by Dustin W. Leavitt
In 1994, with a modest grant and the cooperation of a small theater, I
staged a performance of butoh, the strange, dark dance form created
by Hijikata Tatsumi in Japan during the years following World War II.
Critic Mark Holborn has written that butoh is defined by its very evasion
of definition. “Hijikata’s dance was literally called Ankoku
Butoh,” he said, “meaning black or dark dance. The darkness
referred to elements — the territory of taboo, the forbidden zones
— on which light had never been cast… It is both theater and
dance, yet it has no choreographical conventions. It is a subversive force,
through which conventions are overturned. As such, it must exist somewhere
on the social periphery… It is a force of liberation, especially
within the conformist Japanese social structure...”
Butoh fascinated me — as dance, as theater, as seditious act, as
visual spectacle. I had read everything I could find about it and had
seen professional troupes on world tours in extravagant showpieces that
some in the genre referred to dismissively as “TV butoh”.
I had produced a performance of it once before. Nevertheless, I did not
feel I really got butoh, and as the opening night of my production
drew near, I wondered when and where my understanding of butoh would begin.
Would it begin with a dance named after the novel Kinjiki (Forbidden
Colors), in 1959? When butoh’s architect, Hijikata —
inspired by Mishima Yukio’s book — performed his short homage,
several members of the Japanese Dance Association threatened to resign.
Or with Barakei (Ordeal By Roses), photographer Hosoe
Eikoh’s photo-fable about Mishima, through which the slender shadows
of Hijikata and his wife, the dancer Motofuji Akiko, erotically drift?
In Hijikata’s studio, Mishima danced, too, flexing his repertoire.
He worshipped muscle.
It might begin with Hijikata’s principal dancer, Tamano Koichi.
Once, stroking Tamano’s body, Mishima, the muscle-worshipping novelist,
asked how a person could acquire such flesh. In response, Hijikata said
of his young protégé, “He’s the son of a fish
monger; he was forced to eat fish,” adding, “his is a body
with an extreme anatomy.” Like his master, Tamano also posed for
Hosoe, ensemble with Hijikata’s female lieutenant, Ashikawa Yoko.
In Hosoe’s photographs, collected under the title Hoyoh
(Embrace), their naked bodies entwine, the feminine principle
white as powder, the masculine dark as blood. When I asked Hosoe how Tamano’s
sanguine flush had been achieved, he mumbled uncomfortably about darkroom
manipulations. As for Tamano, in response to the same question he simply
It might begin with Tokyo, in the sixties. Hijikata’s dancers, a
young Tamano Koichi among them, lived together with the master in a building
called Asbestos and performed in the strip clubs at night to support themselves.
Returning to Asbestos-kan in the early mornings, they slept a little,
then rose to execute the household chores, cooking, cleaning. Afterward
they practiced for hours before hurrying away once more to their nighttime
jobs. “Most of the boys were much better cooks than dancers,”
Hijikata said of them, “and I think that actually this has come
in quite handy for butoh.”
Ironically, butoh found its first enthusiastic public above the Japanese
cultural underground, outside Japan in the West. Yet, “the change
of context, like all translation,” according to Holborn, “may
have distorted the original meaning. It confirmed the accessibility of
Butoh as spectacle, even if the translation dampened the subversive fire.”
Was I doomed to understand butoh as a tourist, then, lost in translation?
I had chosen to work with dancer Tamano because he was a direct link to
Hijikata and I believed that if anyone could help me begin to understand
what underlay both the tourist butoh and the intellectualized butoh my
head was full of — where butoh had come from and where it was going
— it would be him. But I was wrong. My teacher was someone else.
It is spring. The scent of orange blossoms wafts in through the open door
of my kitchen. Tamano’s samurai-like wife, Hiroko, is preparing
breakfast: miso soup, vegetables, rice, and tea. Koichi sits
on the outside step, smoking. When, in the early seventies, he and Hiroko
had left Tokyo to establish their Harupin-Ha Butoh Dance Theater in Berkeley,
California, they had taken Hijikata’s blessing with them. “You
can hear the dragon-God’s foot-stomping thresher come down quietly
in the dark,” he had said. “Tama, ride on that stamping God’s
back, and go.” Later, the master told people, “Tama’s
showing the Americans what a good cook he is.” Watching Hiroko work
alone, I assume that he was alluding to Tamano’s dancing, not to
his kitchen skills.
Hiroko’s strong hands are quick with the knife. Her hair, sharply
bowl-cut against her shaved neck, swings like the black blade of heaven
above the atmospheric blue of her T-shirt. She moves from sink to stovetop
with a farm-like economy, bare feet flat and firm on the linoleum. Cooking
sticks poised beside her ear, a subtlety at once spontaneous and archetypal,
she peers into a boiling pot. Turning away from the stove, she pads back
across the floor to a muddy box of green vegetables on the drain board.
As she walks, the cuffs of her pajama bottoms whuff-whuff against each
other like a pair of rival dogs competing for her attention.
“Learning dance,” Hijikata had said, “is not a matter
of where to position an arm or a leg.” For Hijikata, dance was not
a matter of performance, of masque. To the contrary, for Hijikata, dance
was the experience of the self in its utterness. At the middle of the
twentieth century, he considered such a dance to be alien to the Western
mind, but an appropriate vehicle for the anxiety-ridden, post-War Japanese
“The body is fundamentally chaotic,” he had said, “the
Japanese body particularly, which in comparison with the coherent body
of the Occidental (both religiously and culturally), is unsure in its
stance. Occidentals have their feet planted firmly on the ground, forming
a pyramid, whereas the Japanese seem to be performing acrobatic feats
on oil paper. Therefore, they have to find their balance on twisted legs.”
Standing on my straight limbs, propped up by my intellect, I steal an
envious glance at Hiroko’s bowed, muscular legs as she weaves about
the kitchen. “Straight legs are engendered by a world dominated
by reason,” Hijikata had said. “Arched legs are born of a
world which cannot be expressed in words.”
The bow-legged crouch, in combination with an extreme grimace and homogenizing
white body makeup, shaved head, and naked figure, is a characteristic
of classical ankoku butoh. It is the stance of the farmers of
the Tohoku region of Japan, Hijikata’s birthplace, though it must
not be understood as a manner of representing them. Rather, for Hijikata,
the crouch was a way of questioning his body, of locating in it its own
creation and birthplace. To Hijikata, the body was not a tool for enacting
intellectual discourse, but the very seat of meaning. And thus dance,
his ankoku butoh, was not a mere syntactical arrangement of movements,
but an exploration and an assertion of — and a reinsertion into
— the depths of the body itself.
Hiroko deposits a brace of scallions in the sink, then returning to the
stove, whisks clay-colored miso into the aromatic dashi boiling
on the range. Observing her, seemingly content in her moment, I wonder
if she shares Hijikata’s dark obsessions and ask her why she practices
butoh rather than some other art form. She turns her narrow eyes on me,
and her ever-active body is suddenly still. For five heartbeats she watches;
then her eyebrows vault upward and she says, “Oh, well it’s
very simple. That’s why.”
I nod. She begins to chop scallions.
“First of all I want to be a sculptor… or something like that.
Because I don’t know dance yet. I never think I’m going to
dance or act or all those things that are out of mind. I never imagining
I’m going to involve those theater work or performing arts, those
things. When I was young, there’s no word ‘performing arts’
or anything, you know.
“I started working with sculpture: the model and then artist and
then working… clays… but then I was young! I cannot
wait! Something more straight! Pow! Ne? Short
She laughs with a sound like stones dropped one after the next into a
pond, eyes closed, a fine, hard hand folded over her mouth.
“Butoh is dancing,” she says reflectively. “Butoh is
dancing… stomping on the ground.”
Hijikata’s ankoku butoh sought, through the body, to access a liminal,
pre-Babel world where the relationship between sign and signifier is not
separate, but motivated, a world described by critic Eguchi Osamu as one
in which all hierarchical relations fragment and are replaced by a “mandala
woven from words and resemblances which, as it swirls around, creates
correspondences between all things.”
“It’s so straight!” Hiroko continues. “All
dance is the same. With butoh we are kind of making a new genre, but the
unique point, or the most important part of this dance form, I think,
is what really makes that form… You know, the dance sometimes just
forms and forms and forms and then space. Like, sculpted the
body out to the shapes, but the point is: how come those shapes comes
out? Anno, what makes you run? What makes you cry? What
makes you laugh, and all those things. And how come this hand
moves this way and not this way? You know, those inside things.
“And also, you know, the human body have that same space as outside
universe. So individual people have that same universe inside. And all
the vocabulary, already there. Everybody has all that vocabulary already.”
She gives me a hard look. “We has eyes to see around, but sometimes
we forgot to see inside.”
The early vocabulary of Hijikata’s ankoku butoh was often obscene
and brutal, both politically and artistically seditious. In Kinjiki,
the first of Hijikata’s works considered to be essentially butoh,
a boy had sexual relations with a hen, smothering the creature between
his thighs to symbolize the act. Another man made advances to him, and
the performance ended with the sound of the boy’s footsteps retreating,
the older man in pursuit.
Later works were heavily invested with transvestitism, sexual perversion,
and violence, the purpose of which was not to comment, nor even to shock,
though that was often their effect upon the audience. Rather, they were
enlisted as means of undermining the barriers of convention that held
the body in thrall. Located at the heart of darkness, violence and sexual
perversion were Hijikata’s Jacob and Angel, whose true
struggle was not against each other, but rather against the authority
that manipulated them both; they were the keystones whose removal into
the light of scrutiny would cause the vaults of the unconscious to sunder.
During the early years, when Hijikata worked with Ohno Kazuo — who
is credited with butoh’s co-creation — Ohno’s son Yoshito,
Kasai Akira, Ishii Mitsutaka, and Tamano Koichi, butoh was an essentially
masculine dance form. In the early 1970s, however, he began to work with
three women, Kobayashi Saga, Mimura Momoko, and Ashikawa Yoko. Hijikata’s
collaboration with Ashikawa was transformative. Through her he investigated
the practice of metamorphosis as a gentler means of breaking down the
myth of the individual, the first step in the process of reintegrating
the body with its analogous exterior and interior universes. He led his
dancers through exercises, sometimes lasting years, in which they assumed
other life forms — animals, plants — with the objective of
exchanging the isolation of individuality for a sense of communion with
nature, of infusing the subjective body with firsthand experience of adapting
itself to its place in the natural order.
When I ask Hiroko about these metamorphic exercises, she raises her eyebrows
at me again. “Ohhh… you mean like plant and bird and those
“Ahhh! With dancing I could be anything, you know? Everybody could
be anything you want. If I’m going to be, like, a stone
on the ground, at that time you try to be a rain from the sky…
there is a harmony. That’s very enjoyable… yeah… but
I don’t know for what!”
She laughs at her own joke, covering her mouth with her hand. From the
kitchen step Koichi calls, “Nan da?”
With small wire glasses and thin goatee, dressed in a T-shirt and vest,
hair tied up high above the shaved base of his skull, Koichi little resembles
the blanched, naked apparition he becomes when dancing. The poet Yoshioka
Minoru’s description of his performance in Nagasu Kujira
(Razorback Whale) is characteristic: “On a torn futon set
to one side of the stage, Tamano writhes as if in agony. With his hands
he shreds pieces of cotton [batting from the futon], and, taking them
in his mouth, becomes ecstatic… Then he shudders beautifully.”
Tamano’s butoh is deeply resonant of Hijikata’s early dance.
It is sublime during that liminal moment upon which the grotesque, like
metaphor, impales us, “emptying the past and forestalling the future,”
as expressed by Geoffrey Harpham. Pierced by the body’s moment,
Tamano’s movements begin to grind down toward the slow tempo of
an eternity as his universe expands around him. What was small becomes
huge, and seconds are experienced fully, as if they are hours.
Yet, Tamano Koichi’s butoh also differs from that of his excitable
master. Hijikata described him as a “harvest-child of mute seed.”
The writer Inoue Masayoshi likewise captured Tamano’s equanimity
in his description of a typical rehearsal at the Asbestos studio: “Hijikata’s
rehearsals always took place around midnight and lasted until dawn. His
existence continually created a mood of grotesque, extravagant weirdness
and fearful nervousness. [Once] I witnessed him flinging objects towards
[his] disciples as an expression of his anger. In succession, a pencil
case, a lighted cigarette, an ashtray, a teacup, a half-eaten leftover
rice cake, and finally a kitchen knife were hurled by Hijikata. When there
was nothing left to dispose of, the rehearsal ended… I was terribly
frightened, but Tamano alone continued his practice, his fluid, small
protruding hips dodging to the right and left like a Ninja to avoid the
enemy’s shower of bullets.”
In the kitchen, Hiroko continues, tilting her head up, as if sifting back
through the memory: “I was a really serious child when I was young,
you know? And really narrow, and so much strong ego. I know not this
way, but I can handle this way… So selfish.
“And then, somehow… teenager, and I tried to leave my home…
‘Bye, mommy! I’m gonna survive by myself!’ I’m
not afraid anything because I know everything. Sometimes I had a really
“I almost give up dancing because everybody said, ‘You have
family and child, and then you dancing.’ And, ‘Wasting time
and money.’ And, ‘So stupid! You have to think about
your future. Be serious.’ Ne. That’s most
of the people told me. And then I thought, well maybe so.
“At first [in America] I didn’t see anybody, something really
like: eyes to eyes, and then, ‘shall we dance?’ That kind
of people. Or, you know, the artist: ‘shall we work together?’
You know, all those moments, I totally miss.
“Actually, we have a pretty hard time before we got the green card…
And then, after we get the green card, somehow the country… in and
out getting easier… And we start dancing again a little by little.
And friends helps us… and then young people coming to work with
us… Feels like we survived with dancing again. So.”
Her body is still once more. Her head is bent forward and her black hair
scythes downward in two identical arcs, covering either side of her face.
The blade in her hand, suspended for a moment in the air, suddenly descends
on the cutting board with a sharp snick.
“Japan was too busy for me. Yeah… too busy… For some
other people, maybe fine. It’s nice place… It’s amazing
country… still amazing. When I visit I am really surprise every
time. I like the country and I respect the country. Really organized and
people are very serious. And, you know, the power of the people, really
“That’s the power of the culture. It’s hard to explain,
I think. You know, many dimensions… I think individual people have
many, many different stories. That because my parents, that
because your parents. And your parents’ parents’ parents’
parents. Behind you all the past is builded up. But I’m here not
because the past is builded up me. Not always that way. Because of me,
they are builded up. You know, not the past decided future, but also the
future decided past.
“And me and you, you know, this is a crossing point. Past and future
The morning is suddenly still. The dance sometimes just forms and forms
and forms and then space, as Hiroko had said. She has finished her story,
and by some small miracle of coincidence her performance of kitchen butoh
ends simultaneously. I clumsily begin to ask further questions, but she
forestalls me with a subtle shake of her head.
“Shall we breakfast?” she asks. And then, “I’m
too young to tell everything anyway, ne? So, ne?”
Leavitt has contributed a number of memorable pieces to KJ, including
"Japanese Tattoo" (#47) "Balinese Canoes" (#51), and
"The Mystery of Mastery" (#52)