Director Spotlight: Time is Irreversible: Shuji Terayama


Shuji Terayama doesn't seem to come up as often in conversations about Japanese film, but his filmography is incredibly expressive, controversial, and experimental. His penchant for surrealist visuals and complete disregard for formalism make his work somewhat impenetrable but infinitely more fascinating to absorb and study.

Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (1971)

The city is an open book. Write in its infinite margins!

Shuji Terayama's first feature-length film is a surreal journey that cannot be contained within the confines of the frame and will not be imprisoned by a three-act structure. A young man, referred to as Me (Eimei Sasaki) has a dysfunctional family; his father is an alcoholic pervert, his sister is agoraphobic and obsessed with her pet rabbit, and his grandmother is senile. Tokyo in the '70s is in flux, with the antsy youth clashing with the conservative status quo. What can a young person do except scream into the void?

The film opens up with Me looking directly into the camera, chatting with the audience about the nature of fiction. The title of the film is also the thesis: throw away everything you know about how cinema is "supposed" to work, and let your feelings roam free with the images. There is a basic narrative: Me is just living his life and trying to find a way to express his emotions and frustrations with his living situation. A recurring setting is the locker room at his school, a steam-filled, dimly lit den where he and his friends discuss sexual longing and compete with their imagined prowess with the opposite sex.  

Interspersed between the coming-of-age scenes are psychedelic freak-outs where Terayama plays around with form and function. Some of the footage is shot in black-and-white, some of it in color, and occasionally, the saturation of one color is turned all the way up, splashing scenes in magenta or lime green. It is as if there is a concerted effort to break every single rule and completely eschew formalism altogether. Occasionally, the style switches to emulate documentaries, with characters being asked interview questions on the street. In a society that prides itself on conforming, the most dangerous thing is giving the individual a voice. The music is the other voice of people, and it’s loud and intense, with impromptu punk songs popping up all over the place. 

Women are featured prominently in the story, though at almost every moment, they are not defined outside of their sexuality. Me's father buys him a prostitute, and he weeps in her lap, and she caresses his back and whispers in his ear. His sister is brutally sexually assaulted in a locker room, but her suffering is only shown through Me's anguished reaction outside of the locked door. Women are only allowed to exist through the lens of men; they do not have their own agency in this world.

Towards the end of the film, the entire real-life film crew is revealed, standing together still and silent. Only Me speaks, again directly to the camera, lamenting that the film has to end and with it all of his relationships. His fictional family will cease to exist, and his time as an actor with the crew will also be over. Obviously, Me is a self-insert for Terayama himself, and he is talking through him. Stories are a paradox because people can live forever through them, but they will always be trapped within the confines of the running time.

Boxer (1977)

Boxer is one of the most approachable and straightforward Terayama films, that will very likely be compared to Rocky (1976). The story revolves around Hayato (Bunta Sugawara), a retired boxer who is drinking himself to death in a grimy boarding house. His retirement was self-imposed, at the height of his career, and seemingly without reason. He also left his wife and child, his only company, a mangy dog. His ex-wife still loves him and visits him occasionally to cook and clean for him, even though she has remarried and moved on.

Hayato seems to hold sway with everyone he meets as if they can sense the prestige he used to hold. Tenma (Kentarô Shimizu), an up-and-coming boxer, seeks out Hayato, as he is having a tough time winning fights and suffers from low self-esteem as a result. After a particularly brutal match, Tenma sobs while staring at his bloody face in the locker room mirror. He is hungry to become a winner but cannot find the motivation within himself to overcome his obstacles.

The relationship between Hayato and Tenma is intriguing, originally teetering on antagonistic due to some circumstances but eventually evolving to more of a father-and-son mentorship. Tenma represents all of the lost opportunities that Hayato gave up when he quit early, and Hayato serves as a warning for Tenma if he doesn't take care of himself in his career as a boxer. Terayama doesn't seem interested in fleshing out Hayato's past and remains enigmatic for much of the film.

While the story beats themselves are rote, the execution still has Terayama's artistic touches. He fills up the sidelines with quirky personalities and pads out the narrative with long takes and asides. It feels floatier and more obtuse than the usual sports film, but the boxing scenes are well-staged and exciting to watch. Boxer is a great film to start with when dipping one's toes into Terayama's filmography.

Fruits of Passion (1981)

One of Terayama's raunchier projects, Fruits of Passion, is a sequel of sorts to The Story of O, an infamous sadomasochistic book and film. The tale concerns a woman named O who submits both physically and mentally to her lover René. She has no other aspiration than to fulfill René's sexual desires, even as he forces her to sleep with other men. Eventually, O is given to René's stepbrother Sir Stephen, who is much more strict and cruel. Terayama's film picks up after the events of the first story, with Sir Stephen (Klaus Kinski) taking O (Isabell Illiers) to a brothel in Hong Kong, where he forces her to work.

Like most of Terayama's work, this film's tone shifts constantly, flirting with both arthouse trappings and pure exploitation. The set design, scene composition, and dialogue are all firmly in artsy territory, but the unsimulated sex scenes (featuring Klaus himself) give the film a sleazier and darker edge. One can't help but be a tad repulsed by Klaus' performance in these scenes, though it is in his character to debase and humiliate these women.

O has the illusion of having zero agency in the narrative, with the idea being that it gives her pleasure to suffer for her lovers. The worse her partners treat her, the more she projects romantic feelings onto their actions. One could speculate that some sort of mental illness is at play on her part, but that depends on how the observer regards the concept of being a masochist. From O's perspective she is happiest when enduring agony. Some might find O's treatment and depiction troubling from an objectification standpoint, as everything about her is only for the male gaze. Her name has been shortened to one letter, and her personality has been whittled down to one single purpose: male gratification.

Terayama doesn't seem too interested in dissecting O or Sir Stephen's personalities, but the film does feel like it is slyly critiquing colonialism. Perhaps O represents a sort of cathartic revenge toward European settlers, forced to be subjugated to the whims of the countrymen. Sir Stephen isn't shown in a flattering light either, eventually groveling at the end of the film when left by all of his lovers with his business ruined. Power is fleeting, and life can be cruel. 

--Michelle Kisner