[Aesthetics] Shuji Terayama (I): A deck of Tarot cards, dark and strange

Shuji-Terayama01Shuji Terayama [寺山修司] (1935 – 1983), avant-garde poet, dramatist, writer, film director and photographer, is not for the faint-hearted.

I dived into his mind-bending universe with the purchase of an artbook called Terayama Shuji no Kamen Gaho [寺山修司の仮面画報], which is brimming with sketches, photos, quotations and explanatory notes on his works. I have to say that he was not an icon of the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s – 1970’s for nothing. He was way out there. To give you an idea of the sort of strange and surreal images that gush forth from his high-powered imagination, below are two pictures of props used by Tenjo Sajiki [天井桟敷], an experimental theatre troupe which he formed in 1967. The first one is called ‘Machine for an Indolent Audience to Appreciate the Classics’ [怠惰な観客のための名作鑑賞機械]:


The catch-copy says: ‘A group of professional audience of NHK (short for ‘Japan Hand-clapping Association’). Appearance at a theatrical performance would cost 500 yen per hand-clap by contract. Hand-clapping gives confidence to the actors and challenges the other audience. It is the arch-enemy of the Machine to Appreciate the Classics.’


The second picture is ‘Youth Manners Machine’. The catch-copy says: ‘This Obedience Average Platform for young people is inspired by A Handbook on Good Manners for Children written by Erasmus, medieval sage. Don’t sneeze. Don’t let your saliva drip on the soup. Don’t fart while you eat. It may be a metaphor that in obeying these rules of manners, one eventually becomes a slave obedient to the will of one’s master, and becomes suspended in mid-air in this manner.’

However, what caught my attention most in this artbook is information about a deck of Tarot card that was the collaborative work of Terayama with the graphic artist Nanami Usuki [薄 奈々美] –




This Tarot deck has 48 cards, which is meant to correspond with the 48 letters in the Japanese alphabet [いろは四八文字]; the 12 animal horoscopes plus the 4 seasons also gives you 48. There are 10 number cards (see above) and the remaining cards are named as follows:

0 – The Fool 1 – The Billiards Player
2 – The Librarian 3 – Ventriloquism
4 – Home 5 – The Female Weight-lifter
6 – The God of Death 7 – The History of Calendar
8 – Alchemy 9 – Telephone Skills
10 – The Slaughterer 11 – Judgment
12 – Anti-universe 13 – Surgery Table
14 – Male Eroticism 15 – The Hierophant
16 – Hair-cut Ritual 17 – Home of God
18 – Pig-farmer 19 – Errand-runner
20 – Criminal Business Association 21 – The Bathtub Repairer
22 – The Big Bird 23 – The Prostitute
24 – Opium 25 – Artificial Eye Engineering
26 – Twenty Godparents 27 – The Twins
28 – The Aged Actress 29 – The Lie-Detector
30 – The Visitor 31 – Journey
32 – Arranged Marriage 33 – Money Luck

Here is how I translate what Terayama said of the first card The Billiards Player: ‘There is an egg on the billiards table, and inside the eggshell a chick is trying to be born. The billiards player is free to strike the egg in any direction he pleases. The egg is the world, and although it is waiting for its chance to go onstage inside the eggshell, it is symbolic of the person who drew this card. In the original Tarot, 1 stands for the magician in a marketplace who is crowned with the sign of infinity ∞, but this card of mine tells of limitation and impossibility. Life is a whoosh like a sudden strike of the billiards ball, and this card predicts such experience for one hour, or one night (or in some cases, one’s whole life).’

Now, fans of Hermann Hesse and Revolutionary Girl Utena should recognize the metaphor of the world and the egg. (‘The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas’…) It is well-known that Kunihiko Ikuhara, director of Utena, was so captivated by Terayama’s experimental theatre as a young student that he began to devote his time to drama, and eventually befriended Julious Arnest Seazer, who was responsible for music at Terayama’s troupe; the two later collaborated on the music score for Utena.

To come back to this Tarot deck. The second card The Librarian, for example, is a ghost who works with books and ‘whose fate is to replicate the world’. You get the idea.

Can this Tarot deck be had for love or money? Well, Terayama has also created another deck of Tarot cards with the artist [大竹 茂夫] and you can find secondhand sellers on Amazon. But for this very special deck illustrated by Nanami Usuki, legend has it that there are only 50 copies in the world. In Classical Greek, a lucky find is a hermaion, which means ‘a gift of Hermes’. Start praying to the great Hermes and you may find it turning up on Japanese auction sites one day.

(To be continued.)


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