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Sound in Two Dimensions: Graphic Scenario of Performances by Zero Jigen in the 1960s



Kuroda Raiji

art historian and curator Fukuoka Asian Art Museum KuroDalaiJee (Kuroda Raiji) is an art historian and curator. He graduated from Tokyo University in 1985 with an MA degree in Humanities and Sociology. The exhibitions he... Read more »
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Sound in Two Dimensions: Graphic Scenario of Performances by Zero Jigen in the 1960s

Zero Jigen (Zero Dimension), a performance collective active in the 1960s in Tokyo and Nagoya, Japan, has only recently become better known in the international art world through the following exhibitions and content: Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012–13) with screenings of the group’s performance documents; Great Crescent: Art and Agitation in the 1960s—Japan, South Korea and Taiwan (Para Site, Hong Kong, 2013–14), which toured to Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, in 2015, with screenings of their newly edited films and a display of journal articles; and SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul, Seoul Museum of Art, 2014, with documentary photographs and footage of the group’s performances and accompanying texts written by the author of this essay. These exhibitions at leading art spaces introduced Zero Jigen’s fertile practice and the more than one hundred performances they conducted throughout the 1960s. The group is known for their bold interventions in downtown Tokyo street life, for combining Japanese and Western elements, for juxtaposing urban modernity with childlike playfulness, and for nudity, which accounts for the frequent appearance of the group—at least forty-eight times between 1964 and 19721 —in popular (and often vulgar) weekly magazines such as Shūkan Taishū (Weekly Populace), Doyō Manga (Saturday Comic), and Heibon Panchi (Ordinary Punch). The above-mentioned exhibitions and recent research (mainly by this author) on the “ritual style”2 of their performances and those of other collectives/individuals in the vein of Anti-Art since the early 1960s have shed new light on previously ignored or obscured parts of the history of Japanese art, highlighting the role of the historical counterculture in the global avant-garde practices of resistance to both the omnipresent control over everyday life wreaked by modernization and the impact of Western and other foreign cultures.

Zero Jigen’s performances—which were called “rituals” as opposed to “happenings” or “performances”—were basically collective, usually involving between three and ten or more performers. Though the participants in each performance varied, the core members of Zero Jigen in the late 1960s were all male and included Katō Yoshihiro, who served as the group’s director; Nagata Satoru, Matsuba Masao, and Kamijō Junjirō from Tokyo; and Iwata Shin-ichi from Nagoya. Other male nonmember artists and female performers would temporarily join depending on the venue and situation. The storylines and details regarding gestures and postures, costumes, props, sets, time frame, etc. were conceived and directed by Katō, which can be verified by his illustrated “scenarios” (hereafter also called “graphic scenarios”).

Katō began his artistic career as a painter, and his graphic scenarios allowed him to convey performance overviews and plans to members of the group. The drawings are diverse in terms of composition, but all of them are careful records of his intentions in terms of storylines and strategies (despite the seemingly impromptu and nonsensical style of the actual performances). According to Katō he often drew scenarios for preparatory meetings and rehearsals, yet only five sets of the scenes for the group’s performances in 1967–68 remain.These scenarios are precious documents in that they reveal Katō’s original ideas. They also enable us to determine the unintended developments in the final performances as documented in archival photographs, films, texts, and interviews.

This article analyzes Katō’s graphic scenarios or “scripts” for Zero Jigen’s performances, cross-referencing them with archival materials related to the actual performances. It also investigates the important role of sound, a factor that has been ignored in previous discussions of Zero Jigen’s performances.

01 1 choonpa
Katō Yoshihiro. Drawing for Ultrasonic Wave Operation at Chō-onpa Onsen Bathhouse in Shibuya (August 20, 1967).

The earliest extant graphic scenario sketched by Katō is for Ultrasonic Wave Operation, performed at a public bathhouse in Shibuya on August 20, 1967. In this performance—which is representative of Zero Jigen’s style in its juxtaposition of public and private, and the clothed and the naked—men in Western-style suits parade down the street and then, oddly, maintain their formal attire in contexts designed for relaxation and amusement, i.e., in a restaurant and a downtown bathhouse where, still clothed, they bathe with a naked woman. Both existing versions of the corresponding scenario open with almost-identical scenes of five masked men in swallowtail coats. In what is presumably the first version, this scene is followed by a bird’s-eye view of the performance space, a plaza in front of Shibuya Station. Yet, in the second, this view has been replaced with a scene of three men in suits, two of them also in hats, putting shaving cream on the shoulders of a woman who is walking in front of them. Eventually, this scene must have been deleted, as it does not appear in photographs or film footage of the actual performance. Conversely, neither scenario includes umbrellas, which were important props in Zero Jigen’s marching scenes and are evident in related archival material. These are examples of the kinds of alterations made in the final performances.

02 19670924 choonpa
Katō Yoshihiro. Drawing for Ultrasonic Wave Operation No.2 at Chō-onpa Onsen Bathhouse in Shibuya (September 24, 1967).

Ultrasonic Wave Operation No. 2, performed on September 24, 1967, opened with five men dragging a woman on a futon down the street, followed by another woman dragging a baby doll. This scene was enacted, but Katō recalls that the photographer he hired to document the performance failed to shoot it. In fact, compared with the well-documented performance of this piece that took place on August 20, 1967, very little archival material has survived except for three photographs that appeared in Shūkan Wadai (Weekly Topics) on November 2, 1967. The scarcity of documentation makes the corresponding scenario more precious in terms of the details it conveys, many of which do not appear in previous scenarios, such as men eating chicken and women drinking milk in the bathhouse. Zero Jigen’s unusual use of food in their performances was aimed to provoke the sexual imagination of Western viewers, who were supposedly in the audience.3 This observation reveals another failure in the photographic and film documentation, which is focused on the performers as opposed to on the audience and its reactions.

03 19671014 flower train
Katō Yoshihiro. Drawing for The Flower Train Gas Mask Operation at Club Hana-densha in Asakusa (October 14–16, 1967), collection of Fukuoka Art Museum.

A scenario for The Flower Train Gas Mask Operation, performed at Kurabu Hana-densha (Club Flower Train) on October 14–16, 1967, also conveys important details, notably instructions regarding vocal and instrumental music, neither of which was recorded in the photographs or film footage of the performance. As this performance was commissioned by a cabaret in Asakusa, a mecca of popular entertainment in Tokyo since the Edo Period, Katō was able to ask a band hired by the cabaret to play live music. He also hired a group of chindon-ya, or traditional street musicians, for advertisement, which is not mentioned in the scenario, to play music alternately with the cabaret’s band. The artist’s notes for scene 1 read “a groaning voice by an ascetic (gyōja)” (that of Matsue Kaku, a member of Kurohata [Black Flag], one of the ritual school performance groups that often collaborated with Zero Jigen; although the scenario itself does not specify the identity of the performer, it is verified in documentary photographs). For scene 3, they read, “the orchestra solemnly begins to play ‘kokowa okuniwo nanzenri [sic]’ (here we are several hundred miles away from home country)” from a popular military song “Sen-yu” (Comrades-in-Arms). Scene 4 is accompanied by “circus music,” in which the tempo changes in response to the actions of two groups. I was able to get confirmation from Katō that the circus music was “Uruwashiki Tennen” (Beauteous Nature), a popular song often played for silent films and the circus, and in street performances by chindon-ya bands. Unlike the lively “Entry of the Gladiators,” which is popular at circus performances in Western cities, “Uruwashiki Tennen” is a slow and melancholy minor waltz in a nostalgic, prewar Japanese style. Scene 6, the finale, contains another military song, “Akatsukini inoru” (Prayer at Dawn), indicated by its opening lyric—“Ah, ah, ano kaode ano koede” (Ah, with that face, that voice). These tunes are reminiscent of Katō’s childhood in Mukden (today’s Shenyang) in Manchuria in northern China when it was occupied by the Japanese. At that time, his father lived there as a soldier, and two of his father’s aunts ran a cabaret, which employed European hostesses. Katō’s childhood memories of Mukden and Shanghai, where he occasionally visited, later became a major source of motifs in Zero Jigen’s performances—popular prewar music such as circus and military songs as well as “Yelaixiang” (Night Fragrant Flower) by Lee Hsiang-lan (later Yamaguchi Yoshiko)4, and the hostesses who lived with his family in Nagoya for a while after the war and made intense impressions with their flamboyant and exotic eroticism, which was in contrast to the thin bodies of the Japanese women. Katō was pleased with the success of this large-scale performance, but the mischievous use of “Kimigayo,” Japan’s national anthem (not mentioned in the scenario) in a farcical scene, in which a person controls the movements of strung penises in rhythm with “Kimigayo,” proved too provocative and thus upset the cabaret manager, who eventually cut the scheduled two-week program down to three days!

Screen shot 2015 06 24 at 9.52.46 am
Katō Yoshihiro. Drawing for The Grand Attack Operation in Hibiya, Yūrakuchō, and Ginza (December 15, 1967).

The style of the scenario for The Grand Attack Operation is different from that of the others discussed as it does not contain text instructions for each scene but instead consists of unframed and detailed pictures with rough time frames for two scenes, venues, props, and a list of performers (including a German shepherd dog and a chindon-ya band). The reason for this stylistic difference may be the function this scenario was intended to serve: First, the performance was commissioned by Towa, a film distribution company, for the publicity of a French film La Grande Vardrouille (although Katō had no interest in this film and planned the performance without having seen it). This performance was covered in a weekly magazine SSS (in the February 6, 1967, issue), thus serving as publicity for the film. Second, this scenario did not include regular members of Zero Jigen (including Katō) but rather female performers (gathered by Chida Ui, who frequently costarred with Zero Jigen and led the troupe in this performance)—though Katō planned to have as many male performers as female. Another Zero Jigen costar and important “ritual” performance artist, Koyama Tetsuo, joined the actual performance, wearing completely different attire than what is shown in the scenario. Though this may have disturbed Katō’s unified vision for the costumes and gestures, he was willing to accept Koyama’s and the other artists’ interventions. The scenes with the hanging structure and two beds in the center right of the scenario were not performed on the street but rather in a nearby theater where Kamijō and his wife also participated.

The scenario for Cybele: A Pastoral Ritual in Five Scenes—a film by Donald Richie (now in MoMA’s collection), shot on August 25, 1968—is fundamentally different from other extant scenarios in that it consists of individual storyboards for filming in sequential frames. The performers included Ichimura Toko as a goddess and Suzuki Sei-ichi from Sendai, as well as the aforementioned regular Zero Jigen members, Katō, Iwata, Nagata, Matsuba, and Kamijō. Two copies of the scenario remain, but the third sheet is missing from one of them. In another copy of a full set, Katō later added details and more instructions regarding the number and names of performers, specific gestures, and a song lyric in red pen, and he also changed the numbering with a thick black pen. First Richie asked Katō to visualize a story he conceived for Zero Jigen’s performance about a group of men who abused a woman without realizing that she was a goddess and then became the objects of her revenge. Katō agreed to follow Richie’s storyline—though he was allowed to do whatever else he wanted—and then drew the storyboard (thus the credits in the film read “written by” Katō [misspelled “Yoshiro Kato”], “A dr” [which perhaps refers to “art director”], and “by Zero Jigen” [misspelled “Zero Jikken”]). Richie followed the storyboard and managed to represent the more violent and physically impossible scenes with some tricky editing—for example, the scenes in which a woman cuts off a group of men’s penises and tongues (frames 32–35 and 40–42) and in which she inserts a stick into a man’s anus and up through his mouth (frame 44–46). Yet three scenes in the storyboard were not included in the final film—a group of men throwing a woman onto a tombstone (frame 21); one of them defecating on her face (frames 22–24); and the woman attacking the men with bunches of incense sticks (frame 38–39)—perhaps because of Richie’s disgust with such physical outrage and Katō’s emphasis on blood, rendered in red pencil, in his drawings.

There are more noteworthy differences between Katō’s storyboard and Richie’s film, which reveal significant gaps between Katō’s tasteless emphasis on physicality and Richie’s lyrical and structured filming and editing. First, Richie has divided Katō’s story, which consists of forty-nine numbered frames, into “five scenes,” or chapters, titling them 1. convocation, 2. invocation, 3. abjuration, 4. retribution, 5. apotheosis, with footage of trees inserted between each one. Ironically, Richie’s faith to the storyboard often upset Katō during the performance as Katō wanted more spontaneous and uninterrupted development of the action. There was another, more significant change by Richie—his use of French baroque music by Jean-Joseph Mouret and Jean-Philippe Rameau, which emphasizes the kitschy splendors of “a pastoral ritual,” and the fact that he totally ignored Katō’s instruction to have men singing “Yoitomake-no-uta” (Song of Ground Worker) in frame 6. The song, written and sung by Maruyama (later Miwa) Akihiro, was quite popular in 1966 despite its old-fashioned style and message of a poor boy thanking his mother who supported him by working patiently as a day laborer. Maruyama wrote the song for coal miners, which might have sounded anachronistic to the urban youth and the middle class in the years of high economic growth but appealed to those who remembered poverty and discrimination. Even though the film was to be directed by an American, Katō wanted to retain certain nostalgic Japanese elements, an intent not honored by Richie. The conceptual gap between the two artists was for Katō epitomized by the men, who charged with energy by the woman’s violent ritual of initiation, had to return to reality to be street fighters, whereas all scenes remained within the mythological world for Richie.

Another less ostensible difference between the scenarios and the completed film caused a problem during its screenings in Paris, London, and New York. The last scene, in which the woman plays with the dead bodies of the men, seems to last longer and include more detailed shots than the simple three frame pictures in the scenario suggest, and furthermore it embarrassed Western audiences because it reminded them of the Holocaust. This fact not only led to the cancellation of the screenings, it also contradicted Richie’s intention to have the film be “a comedy with comments on contemporary civilization,” and Katō’s for the performance to serve as a ritual of death and resurrection in contemporary life.

As examined above, the graphic scenarios behind Zero Jigen’s performances are illuminating. First, they contain details regarding time sequence, sound, audience, and situation that have not been thoroughly documented in photographs or films; in particular, Katō’s use of popular prewar music emphasizes Zero Jigen’s Japanese aesthetic, which was antithetical to the modern city of the 1960s. Second, whether ultimately performed or not, the scenarios convey Katō’s wild sense of fancy, which seeks to objectify the living body and to disturb the urban environment beyond its physical and spatial conditions. And finally, the scenarios, if examined against documents in other mediums, prove Katō’s openness to interacting and collaborating with other performers (including Koyama Tetsuo, Chida Ui, Matsue Kaku, and musicians) as well as with filmmakers such as Donald Richie.


This number includes biweekly magazines (but excludes more decent graphic weekly magazines such as Asahi Graph and others that cannot be identified).


For more on the “ritual style,” see KuroDalaiJee, “Performance Collectives in 1960s Japan: With a Focus on the ‘Ritual School,’” in positions: east asia cultures critique 21, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 417–488; see also KuroDalaiJee, “The Rituals of Zero Jigen in the Urban Space,” in Я[á:r], issue 02 (2003), 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa: 32–37.


In their previous performance at the same bathhouse, Kato had known the bathhouse was popular with Westerners, and so he added a new setting intended to entertain them.


Yamaguchi Yoshiko (1920–2014), known as Lee Hsiang-lan (李香蘭) in prewar and wartime China and Japan, or Shirley Yamaguchi in the postwar US, was an actress and singer. Born in China to Japanese parents, and then adopted by a Chinese family, she was popular in both China and Japan for her Chinese and Japanese songs as well as films produced in China by Manchuria Film Association. In postwar Japan she continued to work as an actress but also as a politician.

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