Books / Reviews

‘Portrait of Ohno Yoshito’: A deeper look at butoh’s mythical figure

by Hiroaki Sato

Contributing Writer

Here, Inuhiko Yomota takes on Yoshito Ohno (born 1938), the “mythical figure” of butoh — a genre so undefinable that poet Miyoshi Toyoichiro once called it “a dance, performance, acting, or whatever you like.” Donald Richie (1924-2013) wrote of his friend, and founder of butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-86), that “pain, exhaustion, death” were “the elements of his dance.”

Portrait of Ohno Yoshito, by Inuhiko Yomota, Translated by John K. Gillespie.
210 pages
CANTA CO., Nonfiction.

Before Hijikata turned butoh into “a major postwar aesthetic development” in Japan, “butoh” was used to refer to the formal social dances introduced from the West during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). To distinguish, Hijikata called his dance “the dance of utter darkness.” Strange, macabre, often performed solo.

Yomota has lined up photos from William Klein, Tim Walker, Dominic Nahr and Eikoh Hosoe, among others. Included is a series of black-and-white shots taken by Klein in 1961 of Ohno and Hijikata, both naked except for black briefs, capering through the avenues and alleys of Shinbashi. Appearing in the series is Ohno’s father Kazuo (1906-2010) — perhaps the more iconic figure in butoh — in drag and wearing a decorative hat.

The most fascinating chapter of this “Portrait” is “Beijing and Tianjin.” In 2016, Ohno went to the two Chinese cities to give workshops, and Yomota accompanied him as a scholar-cum-errand boy. His descriptions of the 78-year-old dancer’s acting, talks, and Chinese participants’ reactions, are revelatory. We learn, for example, that in classical dance physical resilience is stressed, whereas in butoh physical stiffness and weight are important, as are unexpected movements.