It’s like a cross between a funeral procession, a live performance of The Doors’s “The End” taken to its furthest possible extreme, and the incendiary rantings of a street-corner prophet. J.A. Seazer’s Kokkyō Junreika (“A Pilgrimage Across National Borders”) distills most if not all of the glorious excess from the career of one of Japan’s counter-culture rock gods. It’s not a compilation record, but it might as well be — most everything you’d hear in a J.A. Seazer production is all here, in one 53-minute package. Invocations to the gods, tantrums, chants, Buddhist mantras, cries to the heavens, fuzztone guitar vamps — it’s all here.
And yet it all doesn’t sound like an embarrassing leftover from the acid era; it sounds ageless instead of aged. I’ve argued with friends about whether or not this is ethnocentric — i.e., does it sound that much more powerful and exotic by dint of simply not being in English? I don’t think so. There’s something about the way Japan continually transmutes its spiritual roots into popular culture of one kind or another, all without seeming to cheapen it or turn it into just another roadside attraction. When “outsider folk” artists like Shuji Inaba, Kazuki Tomokawa or Kan Mikami (a frequent Seazer collaborator) step up and deliver with speaker-cone-tearing vigor, they transmit something not only deeply felt but deeply believed. It’s not slumming.
Transmute Jim Morrison’s Lizard King persona through a combination of butoh dancer, Japanese backwoods shaman and Kerouac Dharma Bum, and you’d end up with something vaguely resembling J.A. Seazer. Kokkyō is credited to both the voraciously creative Seazer and his band, Akuma no Ie (悪魔の家 / “House of the Devil”) and Tenjō Sajiki (天井桟敷 / “The Gallery”), the performance troupe he collaborated with frequently. The CD itself functions as a highlights collection of a much larger work, a five-plus hour theatrical production which has since been reissued in a slightly less edited form. That said, this single album is by far easier to swallow, since it prunes away all the dross and filler. Every cut on Kokkyō is infused with energy — either manic or subtle — and the record as a whole is so emotionally battering, so simultaneously funereal and fierce, that I suspect the entire unedited performance would have counted more as an endurance test than a cultural event.
The track titles all hint at the obsessions and fascinations that Seazer cultivated throughout his career: Buddhism (“Tenshoutan” / 転生譚, “Metempsychosis”); Oedipal conflicts and mother fixations (“Kyōjo Bushi” / 狂女節, “Song of the Madwoman”) (“Haha Koishiya Sangoshou” /母恋しやサンゴ礁, “Mother Love and the Coral Reef”); mythology and eschatology (“Ootori No Kuru Hi” / 大鳥の来る日, “The Day the Phoenix Returns”). All are suffused with a sense of mounting stark horror that’s hard to dismiss as mere affectation or performance. Even the quieter tracks (like “Minkan Iryou Jutsu” /民間医療術, “Folk Medicine”) build, sustain and detonate enormous emotional crescendos.
Delve into Seazer himself and you see some of where it all comes from. Part of the man’s image, and his appeal, is his aggressively cultivated mystique: it’s difficult to tell how much of Seazer’s past as he relates it is true and how much of it is self-mythologizing hyperbole. As detailed in Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler (source of my details about Seazer's life for this piece), Seazer was born Taka’aki Terahara in Kyushu, a remote island in the Japanese archipelago with an aura of deep spiritual mystery about it. Dreamy and poetic, immersed in Buddhist scripture and visionary dreaming, the young Terahara left home at the age of fifteen or so to find himself through his art(s).
Terahara fell in love with a girl named Jiya only a few months his senior, but whatever personal utopian fantasies they were nursing together were crushed when Jiya got drunk one day, fell asleep on the beach, and drowned. Bereaved, Terahara found work as a yakuza enforcer — maybe not the best channel for his frustration — and ultimately ran afoul of his superiors. He grabbed his stash and ran for Tokyo, where he enrolled in art school. Trouble followed him there (he still had a hair-trigger violent temper, and as it turned out his old criminal cronies were looking for him); to escape further harassment, he grew his hair out down to his waist and took refuge in the bustling Shinjuku district of Tokyo.
Terahara — now Seazer, having adopted a new name as part of his self-imposed cultural makeover — eventually drifted into the artistic circle of Shuji Terayama. Theatrical producer, film director, poet, author, theorist and all-around cultural centerpiece for the protestant youth of Japan (it was he who later urged them to Throw Away Your Books and Go out into the Streets), Seazer was — surprisingly enough — originally uninterested in affiliating himself with him. On meeting Terayama for the first time, though, he felt strangely welcome and at home, and accepted a position in Terayama’s art-performance troupe Tenjō Sajiki. It was a fruitful union, to put it mildly: during the rest of the Sixties and through the Seventies Seazer produced a staggering amount of music in the form of musical scores, film soundtracks, librettos, incidental music, and just about everything else under and above the sun. Books was in fact the first project that Seazer contributed to, along with Terayama’s notorious parable of youth in revolt, Emperor Tomato Ketchup.
The golden years ended with Terayama’s death in 1983 of kidney disease. Without his guiding light, Tenjō Sajiki foundered, and Seazer was sadly unable to give the group the focus it needed. He spent most of the following decade doing songwriting duties for former comrades, but found real success again when fellow child-of-the-sixties-turned-animation-director Kunihiro Ikuhara hired Seazer to contribute to the soundtracks for the surreal, sexually-tinged anime Revolutionary Girl Utena. That series along with the attendant theatrical film produced something like seven albums plus a clutch of singles, but its biggest benefit was to bring Seazer back into the public eye and to allow many of his earlier works to be re-released on CD. In typical collector’s-rapacity fashion, original vinyl and cassette copies of Seazer’s albums change hands for hundreds of dollars.
Back in my review of Borbetomagus’s Live at InRoads I mentioned how listening to such things primed me for John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” phase (as documented mostly on the Impulse! Label) — but also for Coltrane’s fully accessible and most melodic work (i.e., his Atlantic sides). In the same way, it was the pegged-in-the-red acid madness of Keiji Haino and Fushitsusha that primed me for the likes of Seazer and the rest of his contemporaries — and also kept alive the same breed of outsider-overload that Seazer helped kick off. They wouldn’t be here without him, and maybe he wouldn’t continue to be here without them either.