BUTOH: A SEETHING CAULDRON.

Lesley Eleanora Boyce-Wilkinson



The seminal form of Butoh, Ankoku Butoh, was birthed during the late 1950s in the chaotic vacuum of post-war, post-capitalist, American-occupied Japan in resonance with the global artistic climate of the time. The catastrophic effects of war naturally played their part in the direction and developments of the arts in Japan, as they did on a worldwide scale. The mood was reactionary and not dissimilar to that after World War I in Paris which had given rise to the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. Many artists reared up against both the strict conservatism of Japanese society and the enforced Western values and ideologies. Shingeki, initially formulated in the pre-war period, had become the most popular and desired theatre form. It adopted much Western classical literature, methodology and style to create productions with the aim of being 'thoroughly modern' and educative in value, producing textually based naturalistic dramas dealing with socio-political current issues. To Hijikata Tatsumi (1928-1986), the founding father of Butoh, however, it was simply another Western cuckoo akin to the imported dances he had grown to abhor, yet another constriction that needed to be thrown upon the scrap-heap along with the fossilized conventions of traditional Japanese theatrical modes. Hijikata's revolutionary spirit and fiery creativity incinerated all that was stale and mediocre, and that which he conjured from the ashes heralds him as one of the foremost figures who gave artistic form to a culture caught in the dilemma of identity, post-Westernised and neo-nostalgic.

The influences involved in the formulation of Butoh are a complex and eclectic mix. Hijikata, in the spirit of a magpie, collected inspirations from many varied sources. From the arenas of performance he drew from phlebian forms of entertainment: Mimosa, Yose and carnival, along with the theatrical forms of Karuga and early Kabuki (before its sanitisation), and from the contemporaneous Happenings and Action Art. He fed upon Antonin Artaud's ferocious demands for performance/theatre reforms and cherished a tape of his last scream. Hijikata was an avid reader and soaked up literature and poetry, particularly by Decadent French authors, Lautremont, Baudelaire, Sade, and by the novelists/playrights, Mishima and Genet. The impact of the first generation Surrealists and his involvement with post-war artists associated with the Yomiuri Independent, collaborations with the Hi Red Center and his work with Eiko Hosoe in the production of Kamaitachi (photograph book) evidence the intrinsic linkage between Butoh and the visual arts. Indeed, throughout his career contemporary artists supported the performances with stage set, poster designs and photographic image. All these fragmented treasures, together with his own experiential existence and memories encased in a body of flesh, blood and bone, Hijikata brewed in the cauldron of his own creativity. What emerged was a potent, intoxicating and powerfully innovative concoction.

When Ankoku Butoh made its first inception onto the boards of the stage on May 24, 1959 as part of the 6th Annual Newcomer's Performance by the All-Japan Dance Association (Tokyo) it caused a shudder of revulsion. Its subject shocked. Based upon Mishima's homoerotic novel Forbidden Colours and staged with a suffusion of Genet's inverted aesthetic, Hijikata exposed the body as it is: false, dislocated, suffering. The anarchic rejection of the consensual ideas of beauty and the violent thrusting aside of all previously held dance conventions caused an uproar and many Association members threatened to resign should anything of such nature be ever shown again. Performances of Ankoku Butoh, thereafter, took place in small 'underground' venues for members of the artistic avant-garde elite, in rural settings or on the streets. Hijikata, as an unprecedented creative performer, though admonished by the mainstream and looked upon as a dangerous rebel, was highly respected in these other circles.

Ankoku Butoh is also known as 'the dance of utter darkness' and much may be gleaned as to the nature of Butoh in general by translation and etymological breakdown. 'Ankoku' translates as an, 'darkness', and koku, as 'black', hence 'utter darkness'. Darkness, here, refers to the subconscious and the instinctual, the territory of social taboo, to the hidden side of human nature, the shadow side of things. Additionally, the darkness bears association with the coldness and desolation of the darkened world in the absence of the sun goddess, Amateratsu o Mi Kami, in the famous Japanese myth, thereby forging links with shamanic practice, ritual and with the 'kami', spirits of the ancestral dead. The term 'butoh', translating as bu, 'dance and toh, 'stamp' or 'stomp', is a derivation of the words butohkai and buyoh. During Japan's Meiji era (1868-1912) butohkai was used to describe Western style ballroom dancing. Buyoh is a neutral word for dance that was employed long before its current usuage. Both these terms had fallen into disuse by the mid 20th century until they were revived, adopted and adulterated by Hijikata. Both butohkai and buyoh had, in meaning, a sense of leaping and ascending, whereas Butoh possesses a definate suggestion of descent. Hijikata said: "I would never leap or leave the ground; it is on the ground I dance."

From Hijikata's initial Ankoku Butoh many variants have spawned, many other Butoh's. Whereas most do not share the same degree of violence and eroticism as evidenced in Ankoku Butoh, all retain this emphasis upon the exteriorisation of the subconscious contents and the gravitational pull of the earth. Indeed, the earthbound state of the human body is one of the quintessential elements of the Butoh genre. As such it is the antithesis of the highflying movements of ballet. In this attention to the connectedness to the earth Butoh shares a little something with the classical Noh (the soles of the feet in Noh always remain in contact with the ground). Unlike Noh, however, with its sophisticated, rigidly precise and firmly fixed symbolical movements, Butoh disregards all notions of sophistication and the symbological referencing. It does not seek idealised form or harmonically choreographed patterning, but rather embraces the grotesque, the ungainly, the raw, non-aesthetically encoded body. Butoh gropes beneath the overlay of socialisation and cultural authoritarianism for what the critic Ichikawa miyabi called "the body that has been robbed" and attempts to restore a wild inner flame in the heart of darkness. It often plays with the cross-cultural trappings and the surface of sociality with an air of sagacious mockery and speaks to, and from, a pre-linguistical part of the mind abjected by patriarchal societies. In the very best of Butoh performances there is generated a deep communion of performer and spectator that exudes something in common with the essence of an ancient rite. The performer metaphorically dismembers the social body, plunges into the darkness of Chaos, returns to bleeding nature, undergoes catharsis and rebirths; during the process the spectator becomes participant. Themes very often and quite unambiguously revolve around this basis of death/birth/life/decay/death in cyclical motion. In other instances this thematic is more subtly indicated. Yet Butoh is Not a religion, Not a form of healing, but a dance/theatre form based in a distinct approach to the body and a way of moving that is 'out of the ordinary', that springs forth from the realms of the imaginal.

Defying standardised 'good tatse', commonly held aesthetics, convention, logocentricity, linearity, compartmentalisation and so forth, Butoh also defies precise definition. To undertake a definition in unequivocal intellectual terms must inevitably meet with failure and would be as futile as an attempt to put a full stop on eternity. Bonnie Sue Stein talked of Butoh as being: "...shocking, provocative, physical, spiritual, erotic, grotesque, violent, cosmic, nihilistic, cathartic, mysterious." Any one butoh performance may be all, a few or one of these. The quiet sculptural beauty of a Sankai Juku's performance could hardly be described as violent, erotic or shocking, for instance. Ushio Amagatsu's rather slick stage set designs and choreographies are a far cry from Hijikata's stages, that were either completely bare or bore semblance to the chaos of a Surrealist flea market, or to his savage bodily convulsions and contortions. Even the popular notion that Butoh's compulsive insignia of nakedness, bald head and white paint is easily contradicted by the elaborate gowns and long hair of Butoh veteran Ohno kazuo (and Hijikata himself at times). Hijikata also often went without make-up, as has Tanaka Min. To attempt an overall, catch-all definition by noting affects, subject matter initiating isolated pieces, stage design, performance semiotics or the look of Butoh performers is, therefore, impossible by dint of the rich diversification, variableness of approach and expressiveness of individuals working within the genre. Butoh encourages personal interpretational freedom and experimentation, and the manifested results may range from absolute minimalism to a jumble of juxtaposed images, simplicity to rich detailed elaborations. It is by very virtue of an absence of manifesto, dogmatism and coded stricture, by its refusal to be adequately defined, that Butoh has flourished in the last two decades to become an international phenomena with a continuing and growing influence.

This cross-fertilisation and multiplicity of influences from which Butoh arose continues to be evidenced. Butoh, to a great extent, grew from the humus enriched by the entertainer's, writer's, poet's, film maker's, and painter's sweat and, by its very nature, it freely waters other disciplines with its own. It has not only provided visually poetical performances celebratory of a sacred primality, but also engendered some of the most stunning photographic images ever seen in relation to the performing arts. It has cast its shadowy influence on computer graphic artists, fine artists, video makers, theatre practioners and rock/jazz musicians. Its inspirational appeal continues to grow. Perhaps it is because, in the words of Hijikata : "Butoh can never be finished."

Copyright: L. E. Boyce-Wilkinson.







N. B. Lesley Eleanora Boyce-Wilkinson has gained two B. A. Hons. Degrees in both Fine Art and Contemporary Theatre and is currently working towards a Master of Arts Degree, the main focus being Butoh. Her present work involves practical and theoretical research into Butoh, the outcome of which will include an extensive written study, a series of paintings and an installation/exhibition. She will be happy to hear from other researchers and visual artists.

CONTACT: Leleanora@btinternet.com