I fell in Japan by accident. Asian culture had played no role in my childhood in Holland, even though The Hague, my hometown, still had a nostalgic whiff of “the Orient”. People returning from the East Indian colonies would retreat to large 19th century mansions by the sea, complaining about the cold and humid climate, lacking clubs, tropical landscapes and servants. I loved Indonesian cuisine, one of the few reminders of the recent colonial past, and the particular Indo-Dutch variety of Chinese cuisine: greasy spring rolls, thick and fatty fried noodles with a sambal sauce made from chili peppers and chili peppers. garlic, the delicacy of the original magnified by the greed of northern European appetites. My father’s older sister had the misfortune of being sent to the Dutch East Indies as a nanny just before World War II; she ended up spending most of her time in a particularly grim Japanese POW camp. So no nostalgia there.
But as far back as I can remember, I have dreamed of leaving the safe, slightly drab environment of my upper-middle-class childhood, a world of garden sprinklers, club ties, bridge games and noise. of tennis balls in summer. I had prejudices from an early age against my homeland. I grew up with two cultures: the deciduous Dutch Protestant on my father’s side, the assimilated Anglo-Jew on my mother’s side. I could “get it” in both, but I never felt naturally comfortable in either. My destiny was to be half in, half out of almost everything. Skip was my default state. In the meantime, there was never any doubt in my mind that glamor was always elsewhere – in London, especially in my uncle’s house, when I was still living in Holland, but preferably somewhere further away.
When I was released from school and lived in London for a year, being “in Asia” had become a fashionable attitude: hippie trips to India in a Volkswagen bus, a superficial knowledge of music. of Ravi Shankar’s sitar, the sickening smell of incense sticks in teahouses selling hashish accessories. But my interest in Japan, in particular, started around 1972 or 1973, when I first saw a performance by the Tenjo Sajiki theater group at the Mickery Theater in Amsterdam. Mickery, located in a former cinema, was for a few years a mecca for avant-garde theater around the world. Young Willem Dafoe performs there, as well as groups from Poland, Nigeria and most Western artistic capitals.
Tenjo Sajiki, whose name translates to “the seats near the ceiling”, was from Tokyo. Founder and director Terayama Shuji, a distant but charismatic figure dressed in dark suits and high-heeled blue denim shoes, was a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, photographer and filmmaker. Terayama’s plays and films owed something to various Western influences – a bit of Fellini here, Robert Wilson there – but much more to Japanese funfair entertainment, carnival monsters, strip shows – tease and other forms of theatrical lowlife.
Seeing Tenjo Sajiki for the first time was like squinting through the keyhole of a grotesque peep show. I had never seen anything like it from a distance. The first play I attended at the Mickery, in 1972, was called “Ahen Senso”, or “Opium War”. Less a coherent story than a series of paintings, “Opium War” was staged outside the theater, but also inside, where the audience was led by guides into rooms decorated with old posters of Japanese movies, enlarged details of erotic prints, creepy comics, and props that looked like they’d been taken out of a twenties brothel. Naked women were displayed in a variety of peculiar poses, and ventriloquists in chalky Kabuki makeup were whipped by a dominatrix reciting a Japanese poem and wearing a black SS cap. A naked man had Chinese characters tattooed all over his body. A beautiful young girl in a purple dress cut off the head of a live chicken.
The air of violence and the fact that at times we were locked in metal cages panicked an older man in the audience; it reminded him of his incarceration as a child in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. There were rumors of brawls between the cast and the audience, which matched Terayama’s view of the theater as some sort of criminal enterprise. All this was accompanied by music, sometimes soft and seductive, sometimes deafening and slightly sinister. It was deeply strange, largely unintelligible, perversely erotic, rather frightening and utterly unforgettable.
After the performance, the young actors gathered in the café. But since only a few of them spoke English, the barrier between performers and audiences was hardly crossed. They were dressed like hip young Westerners: jeans, leather jackets, boots, velvet pants. But some also wore Japanese wooden sandals, called geta, and quilted kimono jackets. I was studying Chinese at the local university at the time, and returning to the leaded prose of “Red Flag” or the Confucian classics seemed like a disappointment after Terayama Shuji and his troupe. In Tokyo, I thought. As soon as possible.
I had assumed that Terayama’s shows were the wildly exaggerated and surreal fantasies of a poet’s feverish mind. But what amazed me about Tokyo, when I first visited it, in the fall of 1975, was how much it looked like a Tenjo Sajiki theater set. There was something theatrical, even mind-boggling, about the cityscape itself, where nothing was underestimated: products, places, entertainment, and fashion were screaming for attention. In Tokyo, it seemed, very little was out of sight.
I never thought I could be Japanese, and I didn’t want to be. But I was open to change. This meant, at the beginning of my life in Japan, an almost total immersion. For the first few weeks, I was walking around in a daze, a lonely stranger moving through the crowd, carrying everything. I walked and walked, often getting lost in the maze of streets of Shinjuku or Shibuya. Much of the advertising was in the same intense hues as the azure skies of early fall. And I realized now that the colors in old Japanese woodcuts were not stylized at all, but a true representation of Japanese light.
My immersion was in part an escape from bourgeois kindness, even if it was also superficial, voyeuristic, semi-detached. I photographed the alleys of Shinjuku, in the manner of Moriyama Daido, who was very inspired by the American William Klein. My favorite route through town was from Minami Senju, where a small neglected cemetery marked the Edo period execution ground, passing through Sanya, the logging street, where labor contractors picked up every morning. homeless men for construction work, and all the way to Yoshiwara, the once elegant red light district that had turned into a maze of neon-lit massage parlors.
There was an old crumbling theater in Minami Senju, which housed one of the last traveling comedy troupes, who performed crude versions of famous Kabuki plays. In between acts, players donned Hawaiian shirts and sang pop songs through faulty microphones, while others played on ill-tuned electric guitars. I spent many hours in this theater photographing the actors and the audience: the local butcher and his stocky wife, a little crook or two, roof builders, construction workers, dumpling cooks. God only knows what they thought of the young stranger springing up at their feet. But they were still welcoming in a politely amused manner.
One weekend my friend Graham and I followed the actors on one of their rural tours. We spent the night at a seedy spa, called “Green Center,” where the elderly gathered to drink and be entertained. Dressed in thin summer kimonos, we sat at long wooden tables laden with rice balls, dried squid, pickles and miso soup, watching a murder scene by a famous 19th century robber, followed by a famous love scene from a squeaky samurai drama. All the while, I was crawling all over the place to take pictures.
When it was time for a swim in the large communal tub, the men and women kicked off their summer clothes and motioned for Graham and I to join us. The tiled bathroom smelled like rotten eggs, and Mount Fuji on the wall was half obscured by the steam coming out of the water. After a quick wash, Graham and I slipped carefully into the tub, all eyes on us. We couldn’t have been more immersed in Japan, I thought, when a sudden burst of cackling laughter crinkled the wrinkled faces of the countryside around us. “Look at those assholes! Cried one of the older ladies in the bath. “Look at those assholes strangers!” “Ooh, aren’t gaijins white?” Another cried, as if she had never seen anything so preposterous in her life. “Just like tofu.”
Shortly after this excursion, I ran into another group of artists, even lower down the social ladder. I was joined by Tsuda, a brilliant dropout student with a Beatles fringed haircut, who would become my chief guide in Japan. We left on a cold November night, during Tori-no-Ichi, the harvest festival where, for twelve days, street markets are arranged near temples and shrines. This is where the Human Pump had set up its brown and green striped carnival tent, featuring sights such as the Snake Woman, the Girl Biting the Heads of Live Chickens, and the Hairy Wolfman.