Autumn/Winter 2009

– Autumn/Winter 2009

Contextual Essays


Events, Works, Exhibitions

The Imaginary Martial Theatre of the Emperor Tomato Ketchup

Thomas Dylan Eaton

Shuji Terayama, Tomato Kecchappu Kôtei (Emperor Tomato Ketchup), 1970, colour-tinted black-and-white 16mm film, 76 min

Our culture is highly organised and systematised, and we do not grant citizenship to pigs. Therefore, disruption and criticism would ensue if even a lone pig were to jump into the Imperial Household…1

Tolstoy attributes wars and revolutions to the whims of unknown historical forces, and declares the decisions of emperors and the manoeuvres of generals to be irrelevant to either their outbreaks or outcomes. 2 In the long, violent and agonising battle between two boy-generals who play a never-ending game of Jan-ken-pon (the Japanese version of 'rockpaper- scissors') in Shuji Terayama's dystopian film Tomato Kecchappu Kôtei (Emperor Tomato Ketchup, 1970), cataclysmic war comes to Japan, a nation whose martial history ended abruptly in 1945 with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.3 Terayama once described dramaturgy as the 'organisation of violence'4 and in his film's brutal satire of political activism and ideologues, his boy-generals, dressed in cobbled-together uniforms, resemble less generals than actors in a martial theatre in which dramatic action simply spreads like pandemonium.

Japan emerged from the catastrophe of World War II as one of the most pragmatic and materialist societies in the world, and amidst this consensus Emperor Tomato Ketchup erupted deliriously, along with a string of acts of violent political contestation by leftist and nationalist factions - hijackings, bank robberies and an attempted coup d'état-cumpublic suicide - that were upending Japan's post-War ideology of parliamentary democracy, domestic peace and economic expansion. The film depicts the anarchic scenario of children taking over, told through a series of burlesque theatrical tableaux and a collage of voiceover and found audio documents. The sheer sensationalism of the political exploits, much like the parody depicted in Terayama's film, brought politics close to a visceral form of popular dramatics - an analogy Terayama explored in the text 'Preface to a Theory of City Streets' (1976), in which he wrote: 'Theatres are neither buildings nor facilities. They are ideological "places" in which dramatic encounters are created. Any place can become a theatre, and any theatre is merely a part of the scenery of everyday life until a drama is created there.'5

Terayama has immense cultural standing in Japan, which marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death in 2008 with a number of new stage productions and screenings of his work.6 He is an acclaimed poet, playwright, film-maker, essayist and photographer, whose transgressive themes gained him notoriety in his short but prolific life. The prototype for Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Terayama's radio play Otona-gari (Adult Hunting, 1960), was condemned by civil authorities for its subversive sexual agenda and incitement to revolution (it was styled as an emergency news report that claimed young children were carrying out an insurrection in Tokyo). Adult Hunting coincided with the violent rallies at Tokyo's Haneda Airport and National Parliament that accompanied the ratification of the 1960 United States-Japan Security Treaty. The highly controversial pact reinforced Japan's unequal partnership with its former enemy and prolonged the stationing of US forces on the archipelago. Ten years later, when the treaty was renewed amid further unrest, Emperor Tomato Ketchup scandalised both revolutionaries and reactionaries alike.

Writing about a fictive Japan in Empire of Signs (1970), Roland Barthes described the urban trajectory of modern Tokyo as revolving around an Imperial Palace that no longer irradiated power but simply provided structure to the city with its 'central emptiness'.7 In post-War Japan the imperial days looked increasingly like a faded notion of the past, while the country affirmed its newfound prosperity and corporate dominance with events such as Osaka's Expo '70.8 It became possible to mistake this 'central emptiness' as equivalent to an impotent idea; the problem of what to do with the Imperial Household in a democratic age had been solved in 1947 by reducing the formerly divine Emperor to a figurehead without actual power. But for the most visible dissident voices in 1970 - the leftist radical students of Sekigunha (the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction), on one hand, and the writer Yukio Mishima's ultra-nationalist Tate no Kai (The Shield Society), on the other - the still- existing Imperial Household was a crucial, if not literal, site for dramatic encounters.

Sharing their antipathy for modern Japan, with Emperor Tomato Ketchup Terayama, a self-proclaimed 'revolutionary terrorist of the imagination', staged a triumphant insurrection on film.9 It was at once an account of the traumatic dream-life of the times and an extrapolation, a piece of research into the limits of a latently totalitarian reversal of history. An amoral little boyemperor takes power in Tokyo, and the adult government declares a state of emergency, as children brandishing rifles enforce martial law, cavort with prostitutes and hunt for adults in hiding. The live action footage of this insurrection is shot on intentionally grainy and sometimes overexposed black-and-white film stock that Terayama tinted crimson red. His crude aesthetic recalls the Japanese soft-core erotica of the 1960s known as pinku eiga ('pink film') and adds urgency to the disturbing message of sexual and political emancipation. The film, from this beginning onwards, promises to be a monstrous unleashing of appetites - including 'freedom of treachery, control and gluttony; freedom of despotism' and 'freedom of sodomy with the Minister of War'.10

The Mishima Incident

As a satire of the political context of the time, Emperor Tomato Ketchup counted among its chief targets the writer Yukio Mishima, one of Japan's pre-eminent cultural icons of the post-War period and a figure whose works promoted reverence for the traditional patriarchal samurai culture. On 25 November 1970, Mishima stunned his audience when he committed suicide in the Japanese warrior manner of seppuku after attempting to incite a unit of Japan's limited civilian army to a coup d'état.11 His death, ostensibly in the emperor's name, was valorised by right-wing student movements (particularly the Minzoku-Ha) as 'the intense signal of dawn' and 'the pioneering achievement' that would open the way for a restoration of the Shÿwa monarchy.12 Many in Japan and abroad were reminded of another attempted coup by young army officers (the 2.26 Incident, from 26 to 29 February 1936, which Mishima had used as the background for his short story 'Yukoku' ['Patriotism', 1961]), and feared a renewal of pre-War militarism. Mishima's actions sent a powerful and evocative message to the disenfranchised youth of Japan, not because his bloody coup came near to succeeding (it wasn't taken seriously by the rank and file of the Self-Defence Forces), but because his public suicide helped reintroduce the largely anachronistic Japanese heritage of Bushidÿ (samurai values) to a modern and international context. The Mishima Incident appeared to be a carefully orchestrated affair, anticipated, even, by Mishima's own film version of his short story (Yokoku, 1966) with its harrowing scene of ritual disembowelment. Like his work, his mode of death harked back to the seductive beauty of death in the name of a 'poetic mythical emperor' of militaristic pre-modern Japan.13 As a character lamented in his novel Eire no Koe (The Voices of the Heroic Dead, 1966): 'Why has the Emperor become humanised?'14

Terayama did not bother to conceal his contempt for Mishima. His response to the suicide was to mock the conflation of aesthetics and politics he perceived as underpinning Mishima's desire for an apocalypse. Terayama stated that Mishima 'should have died at cherry blossom time',15 an important season in Japanese culture (during World War II the Imperial military, for example, urged kamikaze pilots to see themselves as 'falling cherry blossoms').16 The naked, bound male filmed towards the start of Emperor Tomato Ketchup is certainly a reference to both Mishima's sadomasochism and his sculpted physique, and the restoration of emperor worship in Terayama's film is a disturbingly comic counterpoint to the ultra-nationalist fantasies harboured by Mishima's private militia Tate no Kai. The coup d'état depicted in Emperor Tomato Ketchup replaces the 'humanised' former emperor Hirohito with an amoral, role-playing child, who proclaims the vulgar North American condiment of the film's title as the national symbol. In this topsy-turvy world it is clear none of the youthful usurpers admits to 'the decay of the flesh' (another reference to Mishima, who wrote that he would 'never admit the decay of the flesh' shortly before dying),17 parodying Mishima's logic of self-abnegation with the scenario of an imperial throne that is ascended at childhood and abdicated at youth.

Spiritual Training

Unlike Mishima, the extremists of the left had no sympathy for a renewal of imperial authority, but they, too, were moved to action by the contradictions in Japan's apparently prosperous society. Sekigunha, or the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction, were radical students who split from the Communist League in 1969. Their desire for action was rooted in Trotsky's theory of simultaneous, global revolutions, and their aggressive tactics were perhaps galvanised by frustration at being unable to tinder revolution on Japanese soil. Sekigunha was the Red Army and 'its members were soldiers, not simply members'.18 Their bifurcation into Rengo Sekigun (United Red Army) and Nihon Sekigun (Japanese Red Army) in 1971 took place during an upsurge in unexpected hijackings, hostage-taking and killings that began with their March 1970 seizure of an airplane to North Korea. Before the Nihon Sekigun group appalled the Japanese nation with the devastating 1972 attack on Israel's Lod Airport, Rengo Sekigun riveted the Japanese media in February 1972 when a group exercise to strengthen the resolve of their least experienced recruits (similar to the 'spiritual training' in Japanese banks, in which new employees undergo emotional and physical trials) led to the deaths of twelve members in a remote cabin in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture. The purge culminated in ten days of sensational television coverage as 1,500 policemen battled the five surviving youthful revolutionaries holed up in a ski lodge on Mount Asama.

Descendants of Machiavelli Terayama was equally hostile to these ideological opposites of Mishima, comparing them to swine in his screenplay Kawaita mizu-umi (The Dry Lake, 1960).19 He was, however, prophetic in his vision of youthful revolutionaries replicating the worst violence of their parents. Under the empire of Tomato Ketchup, the adult population are herded into a prison camp and forced to pedal man-powered planes that serve simultaneously as lewd extensions of the physical body and objects of torture. Their mature bodies become crude instruments of labour as the Tomato Ketchup empire rejects Japan's paternalistic efficiency model. Adults singled out for prison terms include children's authors, toy makers and juvenile probation officers. Members of the police's juvenile squad are murdered outright. A guard at the camp incinerator informs his mother, who has been forced into hiding, about an actress sentenced to death by the People's Court for 'pushing filial piety in educational films'. These atrocities carried out in the name of 'children's joy' underline the infantilisation of adults in the quest for ideological purity that Terayama saw as rampant in Japan at that time, and which he parodied with his little boy-emperor as the mouthpiece for a puerile ideology: cats, in the Tomato Ketchup empire, become potential political threats. They are, the emperor announces, 'the only political domestic animal, descendants of Machiavelli'.

Indeed, Terayama's travesty of revolution was aimed not only at the ideological and messianic public theatre of Sekigunha and Tate no Kai, but also at the traditional family structures that were central to Japanese society as a whole. In an interview for Cinema Papers in 1975, Terayama observed: 'The idea of patriarchal dignity has been dumped overboard. It is the mother who has taken the man's place, who has combined the role of father with that of mother.'20 The post-War years were, for Terayama's generation, marked by an increasingly matriarchal family life, and it is not insignificant that the film's dramatisations of the Oedipal nature of mother-son relationships generates some of its most provocative imagery. One lengthy scene suggests a state of polymorphous perversity when a group of naked adult women in curly blond wigs playfully simulate sex with a little boy in military coat and head- gear - a travestied image of maternal devotion that wilfully transgresses all limits, including the taboo realm of child sexuality. Yet the improper behaviour of Terayama's 'mothers' is ultimately ambivalent; they are at once sexual predators and, in the words of cineaste Amos Vogel, who wrote about the work in Film as a Subversive Art (1974), 'magical … yet protectively maternal partners'.21 Similarly, in her study of Terayama, Unspeakable Acts (2005), Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei described his aim as 'the creation of a new "family" that would exist outside accepted relationships'.22 Emperor Tomato Ketchup is his most disturbing and ambiguous vision of a new form of group identity.

During the nineteenth century, the quintessential image of Emperor Meiji, a crayon drawing made in 1888 and distributed as a photograph in public schools, was referred to as oshashin ('esteemed photograph'). As an idealised portrait it perpetuated the impression of a mature and confident emperor, clutching his sword in one hand with the other firmly placed on a table in a fist. The image appropriated the universal iconography of monarchs in time for the promulgation of Japan's Imperial Constitution (1889), which promoted Meiji, sanctioned by Shinto and Confucianism, as the benevolent father to his subjects. By contrast, the photograph of Emperor Hirohito sporting a frock coat and dwarfed by the paternal figure of General MacArthur at the end of World War II suggested a degradation and uncrowning of both the national belief system and the emperor as incarnate divinity. The reversal is complete in the world of Emperor Tomato Ketchup, where the transformation of godlike man into naughty child becomes an essential source of humour. Sitting astride a throne that looks like it was borrowed from Grand Guignol, the little boy-emperor dons his Napoleon Bonaparte hat whilst his mother soothes his boredom with her violin playing. The scene also lampoons the mock European garb worn by high-ranking Japanese of the Meiji period (1868-1912) at Tokyo's Rokumeikan hall, built in the French Renaissance style in order to promote Japan's image as a modern state. The spectacle of government leaders attired in outlandish Westernised dress was fodder for an antagonistic press, and the Rokumeikan era has remained a popular symbol of tasteless imitation and decaying traditional values to this day. Terayama gleefully invokes the Rokumeikan, castigating both Japan's burgeoning intoxication with the West and the new and invasive ideas entering the country at an accelerated rate following the US occupation. The chaotic jumble of world history that is defaced and discarded in Terayama's film includes photographs of Jean Harlow, Karl Marx and an over-sized plastic model of Nipper the dog, made famous as the HMV trademark.

Terayama never explains the historical forces driving the two boy-generals playing Janken- pon. Perhaps it is a scatological reaction to the trauma of defeat in World War II, as a consequence of which, as Sorgenfrei has stated, 'formally valued military heroes transformed into despised war criminals, and heroic home front civilians metamorphosed into eternally polluted A-bomb victims…'23 Are the boygenerals meant to represent warriors of the Imperial Japanese Army living on in conquered territory, refusing to believe the war has ended? Whatever the outcome of the game may be, their actions, where one gesture is offset by another, are like an initial impulse towards theatre in a film in which a social crisis has been dramatised as an imaginary theatre of war and revolution is engulfing everything in its path.

Are we to deduce from Terayama's sharp criticism that he fashioned a cautionary tale? The totalitarian coup, leaving children free to conspire and betray, clearly satirises the idealistic and politically committed actions of his contemporaries. 'A joke but not a comedy' is how Terayama described the film,24 but his malignant humour is more often offensive than amusing. Allying himself with an old-fashioned form of street theatre, he calls himself a 'master of a Kakube-jushi troupe', and draws on many theatrical antecedents in the history of Japanese performance.25 By inhabiting the role of modoki, the comic actor who satirises and interprets deities and demons, Terayama attempts to reverse history by parodying it. An indispensable clue for the excesses of the children's revolution in the film is Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of carnival laughter in his seminal study Rabelais and His World (1965).26 Within the context of the 'carnivalesque', Bakhtin establishes a structural metaphor for the comic crowning and uncrowning of kings in Renaissance carnivals, illustrated in Rabelais's tale of a passion play staged by the trickster Master Villon. After a local sacristan refuses Villon the use of a costume, he wreaks his revenge by staging a travesty of a religious ceremony just as the official is riding by. When the actors create enough disruption to startle his horse, the sacristan is dragged along the ground and torn to pieces in the truly carnivalesque setting of a comic play.

The adult performers in Emperor Tomato Ketchup were recruited from Terayama's Tenjÿ Sajiki theatre company, which he founded with Pop artist Tadanori Yoko, director Yutaka Higashi and producer Eiko Kujo in 1967. Although aligned with the international theatre movements of the 1960s, the group identified pre-modern antecedents for their performance style, such as the seditious performances of Dengaku actors - a type of music and dance performance that accompanied agricultural labour and attracted people of all classes as participants.27 In the middle of the summer of 1096, during an uneasy transition between two different forms of government in Japan (the kampaku and the insei),28 the citizens of Kyoto were amazed by the events of a great Dengaku. According to Rakuyÿ Dengaku Ki (1096), a contemporaneous account by the historian œe no Masafusa, city and local officials, soldiers and imperial librarians were amongst those who took part - some wore formal costumes, some armour and others simply 'rolled up their underskirts'.29

Masafusa writes that the dancers marched to and fro obstructing the traffic of pedestrians and carts, and when night fell they approached the retired emperor's palace, where even the courtiers put on their straw sandals and joined in. At the ends of his account he describes how, after these events, the imperial princess suddenly fell ill, and the cart she had used for viewing the Dengaku was turned into a funeral carriage - a final merging of high and low caste accomplished by the remarkable festival.

Masafusa's potentially apocryphal account of the Dengaku is a useful reference point for Terayama's dramaturgy, inspired by early Japanese performance genres that he partly appropriated and partly imagined. Like the post-War world of Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Masafusa describes an anarchic manifestation of public confusion taking on a theatrical form at a time of changing values and governments. In Terayama's day, widespread trauma seems to be rooted in the schizophrenic world view that began in August 1945 when Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's defeat. It is enacted in the imaginary realm of Terayama's film by a cast of over one hundred children who stand for society's powerless outcasts and are joined by Tenjÿ Sajiki members to create a daring travesty of all the values and causes that illuminated the post-War epoch. Terayama's identification with the young in Emperor Tomato Ketchup is his most provocatively ambiguous imagining of the unique historical event called a revolution, in which real children embark on a general revolt against the Japanese family and the stability represented by the economic miracle. Terayama seeks escape from modern anomie by invoking cataclysmic historical forces through theatre. Like the Dengaku performances that caused a disruption of Japan's social hierarchy with an epidemic of dancing in 1096, Terayama's simultaneous satire of political action, advocacy of disturbing sexual revolutions and rejection of paternalistic traditions and family ties erupts in his film as a grotesque and indeterminate martial theatre. That this theatre is a latently totalitarian black comedy is a savage indictment of the example set by the adult world threatened with a children's revolt.

- Thomas Dylan Eaton

  1. Shuji Terayama, 'The Labyrinth and the Dead Sea: My Theatre' (trans. Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei), in Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shuji and Postwar Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005, p.288.

  2. In the second epilogue to War and Peace (1865-69), Tolstoy, writing about the Age of Revolution (approximately 1760 to 1830), equates war to a cataclysm: no one in particular is held to be responsible and no one is expected to gain from it. Tolstoy's ideas are the polar opposite of Clausewitz's notion of war as a rational instrument of national policy and 'continuation of politics by other means' that proved so influential in Japan following the Meiji restoration of 1868.

  3. Emperor Tomato Ketchup has existed in at least three separate versions since the black-and-white footage was shot in 1969-70, reflecting Terayama's determination to revise his productions. The 76-minute version is currently available as a red-tinted transfer through Image Forum in Tokyo, alongside a 28-minute version from 1972 printed by the German Television Bureau, with German text superimposed throughout. This essay treats the 76-minute version from 1970 released by Image Forum on DVD as part of The Experimental Image World of Shuji Terayama (2006).

  4. S. Terayama, 'The Labyrinth and the Dead Sea', op. cit.

    , p.275.

  5. Ibid., p.286.

  6. Terayama was born in 1935 and died in 1983.

  7. Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs (trans. Richard Howard), New York: Hill and Wang, 1982, p.32.

  8. Expo '70 was the World's Fair held in Osaka between March and September 1970.

  9. Quoted in C.F. Sorgenfrei, Unspeakable Acts, op. cit., p.3.

  10. Quotations from the script of Emperor Tomato Ketchup (trans. C.F. Sorgenfrei), in C.F. Sorgenfrei, Unspeakable Acts, op. cit. , p.121.

  11. Seppuku is a form of ritual suicide by disembowelment, traditionally reserved for samurai. It offered a way to die with honour rather than in the hands of the enemy.

  12. Quoted by Karl Dixon in 'Recent Shift in Japanese Right-Wing Student Movements: The "Minzoku-Ha" Students', Asian Survey, vol.12, no.11, November 1972, p.83. The Shÿwa monarchy is the Imperial Household of Emperor Hirohito. A Shÿwa restoration would undo the 1947 constitution which forbids the emperor to play a role in politics.

  13. Yukio Mishima, quoted from a transcript of his 1969 debate with Tokyo University students, in Susan J. Napier, 'Death and the Emperor: Mishima, Oe, and the Politics of Betrayal', Journal of Asian Studies, vol.48, no.1, February 1989, p.85.

  14. Quoted by Hisaaki Yamanouchi in 'Mishima Yukio and his Suicide', Modern Asian Studies, vol.6, no.1, 1972, p.15.

  15. Quoted by C.F. Sorgenfrei, Unspeakable Acts, op. cit. , p.43.

  16. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, p.107.

  17. Mishima wrote 'I will never admit the decay of the flesh' as a caption for a selection of his photographic portraits from Eikoh Hosoe's series Ba Ra Kei (Ordeal by Roses, 1963). The photographs were exhibited, with Mishima's caption, in the section 'River of Flesh' of the exhibition 'Mishima Yukio' held in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, October 1970.

  18. Patricia G. Steinhoff, 'Hijackers, Bombers, and Bank Robbers: Managerial Style in the Japanese Red Army', The Journal of Asian Studies, vol.48, no.4, November 1989, p.727.

  19. Terayama wrote the screenplay The Dry Lake in 1960 for the director Shinoda Masahiro. It follows the transformation of a leftist radical into a right-wing terrorist. 20 Quoted by Jan Dawson, 'Shuji Terayama', Cinema Papers, vol.7, November/December 1975, p.231.

  20. Quoted by Jan Dawson, 'Shuji Terayama', Cinema Papers, vol.7, November/December 1975, p.231.

  21. Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art (1974), London: C.T. Editions, 2005, p.243.

  22. C.F. Sorgenfrei, Unspeakable Acts, op. cit., p.120.

  23. Ibid., p.104.

  24. Quoted in the programme (p.27) for 'Diary of a Shinjuku Poet-Shuji Terayama: 1935-1983', a retrospective of Terayama's film and video work at the National Film Theatre, London, January 1987.

  25. Quoted by C.F. Sorgenfrei, Unspeakable Acts, op. cit., p.94.

  26. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (trans. Helene Iswolsky), Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1984.

  27. 'Dengaku' literally means 'field entertainment'. Performers used stilts, drums tied to their hips, copper cymbals and instruments made of lengths of wood fastened together to produce a rattling sound. Dengaku events were characterised by people wearing garish costumes, dancing with gusto and playing loud music.

  28. The kampaku system of government in Japan refers to a period of rule by the emperors' chief advisors, also known as the Fujiwara Regency. The kampaku system is associated with the Heian period of Japanese history (794-1185). The insei system of government in Japan refers to a period of rule by cloistered emperors that began in 1086 under the retired Emperor Shirakawa and continued throughout the late Heian period.

  29. A section of œe no Masafusa's Rakuyÿ Dengaku Ki (1096) is included in Jacob Raz, 'Popular Entertainment and Politics: The Great Dengaku of 1096', Monumenta Nipponica, vol.40, no.3, Autumn 1985, pp.296-98.