Hiroo Yamagata Interview

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Which Lesescenarios have you worked with?

I translated Darius James' Negrophobia and William S. Burroughs' Last words of Dutch Schultz into Japanese. I also translated Burroughs' Blade Runner: A Movie and something short by Kathy Acker.1

Empire of the Senseless,2 was it?

I translated that too, but that's not a Lesescenario. It's a novel. The Acker work I translated was called Birth of the Poet.

Ah, the libretto she wrote for the Peter Gordon opera.3

Returning to your other translations, would you consider Burroughs' Blade Runner a Lesescenario? Elsewhere in, I argue that the text was more of a movie-in-novel-form than a filmscript-in-novel-form.4 I found some critics and readers did consider the text a Lesescenario, but while the subtitle and prose style clearly express a cinematic intent, as do the random strips of film running along the book's pages, the text's formatting is not terribly screenplay-like, even compared to the 1910/20s scenario-based style of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's Lesescenarios (e.g., The Life of a Stupid Man).5 Perhaps, in translating the Burroughs text, you formatted it like screenplay?

Of course, labeling Burroughs' Blade Runner a "Lesescenario" is a matter of definition. But I think it's quite close. Someone could make a movie out of it, I suppose.

In the article I reference above, I credit the Japanese -- namely Akutagawa -- with creating the Lesescenario form. Would you say this is accurate?

I don't know. If a writer wrote a screenplay intending it to be produced and, for whatever reason, it never was, and the writer published it as a "book," does that make it a Lesescenario? If so, there are probably many pre-Akutagawa examples. Some theaters stage Akutagawa's work too. Does that mean texts like Life of a Stupid Man are less Lesescenario-like because they're staged as plays? Is it the intention or the absence of production that makes a Lesescenario a Lesescenario? I'm really not sure.

That's a good point, actually. Is the Lesescenario genre defined by writer intention or the absence of production? I suppose one could make a case for both, and, as you suggest, the potential for crossover always exists. Unproduced screenplays published as texts are sometimes eventually produced; produced screenplays are sometimes published as texts. I suppose this instability and complexity are what make the genre so fascinating and, admittedly, somewhat nebulous. Developing a canon of Lesescenarios would be rather challenging vis-à-vis epics, lyrics, and even short fiction.

Not to take us too far off topic, but in his essay "Epic and Novel," Mikhail Bakhtin argues similar things about the novel's unique properties, namely, that it has few fixed conventions and, as such, that it can constantly adapt and change and even influence and "novelize" other genres like the epic poem.6 The screenplay does have certain formal conventions, of course, but these conventions have evolved over time and continue changing. This suggests the form has a certain novel-like flexibility, and it's difficult to overlook the transformative power both reader-oriented and production-oriented screenplays exerted on the novel during the twentieth century and continue to exert on it in the early twenty-first. We might, in fact, be able to claim that the Lesescenario at least -- to say nothing of its production-oriented sibling -- is a sort of new "novel" form.7

Bringing us back on topic, as far as I could discover, Louis-Ferdinand Céline gave the West its first closet script in 1936.8 Do you know of any earlier Western examples?

No, but again, "closet scripts"? Scripts that are written but never performed? There should be millions of them.

Strictly-speaking -- and without negating my earlier points -- I suppose a closet screenplay would be have to be written as a reader's object rather than as a production-oriented narrative commodity. However, again, any script published as a text undoubtedly has a claim to the term, and while I want to accommodate the Lesescenario's formal latitude, if we start suggesting the sheer act of a reading a script makes it a Lesescenario, I fear we've begin stretching the taxonomic boundaries of the form into meaninglessness. In any case, it is a real challenge to accommodate the genre integrity and the essential flexibility of the Lesescenario form.

I have an unrealized Burroughs/Terry Southern Junky film script, although it dates from about 1965 or so ...

An adaptation of the Burroughs novel Junky?9 Fascinating. What can you tell me about that? Was it ever published?

It wasn't. It was more of an attempt by Southern to scam money from a group of novice producers. He locked himself in a hotel room with several "typists" and "secretaries." The script was obviously produced by several different typewriters so these parties did do some work, but they mostly engaged themselves in a drug-and-alchohol bender. As for the script itself, it opens with narcotic agents chasing the protagonist Junky. He then gets entangled in some love affair and gangster business and eventually tries to run off somewhere with his girl who deflects him. Eventually, Junky gets killed. Can't say it's a good script. Really, it's a hack job.

Moving on, my inability to read Japanese limits my ability to engage with Eastern script forms. As such, I have a few questions about it. First, do typical Japanese (screen)play formatting conventions match those of the West? If not, how do the two differ?

It depends on what you mean by "conventional." If you're referring to Kabuki and Bunraku and other classical styles of drama, then no. They're totally different. But recent filmscripts have more or less adopted the Western form so they match perfectly.

Do you have or know where one can find, on the web perhaps, an example of a Japanese screenplay? It'd be interesting to compare it to a Western layout, even if I can't read the words.

Auction sites like Yahoo! Japan usually have some posted for sale. The pictures included in the item profiles (see below ) will allow you to catch a glimpse of the layout style. If you're looking for anything more detailed than that, I think you'd have to bid in the auction and buy the real thing.

I get the impression that the Lesescenario form circulates more widely in Japan than it does in the West. Is this accurate? Japanese readers seem to accept it as a valid textual artifact in ways Western readers don't. If so, why do you think this is? Is Japan simply more open culturally when it comes to new textual forms? Cell phone novels, I understand, are big business in Japan.

Hmmm, I'm not sure if they circulate more widely. I can't really think of any significant Lesescenario that made headlines here. Where did you get your impression?

Doing research for the 1.1 article. I mean, the most recent Western Lesescenarios date from the 90's. Two have been published in Japan since 2000: Haruhiko Arai's adaptation of Kyojin Onishi's WWII-focused graphic novel series Divine Comedy and Hideo Osabe's The Birth of the Emperor/Record of Ancient Matters.10 Moreover, Akutagawa -- the so-called "father of Japanese short fiction" -- occupies a more significant place in Japanese culture than almost any of the Western Lesescenario authors. Céline was long ago discredited as a Vichy sympathizer, and the other writers I list (Raymond Queneau, Leonid Leonov, James, Robert Anton Wilson, and Southern) are fringe at best and overlooked and forgotten at worst. The same could be said of Acker. Burroughs and James Baldwin, of course, would be notable exceptions, but I don't think even they enjoy the sort of stature Akutagawa has in Japanese culture. Perhaps I'm wrong?

Well, if Lesescenarios are more popular in Japan, I think the popularity of manga/comics and video games may explain part of the appeal. These genres are sort of like filmscripts, after all, if you isolate the text.

Right. Graphic novels do read like screenplay-storyboard hybrids.

In Japan, people in all walks of life are comfortable with comic and game formats and don't find them at all strange. "Game novels" are sort of popular too although they aren't really Lesescenarios. These so-called "light novels" consists only of dialogue and are quite similar to Lesescenarios. In my opinion, they're also direct descendants of the manga/comic form.

I suppose Japan's tableau vivant-esque "visual novels" would be as well. In any case, though, it's safe to say that Lesescenarios are fringe textual forms in Japan just as they are in the West?

Maybe, but many writers, especially those of older generations, did dabble in stage plays. They would form cultural circles that included editors, actors, directors, &tc., and would write for the other members of their particular circle. For example, Yukio Mishima wrote plays for the actor Akihiro Miwa. Writers like Shusaku Endo and Morio Kita also wrote plays, but drama wasn't their main genre. Only very serious fans would ever actually read them.

Come to think of it, Kobo Abe also wrote plays and even had his own theater so people could perform them. Juro Kara's plays are also quite frequently read as are those of Shuji Terayama and Hideki Noda. So I suppose the Japanese read stage plays, at least, more often than I originally thought. However, these plays were and continue to be performed so they may not be good examples of closet drama, let alone Lesescenarios. Reading these writers, in fact, would be more like Westerners reading Beckett or Ionesco. And, of course, these texts aren't widely read in the sense Harry Potter novels are.

So while the Japanese, like Westerners, may regularly read stage plays, they don't read filmscripts ("closet" or otherwise) any more frequently than we do? Just as in the U.S., there aren't that many people in Tokyo "curling up with a good screenplay" on the weekends.

No. I suppose Lesescenarios, like other forms of dramatic literature, lie on the fringes of most Japanese people's reading habits. But in Japan, dramatic literature of all sorts does occupy a strong, if small, segment of the literary marketplace. Again, defining how significant that segment is depends whether you consider Beckett's plays Lesescenarios. I guess Mishima's scripts have been translated and published in the West, haven't they? But they were actually produced so maybe they don't qualify ...

Again, because I'm wary of compromising the delicate boundaries that define the Lesescenario genre and, really, all forms of "closet drama," I wouldn't consider Bekett's plays closet drama, in a traditional sense, let alone Lesescenarios. I'd be more open to Mishima's scripts, though, since even though they were produced, their subsequent publication as texts seems to imply reader-intent and thereby invite additional interpretations and perhaps even additional productions.

However, I'm fascinated to learn that contemporary Japanese readers have a relationship to their theatrical playwrights that's similar to the one we Westerners have with figures like Beckett and Ionesco, both of whose plays are routinely read as texts. Because traditional Japanese theatre differs so significantly from that of the West (with the possible exception of opera), I'd assumed reading vs. attending plays was all but unheard of. In fact, I'd more or less given Akutagawa's university courses in English literature credit for inspiring him to write Lesescenarios and, therefore, for introducing the notion of "read drama" (Lesedrama) to Japan. Perhaps the practice of reading plays in Japan is indeed a 20th century development?

I have no idea. Theater was very popular in the Edo period and afterwards. They didn't have videos and films, of course, so when their favorite play wasn't staged, people bought printed versions of the scripts and read them. Whether one includes such texts in the history of closet drama is a matter of personal choice.

I can't speak about Lesescenarios, but the Japanese habit of reading plays may have also grown out of university-level drama education. Noda, whom I mentioned, and Koharu Kisaragi both ran popular theaters, and college students frequently stage their own productions of these writers' works. This made their plays very popular. But, having said that, it's not the form that sells. Its the writers' names that sell these texts.

Even though they occupy a minute segment of the literary marketplace, are there any popular Japanese Lesescenarios we may not have heard of in the West?

Well, that depends on what you have already heard of, doesn't it? What have you heard of?

As far as I can tell, there are only two Lesescenarios available in translation in the West: Akutagawa's Asakusa Park and The Life of a Stupid Man. There seem to be several Japanese Lesescenarios that haven't been translated into any Western language, though. According to my research, these include:

· Akutagawa's Temptation and "Shadow"
· Arai's Divine Comedy
· Osabe's The Birth of the Emperor/Record of Ancient Matters11

Do you know of any others?

Not off the top of my head.

What sort of literary value do you think filmscripts have in general? Obviously, meant-to-be-read Lesescenarios consciously invite readership like other forms of fiction, but what about production-oriented filmscripts? Could a filmscript that's been made into a film ever claim "literariness"? Stage plays, of course, routinely survive multiple readings, interpretations, and performances, and it seems strange that filmscripts, at least in the West, are treated differently.

My, my. Define "literary value" or "literariness." I try not to go into these arguments, because they are usually futile.

I suppose by "literary value" I mean the sort of reader- and interpretive-appeal that novels, short fiction, and plays routinely enjoy. It's safe to say, for example, that few write dissertations on screenplays as interpretive artifacts. To me, this seems wholly artificial, but it persists nevertheless, even as novels by Stephen King and comic books -- once seen as wholly "popular" and without literary merit -- find a place in the academy. The intellectual prejudice against filmscripts and other "entertainment literary forms" seems not to be based on a similar sorts of class judgment or even the commercial vs. aesthetic binary. I wonder if their marginalization isn't simply the result of convention, pure and simple? The sheer fact that it's not routinely done.

I'd say the "marginalization" occurs because scripts are not an end product but just one of the pieces of the final "thing." You may argue that this, in itself, is a prejudice, but I don't necessarily think so. Filmscripts are usually intended to be mere puzzle pieces and are usually tied to a single end product. If filmscripts were performed over and over again in different interpretations like Shakespeare, there would be room to consider the scenario as a separate product. But is there any point in separating a script from 24 from the show itself?

Perhaps not, but in film, where writers have less control over the end product, scripts can differ radically from the final, director-guided films they help create. It seems they could, therefore, survive the sorts of multiple interpretations and "readings" stage plays routinely undergo. I suppose that beyond convention and the various business mechanisms of the film industry, I just fail to recognize an essential difference between these forms of dramatic literature.

Well, since the screenplay is more or less an input device, it's less significant compared to its theatrical counterpart. In the theatre, the acting, costumes, stage design, sound effects, and directing all carry similar weight. But in something like 24, the weight of the script is small. All it has to do is create the essential framework that holds someone's attention for 45 minutes. I think one could do (and people have done) literary analyses of something like Tom Stoppard's script for Shakespeare in Love, but that sort of thing is rare, I think.

One final question. I'm sort of fascinated that Negrophobia found an audience in Japan since it deals with a peculiarly American form of racial tension. The idea of it circulating in Japan seems to make about as much sense as a text about the Burakumin circulating in Detroit or Queens. Is there anything you can tell me about the text's reception there? Who commissioned the translation? Has it sold well?

It's reception has been non-existent. Hakusuisha, the publisher, asked me to do it. They wanted to start a new series of avant-garde US writers which they called "Writers-X". The series included Acker, Michael Blumlein, Karen Tei Yamashita, several others. Has it sold well? No. They printed 3000 copies, I think, but it never sold out. I'm quite famous as a translator, and statistically speaking, my name on the cover manages to generate 2-3000 extra sales. But even I couldn't save Darius James. As you point out, Negrophobia was a bit too local.

The sheer fact that a Japanese publisher would try to publish a screenplay, Lesescenario or otherwise, as a money-maker, though, perhaps further illuminates my earlier ignorance concerning the popularity of the form in Japan. I suppose this suggests the men in suits see a market for them. Produced screenplays do get published in the West, Lesescenarios hardly ever, but I'm pretty sure each are seen as write-offs, at worst, and afterthought publications for the film enthusiast crowd at best. How has Dutch Schultz fared in Japan?

Not the best selling material, but I'd say its sales have been on the lower side of an average Burroughs text, which is to say 4000 copies. There haven't been any rave reviews, and I'm not sure it turned a profit for the publisher.

Also, publishers and editors in Japan are not typically men in suits. There are popular publishers -- who are just after the money, specializing in "how to get rich/thin/laid" books -- and there are more respectable publishers. Usually, the latter don't really make that much money. They try to produce texts of "cultural value." Lesescenarios and production scripts get published because of this interest, not because they make tons of money. Perhaps as iPads and e-books increase in popularity, we'll see new publishing opportunities for Lesescenarios and other fringe texts. But if I think of any new business opportunities, I'm not telling you. I'll write a proposal for some big-shot firm!

Fair enough, Yamagata-san. Thank you for your time.

Editor's Note's thanks are due Twitter user @Lesescenario for initiating this interview.

  1. Darius James, Negrophobia: An Urban Parable (St. Martin's Griffin, 1993) and William S. Burroughs, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz: A Fiction in the Form of a Film Script (Arcade, 1993) and Blade Runner: A Movie (Blue Wind P, 1979).
  2. Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless: A Novel (Grove P, 1988). Certain sections of Empire can be read via Google Books (15 March 2010).
  3. Presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1985, The New York Times panned Birth of the Poet as "a mess" and a "lost cause" (John Rockwell, "Opera: 'Birth of a Poet,' Avant-garde" [The New York Times [5 December 1985]. [16 March 2010]). Acker's libretto can be found reprinted in Wordplay 5: An Anthology of New American Drama (Ed. James Lapine. PAJ Publications, 1986), and a plot summary can be found in Paul Berman's article "The Face of Downdown: Strokes for a Portrait" (in In Search of New York. Ed. Jim Sleeper. Transaction Books, 1988) which can be read via Google Books (16 March 2010). Looking back, Gordon himself (a.k.a., "Lolo") seems to remember Birth of the Poet a bit more charitably: "The Birth of the Poet, presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1985, was much maligned by critics for its libretto by Kathy Acker and its theatrical realization. But the score, in three acts, was complex and spectacular -- particularly the first act, which, with the late Julius Eastman's virtuosic performance of a difficult vocal part using a German-modernist 12-tone row, made ample use of one of Mr. Gordon's greatest compositional assets: a quick, dry wit undetectable by the humor-challenged" (Peter Gordon/Lolo Myspace Page [15 March 2010]. [16 March 2010]).
  4. See Quimby Melton, "Production's 'dubious advantage': Lesescenarios, closet drama, and the (screen)writer's riposte" ( 1.1 [January 2010]. [15 March 2010]).
  5. Critics usually identify four Akutagawan narratives as Lesescenarios: Asakusa Park (Asakusa Kôen), The Life of a Stupid Man (Aru Aho no Issho), Temptation (Yuwaku), and "Shadow" ("Kage"). For a readily-accessible, English translation of Akutagawa's Asakusa Park, see (15 March 2010. Trans. Seiji M. Lippit., February 2004). An English translation of The Life of a Stupid Man can be found in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (Penguin, 2009), but Temptation and "Shadow" ("Kage") remain published only in Japanese (in Konan no ogi [Bungei Shunju, 1927] and Kage toro [Shun'yodo; , 1920], respectively).
  6. Mikhail Bakhtin, "The Epic and the Novel: Towards a Methodology for the Study in the Novel" (In The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981).
  7. For more on the interrelationship between screenplays and novels (and film), see my essay "Ghidorah Attacks! Modern narrative's three-headed monster" (Bright Lights Film Journal 65 [August 2009]. [17 March 2010]). Also, in 1.1, screenwriter Caitlin McCarthy makes a related point about the relationship between novels and screenplays: "'The Great American Novel' was the dream of the 20th Century. In the 21st Century, the dream appears to be 'The Great American Screenplay'" (January 2010. Interview. [17 March 2010]).
  8. For a readily-accessible, English translation of Secrets dans l'îsle, which journal editor Lucas Klein refers to as a "film sketch" (, see> (15 March 2010. Trans. Mark Spitzer. Cipher Journal, n.d.). A published version, in French, is available from Editions du Rouergue (2003).
  9. William S. Burroughs, Junky (Ace Books, 1953).
  10. Hideo Osabe, The Birth of the Emperor/Record of Ancient Matters (Tenno No Tanjou/Eigateki Kojiki) (Shūeisha, 2007) and Haruhiko Arai, Divine Comedy (Shinsei Kigeki) (Ōta Shuppan, 2004). Regrettably, these two Lesescenarios remain untranslated into any Western language. The same can be said of Kyojin Onishi's graphic novel series [6 vols. Gentosha, 2006-07].)
  11. See supra notes 5 and 10 for citations.

Citation: Yamagata, Hiroo and Quimby Melton. 8 December 2012. "Hiroo Yamagata Interview." (accessed [PDT / -7:00]).

Updated: December 8, 2012 at 1:42 am (PDT / -7:00)

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