Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Butoh and Modern Japanese Theatre

Butoh and Modern Japanese Theatre

Known originally as Ankoku Butoh (dance of darkness), Butoh was founded in Japan after World War Two as a reaction against the Western influences which started to dominate Japanese Post-WWII culture and the arts. Butoh is a reaction against the structure of traditional Japanese cultural forms such as Kabuki and Noh while also being reactionary to Western Ballet. Some of the originators of the form were the famous Japanese dancers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno.  It often comprises performers grotesquely contorting their bodies and moving at either a glacially slow pace or at a frenetic bushfire pace. The imagery of Butoh is normally strong, stark and symbolic and pieces often deal with taboo topics. Pieces are often set in extreme or absurd environments. It traditionally is performed in white body makeup with slow controlled movements but it can easily be adapted to different forms. Some Butoh performances involve nudity so make sure you watch all of a vdeo before showing it to students. Here are a couple of examples of videos of different Butoh videos. Some are from Japanese artists and some from artists from different cultures:

Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours) which was developed and performed by Tatsumi Hijikata for a 1959 dance festival, was a Butoh piece based on Yukio Mishima’s novel Kinjiki, was probably the first Butoh performance. Hijikata referred to his work as "Ankoku-Buyou" (ζš—ι»’θˆžθΈŠ – dance of darkness) but later changed it to Butoh which ironically originally was a term that referred to European ballroom dancing. He later developed work based on the writings of Artaurd, Genet, Lautreamont and de Sade. He mostly developed group performances since he saw Butoh as a largely group form. He was also interested in the transmutation of the human body into animal forms. Around 1960, Kuzuo Ohno started to work with Hijikata. Some other earlt exponents of Butoh were Iwana Masaki, Tanaka Min and Teru Goi. 

By the 1980’s wider interest in Butoh started to develop in the West as Butoh troupes started to perform outside of Japan (particlularly in the USA). An incident in a performance in Seattle Washington where a performer was killed during a performance by the Japanese group Sankai Juku sparked interest in Butoh. During the performance, performers hung upside down from long ropes inside a very tall building and one of the ropes snapped. Another performance in the mid 1980’s which was performed inside a dark cave with no audience also attracted attention. A religious ritualistic style performance by Koichi Tamano on top of the huge drum of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo inside San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral sparked attention. 

The influence of Butoh has also been felt heavily in the J-Horror film genre. In the 2001 film ‘The Grudge’ director Kiyoshi Kurosawa butoh movements with his actors.  Butoh style performance is also evident in Doris Dorrie’s film ‘Cherry Blossoms’ made in 2008.. 
In some senses, Butoh can be seen as the illegitimate lovechild of Expressionism and Post WWII Japanese revolt. It takes aspects of its form from Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku puppetry although unlike these forms Butoh has more openness and less control. As Butoh developed, it also started to draw more from Western Modern dance forms. 

Butoh attempt to have the performer use their ‘authentic body’ as opposed to forms like ballet which demand that the performer almost uses ‘another body’ or a body which is a construct or edifice. There is sense in Butoh of the space controlling the movement of individual performers. The space and other forces moves the performers. The space can ‘pull’ or push’ the performer. The space and the internal images inside the performer can move the performer.In Butoh, performers train themselves to empty themselves. Sometimes in Butoh the performer has to imagine that rather than them moving in space that the space is moving. Sometimes it is useful to imagine that the space is pulling you or pushing you. The performer has to imagine that the space and other forces are moving them. Internal images can also be used as the force to move the performer. Butoh performers train to empty themselves. 

One of the first Butoh pieces was a piece called Forbidden Colours which was based on the Mishima book of the same name. Another early piece was Revolt of the Flesh.  The use of the white painted face is a common convention used by Butoh performers. The Japanese Australian Butoh performer Yumi Umuimare has a great video with a short history of Butoh called 'The Spirit of Butoh and Beyond'. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics (actually celebrated in 2021 due to the 2020-21 COVID 19 Pandemic) featured the most watched piece of Butoh ever when the Japanese Butoh dancer Temmetsu dressed in all white struck mournful poses to  represent the death due to COVID 19 and the deaths of nine Israeli athletes and officials at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. This piece of Butoh was probably watched by almost 1 billion people world wide.

Butoh Exercises 
Ball of Energy 
Standing still, looks at your hands. Rub your hands together vigorously until they are warm and then let them release but hold the warmth and energy that exists between your hands as if it were a ball of energy. Play with the ball of energy between your hands. Make it smaller and larger. Now start to move around the space with your ball of energy. Play with it. Make it smaller and bigger. Play with it in different ways and against different parts of your body. Play with it in front of your body, to the side and behind your body. Now start to be aware of others. Sometimes play with your ball in your own world and sometimes include others. Throw your ball around. Catch the ball of others. Play with balls of energy in space. 

Zen Breathing (with movement) 
Stand in a neutral position, looking straight ahead. Put one hand in a horizontal position facing downwards at about stomach level. Place the other hand in a horizontal position slightly above the head facing upwards. Now start to breath slowly and have the upper hand come to the lower position and face downwards while the lower hand moves to the upper position and moves upwards. Use the breath. Some people like to only breath out on movement and breath in when the hands are in the desired position. Keep this going. It is like Tai Chi or Zen breathing exercises. Keep it slow. If you can, make the transitions between movements hardly discernible.  

Puppet and Puppeteer 
Take up a position or statue pose. Now starting with your hands and arms, start to move individual parts of your body as if you were a puppet. Experiment with different movements. Experiment with different levels. As you become more confident, move a little more around the space. Move different parts of your own body. Make sure you also move parts of your back, head and face. See if you can create quick movements as well as slow movements. At some point close your eyes and observe in your ‘mind’s eye’ the movements as you make them.  Repeat some of the same moves at points, as if they were echoes, shadows or physical memories of the movements already made. 
Now get into pairs. Decide who is ‘A’ and who is ‘B’. ‘A’ is the puppet and ‘B’ is the puppeteer. ‘B’ does not make direct contact with ‘A’ but has to control the movements of ‘A’ like a puppeteer. ‘B’ starts with getting ‘A’ to do small movements particularly with the hands and arms and then gets more adventurous and gets other parts of the body such as the legs, feet, torso, back and head to move. Eventually ‘B’ can find ways to get the face of ‘A’ to move. Remember to start slow and then increase the speed and variation as you become more confident. Try to get some contrast in the movements where some parts are constricted and others open and free. End the exercise with ‘B’ putting ‘A’ into a pose. Now ‘B’  back away and ‘A’ initiates attempts to repeat as much of the sequence they just did from memory. Remember it does not have to be exact. After this the pair swap over and ‘A becomes the puppeteer and ‘B’ the puppet. 

Notable Butoh Artists  (for research)
            Akaji Maro 
            Ushio Amagatsu 
            Kazuo Ohno 
            Min Tanaka 
            Tadashi Endo  

Butoh Companies and Artists 
Kazuno Ono 
Sakaijuku (all male company) 
Kakutobo (all female company) 
Yoko Ashikawa 
Yumi Umiumare (Butoh Cabaret at Melbourne Fringe Festival) 

Music to use in Butoh classes 
Susumu Yokota 

Butoh Training Exercises 

del Pila Narenjo Rico, M. (2020). 'Butoh', Contemporary Dance. https://www.contemporary-dance.org/butoh.html
Kurihara, Nanako. The Most Remote Thing in the Universe: Critical Analysis of Hijikata Tatsumi's Butoh Dance. Diss. New York U, 1996. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1996. 9706275 
Kuniyoshi, Kazuko. An Overview of the Contemporary Japanese Dance Scene. Tokyo: The Japan Foundation, 1985; Viala, Jean. Butoh: Shades of Darkness. Tokyo: Shufunotomo, 1988. 
Ono, K. 1980. The Dead Sea. Performance by Kazuo Ono, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUjhQLB0hXY&t=6s
Takahashi, A. (2021). 'Experience the Wonders of Butoh'. Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History & Culture. July 20th, 2021. https://www.rekibun.or.jp/en/art/reports/20210720-11762/
Truter, O.V. (2007). The Originating Impulses of Ankoku Butoh: Towards an Understanding of the Trans-cultural embodiment of Tatsumi Hijikata's Dance of Darkness. Rhodes University: Grahamstown, SA. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/145034408.pdf
Umuimare, Yumi. (2020). 'The Sprit of Butoh and Beyond'. [Video]. Retrievediment from https://vimeo.com/443273560?fbclid=IwAR29qv_hlHAAIioHwMx-2XtG7sC66v0_34pno5ACpF__2EY42LnSmM2QRMM


  1. Thank you for this concise intro with practical exercises. Finally something useful for my students!

    1. I am glad you enjoyed and that you are able to pass on this knowledge and practice to students.