The Crimson Thread of Abandon

The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important even if it wasn’t as good as it is: an introduction to the work of a creative colossus who helped define the Japanese counterculture in the 1960s and ’70s, leaving his mark not only on fiction and poetry, but also on photography, film, TV, radio, and the theater.

As it happens, Crimson Thread is thin but lovely, a gathering of very short wisps of stories that read sometimes as cracked postmodernist fables, sometimes as bemused and irreverent prose poems à la James Tate (Terayama actually started out as a tanka poet, bent on upending that most self-consciously refined of ancient aristocratic traditions). Terayama’s work thus anticipated both the rise of flash fiction and the resurgence of the fairy tale as a medium for serious writing. In his fictive world, puppets fall in love and make their owners jealous, lovers turn into birds at the wrong time, and pictures jump out of magazines to warn readers about the perils of desire. It is a world of chance and unintended consequences, where the boundaries between imagination and reality are porous, and wishes are both beautiful and dangerous.

In “Memory Shot,” a man visits a memory doctor for a shot of happy memories, gets a dose of bad ones instead, and then ends up living with a woman whose own memories seem to include some earlier, perhaps mistaken, version of him. In “The Eraser,” a jealous lover uses a magic eraser to make his rivals disappear, rubbing them out as if they were words on a page—only to accidentally eliminate the woman he loves, too. And in the “Ribbon of the Sea,” a beautiful yellow ribbon passes from one girl to another by way of a bird, causing blindness and suicide. By the story’s conclusion, there is no one left but the writer himself, who ends with a poetic conceit worthy of a narrator from an Edo period tale:

No one can write a sequel to this story. This is because I have sealed it up in a cardboard box and thrown it out to sea with all the rest of the troubles in this world. Perhaps the sequel and the yellow ribbon will encounter each other at sea on a moonlit night. So, farewell. If you chance upon a cardboard box tied up with a yellow ribbon on a seafaring voyage, do not pick it up. If you do, the sequel to this story will begin.

“A tear is the smallest ocean in the world . . .”

In fact, Terayama’s stories declare their stubborn Japaneseness over and over again, perhaps most interestingly in the way they repeat key elements in a playful, hall-of-mirrors way. The pieces in the first half of the volume were written as linked short stories (they come from a collection called Stories Sewn Up with a Red Thread), but feel less like the current version of that genre as practiced in the West and more like traditional Japanese linked verse, in which a group of poets collaborate on a single long poem together. Linked verse has long cultivated a slantwise aesthetic, resisting the pull of narrative in favor of improvisation and surprise: characters reappear but meet new fates, and images repeat, but are put to new uses. The novelist Ogawa Yoko took something like this approach in her collection Revenge, which came out in English in 2013. It is one of the pleasures of Terayama’s work as well.

Elizabeth L. Armstrong has translated Terayama’s stories with sensitivity and skill, dealing gracefully with his puns and word play (my personal favorite: she names the melancholy attendant at the clinic in “Memory Shot” Cotton Bawl). Her short introduction has smart things to say about the stories and the “interstitial webbing” that binds them together. If I have a regret, it is that she doesn’t give a clearer sense of Terayama’s outsized importance to post-war Japanese culture, or of his powerful impact on Japanese film and theater. Readers who want to know more should look at Steven C. Ridgely’s Japanese Counterculture: The Anti-Establishment Art of Terayama Shūji, which focuses on the way Terayama’s political thought shaped his work across multiple media, and Carol F. Sorgenfrei’s Unspeakable Acts: the Avant Garde Theater of Terayama Shūji and Postwar Japan, which focuses on his subversive work as a playwright and theater director.

Hopefully, The Crimson Thread of Abandon will trigger a wave of interest in Terayama, with Ms. Armstrong or another talented Japanese-English translator bringing us some of the poetry, or perhaps the boxing novel. Till then, we can enjoy this glimpse into the strange and beautiful world of Terayama’s short fiction, with its devious talking birds and lovers carried around in suitcases, and its belief that the red thread of desire links everything, real or imagined.

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