Torifune celebrate the birth of butoh’s founder

by Donald Eubank

Last month in his ongoing series Japanese Cinema Eclectics, author Donald Ritchie screened “Horrors of Malformed Men” (Toei, 1969). An “unsung classic” of Japanese film, “Horrors” features the only cinematic performance of Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of the butoh dance movement. Hijikata, who would have celebrated his 80th birthday this year, died in 1986, depriving later audiences a chance to see his groundbreaking performances in the flesh.

But for those curious to follow his legacy, a number of dancers who trained with the master have gone on to found their own butoh-sha (troupes). One such group, Torifune Butoh-sha, is staging its production “Hinomoto: Aru Hareta Fuyu no Hi no Ogasama (The Land of the Rising Sun: Mother on a Clear Winter’s Day)” in Kyoto this weekend and in Tokyo at the end of next week.

Butoh always looked beyond the male-female divide to try to find something more essential about human existence, and in the 1970s, when Hijikata had stopped performing himself, he began to work with female dancers; before that, butoh performances, which he pioneered in the early ’60s, had been a more male-dominated form.

One of those lucky students was Kayo Mikami, who went on to co-found Torifune Butoh-sha in 1991 with her husband, director-choreographer Yukio Mikami. To celebrate the 80th anniversary of Hijikata’s birth this year, the couple have reprised “Hinomoto,” which they first introduced in a 2001 performance.

The tour of the production started on Feb. 29 at The Brindley theater in Liverpool, this year’s European Capital of Culture. The overseas premiere is not surprising — though butoh is gaining respect here as a uniquely Japanese art, the dance movement has always been more popular abroad.

“Hijikata exposed the underbelly of society, exactly the part the Japanese wanted to hide,” says Kayo as an explanation. “Maybe this is why people in Japan don’t want to see it. Actually, Japanese people aren’t ignoring butoh, but they are somewhat ignorant of it.”

In England, the Mikami held a three week intensive workshop with British and other European students, who later joined them in the performance of “Hinomoto.” (They have before worked with nondancers, including gang members, housewives and bureaucrats.) The couple used the Noguchi Exercises, a method developed by Michizo Noguchi (1914-1998), to train the dancers to completely reconsider their sense of their own bodies. Noguchi (with whom Kayo studied between 1983 and ’98) was a former gymnastics teacher who, after World War II, wanted to incorporate the only things that remained untouched after the destruction visited on Japan — nature and the sky, gravity and infinity — into a philosophy of physical education.

“The human body is a kind of a water bag in which bones and muscles and viscera are floating . . . Muscles exist not for resisting and governing the gravity,” said Noguchi. “Muscles are the ears for listening to the words of god: gravity.”

Butoh dancers have used his ideas as an inspiration as they fit well with Hijikata’s creation.

“The basic idea of Hijikata’s butoh is to expand the idea of what it is to be human, to transform human existence into the whole of creation,” says Kayo. “This is similar to the Shinto concept that the whole universe is an organism that possesses a mind.”

In the production, Torifune tries to express this worldly philosophy of Hijikata as it relates to individuals’ lives.

“People don’t really change. Life is a constant struggle. Fate makes fools of us with suffering, terror and joy,” says Kayo. “But this is the source of life’s energy. ‘Hinomoto’ is an affirmation of life through a mother’s tireless work in the harshest of Tohoku (north Japan) winters.”

The title, “Hinomoto,” is itself the ancient name for Japan. Perhaps, then, it’s meant as a call to those Japanese whom Kayo says are ignorant of butoh and its associations to an older world.

“When they do see butoh, it’s an awakening,” she says. “They’re shocked to see that this world exists.”

“Hinomoto: Aru Hareta Fuyu no Hi no Ogasama” will be at Kyoto University Seibu Kodo June 6 and 7 at 7:30 p.m. and Space Zero in Shinjuku, Tokyo on June 10 and 11 at 7:30 p.m.; tickets ¥3,500 in advance, ¥4,000 at the door. For more information call (075) 702-5118 (Kyoto) or (0463) 60-1008 (Tokyo) or visit Torifune Butoh-sah Web site