The first dance in Japan may well have been a mythological striptease. In one of the most famous episodes from Japanese folklore, the goddess Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto entices Amaterasu Omikami, the sun deity, to come out of hiding by ripping off her clothes and dancing. The elemental irreverence of this moment is still visible today in butoh, a style of dance also known as ankoku butoh (“the dance of utter darkness”).

Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh, by Bruce Baird
293 pages
Palgrave Macmillan, Nonfiction.

Primitive yet playful, butoh began with a short, minimal performance in 1959 titled “Kinjiki” (“Forbidden Colors”) after the Yukio Mishima novel of the same name. It featured the choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata playing an older man out to seduce a younger man, Yoshito Ohno, who seemingly smothered a live chicken between his legs. Shrouded in sensationalism for its apparent portrayal of homosexuality and bestiality, it was the birth of a movement that is now stronger than ever.

The newly published paperback edition of Bruce Baird’s “Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits” is perfectly timed to ride the current wave of interest in butoh. In 2015, a Performance Studies international (PSi) conference in Aomori, featuring scholars from around the world, explored the relationship between northeast Japan and butoh. Also, the first theater exclusively devoted to butoh opens this summer in Kyoto. And in May, the Asian Arts Theatre in Gwangju, South Korea, held a retrospective program on Hijikata to coincide with the 30th anniversary of his death.

But what is butoh? This is a contentious question, not least because the dance movement has always been fluid. In the late 19th century, the word was used in Japan to describe Western dance styles such as the waltz. What we now regard as butoh did not initially use the label. Co-founded by Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, the genre’s iconic tropes — near-naked men in white makeup performing slow, intensely controlled micro-movements — only really took hold from the 1970s. Today, butoh encompasses a range of styles, from the grotesque to the austere, and from the erotic to the comic. It is frequently regarded as surreal and androgynous, and focuses on primal expressions of the human condition rather than physical beauty.

“The world’s dance started from standing, but mine started from not being able to stand,” Hijikata once said. His butoh showcased the leper, the diseased body; the “encounter with something in the body that has gone astray,” he said.

Emerging during a time of social change, urbanization and political disenchantment — the Anpo (Japan-U.S. security treaty) protests of 1959-1960 were just beginning — butoh attempted to recover the base body; one that, in Hijikata’s words, “has not been robbed” of its primal character.

When Baird’s book was first published in 2012 it joined the steady stream of English-language writing about butoh that had appeared since the late 1980s. Though the book, like most others published about butoh, has academic trappings, which may put some general readers off, it is nonetheless, as the author says, an “information-rich book.”

The introduction dwells on the title of one of Hijikata’s dances with reasoning that arguably descends into semantics, scholarly names such as that of philosopher Michel Foucault and anthropologist Arjun Appadurai come up, and each chapter opens with an obscure epigraph. Nonetheless, Baird provides detailed descriptions of all of Hijikata’s dances, including quotations from primary sources and records, and with photographs throughout. The book is critical rather than biographical, but has plenty of colorful stories, including some interesting observations on Hijikata’s relationship with Mishima. Another highlight was learning that Hijikata made ends meet by selling sweets at a temple and dancing in nightclubs in Yokohama.

Baird’s thesis revolves around the idea that butoh was a product of its time. He places it and Hijikata in the context of the wider arts and theater movement of the heady ’60s, an era that marked the beginning of a gradual “narrowing of options” in Japan, which “trapped” the Japanese in social roles for two decades. Hijikata’s dance was a rebellion against the state and the industrial-entertainment complex that developed alongside Japan’s high-growth economy.

By dint of tracing Hijikata’s career, Baird also provides a view of the milieu of postwar Tokyo’s avant-garde. In addition to Mishima, the dramatis personae include the artists Genpei Akasegawa, Tadanori Yokoo and Ushio Shinohara, the photographer Eikoh Hosoe, the translator Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, and many others. Hijikata’s collaborators and acquaintances read like a who’s who of the scene. But Baird isn’t just namechecking here, he identifies the way Hijikata and other practitioners shared ideas — “invading each other’s work,” as Baird puts it — during this period of experimentation.

And it is timely to return now to the origins of butoh. In the post-Fukushima age, a time when technology seems to have betrayed us, we are witnessing a similar tendency in theater and art to search for primordial sources of inspiration, such as mythology.

The events of 3/11 saw the pillars of Japanese society come crashing down. But the void exposed by the nation’s failed political, corporate and media structures can arguably be filled by art and dance, the kind that Hijikata wanted to make: “gestures of the dead, to die again, to make the dead re-enact once more their deaths in their entirety.”

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