Miryam Sas on Japanese Surrealism

Book Review: Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism , by Miryam Sas, Published by Stanford University Press, 1999, 240 pages, $18.95 paper, ISBN 0804736499. (Available on amazon.com)

Possibly one of the most significant developments in scholarship in recent years is the willingness to view historical and cultural change in non-western countries on their own terms, rather than exclusively according to Western assumptions and expectations. We may be unable, as the phenomenologist Gadamer points out, to wholly lay aside our own cultural subjectivity, but we can at least listen to the voices of others as they express their thoughts in their own words. Most often in anthologies and biographical sketches the critical and theoretical writings of modern Japanese poets have been ignored. Few studies outlining the details of a particular poet’s thought as it effects actual poetic practice have been produced in this country other than outstanding exceptions such as Hosea Hirata’s work on the poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburo. With Miryam Sas’ groundbreaking study we are given a clear, and even intensive sense of the Japanese Surrealists as very much modern intellectuals in an active and passionate engagement with the ideas of their time. The theoretical writings and developments in the thought of such notables as Takiguchi Shuzo, who introduced Surrealism to Japan through his translations of Breton as well as his own writings, are covered extensively. Moreover, Sas provides material here which leads not only to a deeper understanding of the thought behind 20th Century Japanese literary movements, but of the process of cultural transfer as well, in all its complexity and ambiguity. Sas notes in her prologue that “Japanese Surrealism is striking and important both for the specific questions it raises and for its exemplary place as an encounter between cultures, literary movements, and languages.” Sas uses the title of her book, “Fault Lines”, to denote how the introduction of Surrealism to Japan was, like the great Kanto earthquake which occurred around the same time, an occasion not only for literary “shock” and “rupture”, but a variety of creative reconfigurations as well.

The book goes beyond a simple chronology of events as they occurred, and instead takes up specific theoretical and often deeply philosophical issues of concern to both French and Japanese poets, showing in great detail how the Japanese poets dealt with these issues within their own thought processes and poetic procedures. Both poetic works and theoretical writings of major Japanese figures such as Takiguchi Shuzo, Nishiwaki Junzaburo and Kitasono Katue, as well as Surrealist forerunner Hagiwara Sakutaro are quoted and examined in great detail. What is striking, as mentioned previously, is that those of us already familiar in general with the works of these poets and their lives are given a much stronger impression of them as brilliant and important thinkers of their time. Takiguchi was both a major theorist and translator of French poetry during his time, and an examination of his work, as well as that of Nishiwaki Junzaburo, brings up specific problems of language, meaning and translation, in regard to which both these thinkers had a surprisingly subtle and sophisticated understanding in a time when the linguistic and semiotic theories those of us in the fields of language and literature now take for granted were just barely being developed. We are also shown exactly how cosmopolitan Japanese poets were before World War II by the examples of the international activities of Kitasono Katue, who corresponded with Ezra Pound for many years, and Takiguchi Shuzo who shared his ideas with Breton during this time, finally visiting him in person in Paris in 1958. Sas provides us with a rich selection of samples of poems, theoretical writings and visuals in the appendix, for those interested in reading these in more detail in the original.

One of the most important contributions this book brings to current scholarship is the rediscovery of two nearly forgotten women Surrealists — Ema Shouko and Tomotani Shizue. These poets, along with other women experimentalists of the pre-war period, have been almost completely ignored until now, not only here but in Japan as well. A major anthology of Japanese Modernist poets published in the 1969 (Gengo Kuukan, edited by Ohka Makoto) includes virtually no women at all. Sas gives both these sensitive and intelligent poets the attention they deserve, opening the way for further research on their work, as well as other women experimental writers of the period.

Sas’ interest in Japanese Surrealism and its influence on later experimental movements has led her in the direction of performance. Hence the epilogue on one of the most important post-war developments in the avant-garde in Japan, that of the Butoh, a new dance-performance art form created by Hijikata Tatsumi. Sas examines the writings and thought of the major artists here, including Ohno Kazuo, and the various ways in which Surrealism, as well as the Japanese Noh theories of Zeami have been adapted and interpreted.

Throughout this study Sas makes an extensive use of the writings of Japanese poets, artists and critics, bringing needed attention not only to the better known modern poets such as Nishiwaki and Takiguchi, but hitherto ignored women poets such as Ema Shouko and Tomotani Shizue as well. In doing so we also run across other names not often seen in academic works, such as Yoshioka Minoru (possibly the most important postwar poet following in the steps of the Surrealists) and Nagata Koi, enigmatic experimental haikuist and essayist on philosophical subjects as well as the Butoh. A wealth of material appears here which should add significantly to the awareness in this country of experimental poetry in Japan during this century, and whet the appetites of students and researchers, leading hopefully to further fruitful work in this area.

One Response to “Miryam Sas on Japanese Surrealism”

  1. Poet (poet), the new | Intarweb-master.com Says:

    […] Miryam Sas on Japanese Surrealism « The New Modernism […]

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