters somewhere. Just as angura was diverse, radical and multi-dimensional, so too were the posters. In contrast to the postwar style which had been mostly simple, flat and asymmetrical, these new graphics are totally wild. Up to the late Sixties poster design in Japan tried to keep a deliberately “international” look that avoided anything too “Japanese”, sticking with sans serif font. (For example, compare the posters for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 with Tenjo Sajiki posters!)

But the new generation of designers wanted to be irrational, absurb, erotic and free. Angura provided them with the perfect opportunity to vent their talents. Yokoo was the leader, introducing pop art to the scene, and working prolifically, such as with Juro Kara (another theatre artist from the time), film director Nagisa Oshima (see Yokoo’s great poster for ‘Diary of a Shinjuku Thief’), and Butoh dancer Tatsumi Hijikata.

Awazu takes more of a collage approach, while Uno is as colorful as Yokoo, though perhaps more erotic. The posters were mostly made by silk-screening and often the work would be done for gratis as budgets in the angura world were very limited. In spite of these strictures, the results were never anything less than grand, silk screen posters on full press sheets, 30 x 40 inches. The posters would be printed in limited runs of around 300, with maybe sixteen or more colors, and the stenciling done by the designers themselves.

They indulge in pastiche — as did the productions — and frequently employ kantei font and ukiyoe motifs. These elements are reminiscent of “Edo” but not a full imitation, just as Tenjo Sajiki et al were taking performance back to the world of outcasts and renegades, where Kabuki had originally sprung from.

As wall space was so limited, no matter how magnificent, the final Tenjo Sajiki poster might find itself just put up at the theatre or in a trendy coffee shop, perhaps even relegated to a toilet. This exhibition restores some respectful sense of “artwork” status to them. In fact, it was frequently the case that angura posters failed as advertising, not least because the hectic nature of the troupes meant the posters often arrived late or at the last minute. They were rather works of art in themselves and reflections of the atmosphere of the groups.

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[Left] Poster for 1982 production of ‘Lemming’, designed by Tsutomu Toda, painted by Sawako Gota
[Right] Poster for Parco revival of ‘Lemming’ (2013), Gaku Azuma

The new revival of ‘Lemming’ is directed by Yukichi Matsumoto, the veteran Osaka director known for his Ishinha company. He collaborates with Gaku Azuma, the Osaka artist who was influenced by Uno and Yokoo, but till he started making theatre posters for Ishinha had focused on painting mainly images of feminine waif figures with sumi (charcoal) and a calligraphy brush. His poster for ‘Lemming’ (a fantastic Tower of Babel) is the first time he has painted a building. The original painting will also be exhibited at Poster Hari’s Gallery in July, along with other artworks by Azuma.

There has actually recently been a large resurgence in interest in postwar Japanese experimental arts, including several academic studies and not least, the mammoth MoMA exhibition last year, ‘Tokyo: 1955-1970, A New Avant-Garde’. In particular, these are boon years for Shuji Terayama. Terayama’s reputation has been bolstered in Japan and abroad, with numerous productions and revivals of his work, as well as the Shuji Terayama Museum (opened in 1997) and even a showcase of his oeuvre at the Tate Modern in London in 2012.

This is not without problems. The commercialization and memorialization of Terayama essentially goes against what he and his group, and the angura counterculture movement of which he was one of the leaders, was trying to manifest — namely, to free up artistic spaces and expectations, and to run counter to the mainstream and the commercial. Now rather we have a Shuji Terayama who is alive in books, magazines, DVDs, catalogues — the paraphernalia of consumerism.

Terayama’s most famous work — a book, film and play — is ‘Throw out your books, head out to the streets’ (Sho o suteyo! machi e deyo!) but the new motto for the Terayama boom seems more to be “head into the shops, buy up the books”. And that the Shuji Terayama Memorial Museum should be built in Misawa in Aomori prefecture, admittedly his home region, is an irony considering that he arguably abandoned the north to work almost entirely as an urban artist in Tokyo and overseas. (The first production of Tenjo Sajiki was called ‘The Hunchback of Aomori’ in 1967.) This fact did not escape the locals, who either did not know of Terayama or regarded him unfavorably. Till recently a large proportion of the visitors was made up of people travelling up from Tokyo, but the management now holds free open days and other schemes to attract Aomori people to the museum.

Terayama died in 1983 at the age of just forty-seven, as opposed to his peers, many of whom are still working today. Since theatre is an ephemeral art form, his stage work has essentially now been lost, though thanks to his prodigious output of film, poetry and books, Terayama’s world still lives on. And perhaps there is no more accessible way to start than with Tenjo Sajiki’s posters.

‘Shuji Terayama & Tenjo Sajiki: All Posters’ Exhibition
Until May 19th
Venue: Poster Hari’s Gallery

Until May 16th
Venue: Parco Theater