Sorgenfrei's Last Stand


Photo by Angilee Shah.

UCLA professor Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei speaks out on the sometimes frightful, but mostly delightful, process behind her landmark book, Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shuji and Postwar Japan.

There's nothing trifling or understated about the genius of Terayama Shuji. The flamboyant, larger-than-life titan of Japanese avant-garde theater is the stuff of cult lore, and why not -- his work raises almost as many eyebrows as goosebumps, and his notorious shock-and-awe tactics are seldom seen anywhere in the arts, even in a medium accustomed to expecting the unexpected. Naturally then, it would require someone with a similarly dogged outlook to reveal his true colors. That someone turned out to be Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei -- playwright, director, UCLA professor, and perhaps most tellingly, the author of the book Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shuji and Postwar Japan. Sometimes you get to choose your subject. Other times, that subject inexplicably chooses you.

Sorgenfrei remembers her initial encounter with Terayama quite vividly. “The first thing that he would say is, ‘I'm very fat.' Then you would go and meet him and he wasn't fat. He was kind of heavyset but he wasn't fat. This was a thing he had about himself. He always thought of himself as being different from other people.”

Different, also in his temperament. “The main thing that surprised me was that he was so gentle, despite some of the violent images that appeared in his work,” says Sorgenfrei. “He was gentle and kind and helpful. He was really, really anxious to help -- he drew all kinds of pictures and diagrams for me for our interview.”

Of course, what began as occupational formality -- Sorgenfrei was developing her dissertation on avant-garde Japanese theatre and decided that Terayama was its raison d'etre -- soon blossomed into lifelong necessity, though Sorgenfrei certainly couldn't have foreseen the extraordinary measures that she would eventually be compelled to undertake. All on behalf of her endless fascination for a man whose social impact she believes to be far greater than we think.

“What's incredible is that a lot of people who were important in the ‘60s and ‘70s get forgotten 20, 30, 40 years later,” she muses. “But Terayama continues to be a cult figure in Japan -- he's massively, massively important. Understanding why people are still enthralled by someone who enthralled them back then can help us understand what's going on in Japan today, what young people are thinking.”

As for the rest of us, Sorgenfrei has this to say: “I think that what he does is he addresses subjects that are generally taboo -- that a lot of people secretly feel, but aren't allowed to talk about.” Such as ambivalence toward America. Whether to reject or uphold the past. And mothers.

“There's a big argument in Japanese studies whether Japan is a mother-centered society,” she says. “There is such a strong image that Japanese people like to portray of themselves -- to themselves and to everyone else -- about aggravation of the mother. And there's this ugly undercurrent -- it's not new, it's always been there -- which exists: both love and hate. I think that's one of the things that hits a lot of people at home.”

Unspeakable Acts is being widely hailed as the definitive guide to Terayama and his work, especially amongst Sorgenfrei's literati brethren. And deservedly so -- in addition to deconstructing Terayama in more lucid terms, it includes masterful translations of three of his most heavily scrutinized plays. But few in Sorgenfrei's field can boast of a labor of love so filled with off-the-stage theatrics and antagonism. Besides the usual culprits -- not enough sources, not enough access, the tedium of writing and researching while trying to make ends meet -- there were demons -- both inner and outer -- that needed vanquishing. Namely -- and perhaps fittingly -- a mother who refused to go away.

Following Terayama's untimely demise at age 46, his ex-wife, who at the time retained rights to Terayama's legacy, gave Sorgenfrei the green light. But Terayama's mentally unstable mother -- who just a few years ago had tried to burn down Terayama's apartment -- had other designs. Eight years and countless court battles later, she had wrested control away from Terayama's ex-wife and subsequently, Sorgenfrei herself. Though Sorgenfrei temporarily directed her attention toward other projects, Terayama remained her ace in the hole. She exhausted all of her options, but in Terayama's mother, she had met her match, someone who would stop at nothing to impede Sorgenfrei's process. One of these tactics included adopting the ex-wife as a daughter, which is far more convoluted and conniving than it sounds. Only when she too passed on was Sorgenfrei able to go full throttle once again. And in the process, exorcise some of those other demons.

“I think that the external obstacles, in the long run, ended up being good for me and the book,” she says somewhat incredulously. “I thought I would give up on it so many times because it looked impossible, but once it became possible to do it again, there was this internal thing that said, ‘You've got to do it because if you don't, you'll always hate yourself.'”

Still, it wasn't enough for Sorgenfrei to merely finish what she started. “I really think that people who know something that is important have an obligation to share that with people,” she says, the tone in her voice noticeably heavier. “I've known scholars who have kept their hoard of special knowledge to themselves, and they dibble and dab, but they don't publish the book. I didn't want to be one of those people. I always wanted to share everything -- that's what's fun, that's what the point is.”

The point being that, if anything, Terayama is more relevant, more crucial to our understanding of culture and society and men and their mothers -- now.

“I think that the timing is ripe -- there's a lot more interest among the general population about what's going on with Japan,” she says. “In a way, he was ahead of his time. That's another reason you might say the external horrors I had to go through were maybe for the best because his work is even more prescient and timely -- right now. What he does -- his plays, his films, his poetry -- they could've have been written now.”

Published: Wednesday, October 19, 2005