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A Bluffer’s Guide to the Japanese Avant-Garde

Trying to define the term "avant-garde" is a bit like nailing custard to a wall, only less fun. Still, we like custard, so we thought we’d give it a shot. Steady yourself then, in preparation for Japanzine’s not-so-definitive guide to the biggest names on the 1960s and 1970s Japanese avant-garde scene.


Who? One-man free improv powerhouse. Saxophonist Kaoru Abe was renowned for practicing on the hard shoulder of a Tokyo highway, his horn blurts competing with the traffic. The toast or terror of the 1970s jazz underground, depending who you ask (trumpeter Toshinori Kondo complained that, "Abe’s playing is only about how far he can expand his ego"). A believer in living fast and dying young, Abe did exactly that: he died from a ruptured stomach after overdosing on sedatives at the tender age of 29, already past his creative peak.
In his words: "I want to become faster than anyone. Faster than cold, than man alone, than the earth, than Andromeda. Where, where is the crime?"


Who? Ooh, only one of Japan’s most important post-war writers. Raised in Manchuria, novelist and playwright Kobo Abe’s work is frequently compared to Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka, encompassing elements of surrealism, science fiction, existentialism. He is best known in the west for his 1962 novel Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna), adapted to award-winning effect by filmmaker and frequent collaborator Hiroshi Teshigahara.
Random trivia: Abe studied medicine at Tokyo Imperial University before embarking on a career as a writer. An indifferent student, according to one story he was only allowed to graduate on the condition that he never practice.


Who? Writer, conceptual artist and all-round prankster. Genpei Akasegawa was one of the driving forces behind the neo-dadaist Anti Art movement of the 1960s. His greatest claim to notoriety came in 1963, when he sent some friends invitations for a solo exhibition that were printed on reproductions of ¥1000 notes. He was subsequently prosecuted – successfully, too – for counterfeiting. Also something of a literary type, he began writing novels in the late 1970s, under the pen name Katsuhiko Otsuji.


Who? Performance artist, painter, architect and filmmaker. Initially involved with the Neo-Dada movement in Japan, Shusaku Arakawa moved to New York in 1961 after one controversy-courting art happening too many. He quickly hooked up with Madeline Gins, and the two have been working together ever since. Most recently, they’ve scored international attention for their ventures into building design, under the banner "Architecture Against Death." The cartoonish Reversible Destiny lofts in Mitaka, Tokyo are intended have "structured into [them] the capacity to help residents live long and ample lives." Even if you don’t buy that, they still look damn cool.


Who? With his immaculate long hair, perfect fringe and ever-present shades, Keiji Haino cuts one of the most distinctive figures in the Japanese avant-garde. Best known for his fearsome guitar playing, he formed his first band, Lost Aaraaff, in 1970; their third gig at an anti-government festival nearly provoked a riot. Best known for his group Fushitsusha, he regularly performs solo and has played with such international luminaries as Derek Bailey, Faust and Peter Brotzmann.
Random trivia: He doesn’t drink, do drugs or eat meat, but Haino still enjoys the odd guilty pleasure – he’s renowned for his passion for cream cakes.


Who? In the opening pages of the annals of butoh, there are but two names: Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata. Hijikata was schooled in western dance forms but grew dissatisfied with them, leading to the development of the abstract, expressive dance form ankoku butoh (dance of darkness). The first ever butoh performance, Kinjiki (Forbidden Colors) – based on the Yukio Mishima novel – found space for homosexuality and chicken smothering, and resulted in Hijikata getting blacklisted. Mishima, however, was much impressed.
In his words: "We shake hands with the dead, who send us encouragement from beyond our body; this is the unlimited power of Butoh."


Who? Troubled but utterly brilliant artist. Yoko Ono wasn’t the only avant-minded Japanese expat floating around New York in the 1950s: Yayoi Kusama rolled into town in 1957 after a lengthy correspondence with Georgia O’Keefe and swiftly became the toast of Manhattan. Plagued by mental health problems since an early age, she drew directly on childhood hallucinations to create a world of "infinity nets", fields of polka dots stretching into the never-never. Still very much active today, she’s often described as "Japan’s greatest living artist" – an epithet that, at the time of writing, is only being used for a few dozen other people too.
In her words: "If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago."


Who? Shaven-headed poet and underground folk musician who channels a surreal, utterly visceral brand of blues. Arriving in Tokyo in 1968 as a teenage police academy drop-out, he quickly became a sensation on the underground scene – even signing to Columbia Records at one point – before all but disappearing in the 80s. Resurfaced again in the 1990s, playing alongside Keiji Haino and Toshiaki Ishizuka in Vajra.
In his words: "A musician who hasn’t been forsaken by god is no musician at all."


Who? One of the co-founders of butoh, together with Tatsumi Hijikata (see above). Though inspired as a young man by the Spanish dancer Antonia Merce, aka La Argentina, Kazuo Ohno wouldn’t give his first recital until he was 43 years old. He hasn’t looked back since then: the venerable old bugger celebrated his 100th birthday last October.
In his words: "The dancer’s costume is to wear the universe."


Who? Painter, sculptor and anthropologist. Taro Okamoto spent the best part of a decade in pre-war Paris, where he studied under sociologist Marcel Mauss and associated with such artists as Andre Breton. The fact that he was already comfortably into middle age when the 1960s avant-garde boom hit didn’t stop him from becoming one of its leading figures. Long interested in the occult and ancient mysteries, he became obsessed with art dating back to the Jomon Era, using it as the basis for such epochal works as the iconic Tower of the Sun statue, displayed at Expo ’70 in Osaka.
In his words: "Art is an explosion!"


Who? Writer, scholar and art critic. Tatsuhiko Shibusawa established himself as one of the preeminent thinkers of the 1960s avant-garde, and counted Yukio Mishima and Tatsumi Hijikata among his friends. Also a dedicated Francophile, his translation of de Sade’s L’Historie de Juliette; ou, Les Prosperites du vice became the subject of a 9-year obscenity trial. Much to their chagrin, after all that effort, Shibusawa and his publisher were fined a mere ¥70,000.


Who? Free jazz and noise progenitor, guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi was one of the first musicians to rebel against the orthodoxy of the 1960s jazz scene. In groups such as New Century Music Research Workshop and New Directions (later New Direction Unit), he ripped existing jazz forms asunder, replacing them with the modes of "gradually projection" (sorta quiet) and "mass projection" (fucking loud). Prone to denouncing his fellow musicians as "no better than cockroaches," he found a kindred spirit in saxophonist Kaoru Abe. The pair’s first session, in which they played continuously for 4 1/2 hours, is the stuff of legend.
In his words: "The greater the amount of information you want to transmit, the more amplification you need."


Who? The most important Japanese composer of the 20th century? Quite possibly. Bolstered by a chance endorsement from none other than Igor Stravinsky early in his career, Toru Takemitsu went on to become an international star. Mostly self-taught (he claimed that listening to Debussy taught him all he needed to know), his work ran the gamut from orchestral pieces to electronic and tape music. An avid film buff, he also provided the scores for no less than 93 movies, including Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.
In his words: "Music should be able to invoke the natural emotions in all human beings. Music is not notes fixed on a piece of paper."


Who? Poet, playwright, filmmaker, photographer, essayist… was there anything Shuji Terayama didn’t do? (Note: that was a rhetorical question, although the answer would probably be something like "stay at home and bake cakes.") As founder of the Tenjo Sajiki theater troupe, he presided over some of the most extreme happenings of the late 1960s and early 1970s – and that’s really saying something. His films were, if anything, even harder to stomach: witness 1970’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup, which featured a live chicken getting slaughtered and a choir of schoolgirls singing "when I grow up to be a whore" while stripping. Nice.
Random trivia: Emperor Tomato Ketchup was later used as an album title by cult indie act Stereolab. We bet they felt really clever about that one, too.


Pop art king turned painter. Tadanori Yokoo’s richly psychedelic graphic design work was the toast of late 1960s and 1970s Japan, adorning countless posters and album covers. Dolts in the west hailed him Japan’s answer to Andy Warhol, which turned out to be more than a little wide of the mark. He ditched design for painting in 1981 after having an epiphany at a Picasso exhibition.
Random trivia: Yokoo played the lead in Nagisa Oshima’s 1968 classic Diary of a Shinjuku Thief.

See also…
(埴谷雄高) – Novelist and man of letters; discovered Kobo Abe.
ICHIYANAGI, TOSHI (一柳慧) – Composer and first of Yoko Ono’s 3 husbands.
(小杉武久) – Fluxus-affiliated sound artist and composer.
TONE, YASUNAO (刀根康尚) – Sound artist one one-time Fluxus mainstay.
(筒井康隆) – Prolific metafiction and sci-fi author.
(吉原治良) – Godfather of the 1960s avant-garde movement.