Chapter 2

[Chapter 2] ”What is Butoh?”

–  Butoh is a gift from the universe to experience a “Miracle of Bipedalism”
and to say thanks to the ground for our existence with a Body. –

1 Birth of Butoh and its Development


On 1970, when I was the university student Japanese famous novelist Yukio Mishima killed himself at the Self-Defense Forces of Japan in Ichigaya, Tokyo. When I saw its news on the late night television at my university I decided that I should stop my university and go to Tokyo to study Butoh. In these times around 1970, almost our young university students in Japan had questions about the system called university and felt “We lost a Body. We need to find a Body!“. Why? In that time, I couldn’t understand its reason.

In Tokyo on the first day I saw Tatsumi Hijikata‘s stage named “Butoh with Darkness” by a genius dancer Yoko Ashikawa, next day I saw Tenshikan’s stage named “Improvisation Butoh” by Akira Kasai, Kazuo Ohno and their young students. Then I decided to join Tenshikan to study “Improvisation Butoh”. Because, through “Improvisation Butoh”, all Butoh dancers, some one keeps a high dance technique, other one don’t keep it, but everybody were sunny and happy in their minds on the stage. Why? They looked to enjoy their existence with a body from the heart without any kind of qualifications. In this point I could feel “New Freedom” and “New Hope” existed there. After my study “Improvisation Butoh”, I could believe firmly my premonition was correct.


One day when I joined “Student Power” as the university student, before my studying Butoh, I come to Sanrizuka, Chiba in Japan to support the farmers against the construction of Narita Airport by Japanese Government by force. In that time, this side almost 2,000 our students from all over the country and 500 farmers were stand by and other side almost 5,000 riot polices were stand by for the collision each other. While running towards the riot polices I realized I was afraid of “death” and I realized I was scared. Looking at the farmers next door, there is no one not afraid of being aware. They could move forward shaking the earth with big momentum and strong anger.

        What is this big difference between the farmers and me? I understood it at the moment. Farmers keep the lands that they need to protect it, but our students didn’t have it. People who keep their “Land”, they are not afraid “Death”. So, I need my “Land”.

In this meaning “Student Power” was not my work which I could commit my life. At Sanrizuka I could understand it. Everybody would like to avoid “Terrible Death”, but we can make a run towards “Beautiful Death”. With this feeling I returned to my university and I started to find my “Land”. Then I could meet with Butoh, I could find my “Land” as my “Body” in Butoh.


Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006, wrote an interesting critic about a special possibility of Japanese Culture in his book such as “In China and in Japan they could keep the strong traditions of Painting towards European Painting. Moreover, under the influence of European Painting, Japan could produce a very characteristic new art named Modern Painting”.

Butoh have same history like Japanese Modern Painting which Orhan appreciated its value. In the second half of 1950 in Japan, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno could create “Butoh with Darkness” to unify the difference as a big problem between Japanese Traditional Dance & its culture before Edo-era and the Modern Dance & its culture after Meiji-era. Then, Akira Kasai could create “Improvisation Butoh” through “Butoh with Darkness”. And its Modern Dance was just a dance that Japan imported from German, Rudolf Lavin and Melii Wigman, also in the point of the thoughts Butoh received the strong influences from Antonan Alto, Grotovsky, and Cantor. In short, Butoh was not an original art, it was recreated by the Japanese taste on the imports from abroad. Then, Butoh was accomplished by one photographic collection named “Kamaitachi” through a collaboration with Tatsumi Hijikata and photographer Eiko Hosoe.


Butoh started its days as a major art with their first performance “Kinjiki” on 1959. Both Hijikata and Ohno organized it against the bad critic as the backward students from Modern Dance School with a standard of revolt. So, everything earned frowns of disapproval from the establishment were mobilized fully on the stage. Audiences saw “Obscene Naked Body”, “Wring a Chicken’s Neck” and so on. Then, at once Butoh could get a position of major art as compared with Modern Dance was a minor art. As it is called “Body’s Rebellion” strongly influenced by Yukio Mishima could start.


But, such a Butoh was one of the movements of “Restoration of Body” in Japan and its position was same with other avant-garde arts like Fine Art, Theater, and Music. So, Butoh was not an outstanding work. But, American’s and European critics changed this condition completely, through them only Butoh could raise its head. Because in Europe and in U.S.A., they didn’t have such an unique dance like Butoh, they remarked its originality very much. For example, in Japan avant-garde Theater was in fashion, but from European critic it was a “Children of Shakespeare”, so they couldn’t value it. It was a same condition like Yoko Morishita, she was a very famous nice classical dancer in Japan. But from European critic she was a same “Children of Moscow”, so when she come to Moscow people treated her like a child.

Like that, only Butoh was valued by European critic passionately as a “Second Coming of Japanism like Ukiyo-e”, it could get the position for “Rise of Butoh”. On 1976 in Tokyo Butoh could touch its peak by Hijikata’s work “Lady in the Line of Whale”. And on 1977 Kazuo Ohno’s legendary work “Admiring La Argentina” was presented by Hijikata’s direction. Also on 1978 Hijikata’s dear apprentice Yoko Ashikawa could get the first big success through her Butoh performance in Paris.


But, such a great Butoh should come to a big turning point in Japan. After “Lady in the Line of Whale”, Hijikata become silence for 7 years, he couldn’t create his new work. Then, after 7 years he could revive again with his work “Plan of Tohoku-Kabuki”, but unfortunately this work couldn’t get a high valuation. And he contracted a cancer, then on 1986 he died with 57 years old disappointingly, so young. Then, within 3 years after his death, in Japan the mass media started to report “Atrophy of Butoh”.

In short, Butoh could survive at foreign cities, like Paris, London, Berlin, and New York. Kazuo Ohno, Sankai-juku, and other Japanese groups, they could take on the responsibility of acting as promoters. Through their activities many foreign Butoh dancers could born and come to Japan to study Butoh. Then “First Butoh-boom” was made up. Depend on this boom I could perform as my first expansion overseas in Paris, Berlin, Montreal, Toronto, and New York on 1990 and 1991 supported by Japan Foundation and Canada Council.


But, what is the reason Butoh has declined in Japan? After this time I had been in the very sarcastic cultural phenomenon, nor other Japanese Butoh Choreographers. Because, although I could get a high valuation in foreign cities, but I should lost my name year by year in Japan. Why? Butoh was born in Japan and I am Japanese.

I thought I should find out its reason exactly to develop Butoh and to continue my career as a Butoh Choreographer. So, at first I left the several colleagues who didn’t want to recognize “Atrophy of Butoh” in Japan. Then, I asked to Takaaki Yoshimoto, very excellent critic at that time, and I could discuss with him about its reason at a symposium in Tokyo supported Asahi Newspaper. Yoshimoto, very clearly, explained its reason as “Hijikata’s Body-Model was not a model which could reach to a Japanese Original Body in the era of KOJIKI, records of ancient matters”. I could understand his explanation and I had the scales fall from my eyes, because I had a big question to Hijikata’s “Butoh Score”.


On 1985, young Butoh dancers danced eagerly on the stage together with Yoko Ashikawa in Hijika’s “Plan of Tohoku-Kabuki” in Tokyo. But their waists were unstable, so the overwhelming difference between them and Yoko was quite obvious for everybody. They were beginners and only Yoko could dance with a divine work. In other words, Hijikata’s “Butoh Score” couldn’t become familiar to their body as young generation. Their body changed as a well-proportioned figure like European girls. This is a very simple reason why “Plan of Tohoku-Kabuki” couldn’t get the success. The audiences couldn’t enjoy his work and several audiences went out on the way. This happening was a first time for him, his last all works always had been charged with the great cheers.

In other words, Hijikata’s body-model was “Artificial Model” at his time, not “Universal Model” that will be familiar to all Japanese beyond the generation. Young Butoh dancers were ungraceful on the stage in “Plan of Tohoku-Kabuki”, but it was not their responsibility. Just Hijikata’s body-model was a limited model that was familiar to only his generation. Now we can find a reason of “Atrophy of Butoh” in Japan exactly, just his model was old to the young generation including my generation. So, what should be our work? If “Universal Model” exists we should find it. And if it is only ideal model, only intention, we should change our thought itself about the body-model from the ground up.

2 What is Butoh?


My “Definition of Butoh” is like the below;


Butoh is a “Step from Within”.


Butoh is “Self-Realization” through the body of the individual, direct, and original dance technique.


Butoh is “Recovery of the Wild in Mankind” and “Rebirth of the Intoxicated Body” somehow lost in the contemporary world.


Everybody can make their own Butoh as much as they receive their own body. Butoh was born in Japan, but now we have many foreign Butoh dancers in the world like Judo players and Aikido players, Butoh is not limited only for Japanese.


What is a pleasure of Butoh? Sure, it is a pleasure to change our feelings about our world at the moment. In this dance we can’t find any differences between ourselves, we feel we are connected to everyone, everywhere, every animals, and every plants. So, the dancers dance eternally to get its feelings exactly.


Butoh is an art that promotes us growth, and keep “Age-worthy Flower” blossoming continuously. Like “Flower of Noh”, in Butoh we have “Aged Flower” and “Secret Flower”, we can create the beauty year by year beyond our age.


For 21st dance history, we have a big theme to develop “Mature Dance together with the Age” using by new dance technique like Butoh. If we should retire after a define age, we should say its dance belongs to the old art system. So, I teach to my students several ways to expand the idea about the beauty, receive the body, away a model for the imitation, find their own feeling and their own dance story.

3 Possibility of International Butoh


Now in the world one interesting phenomenon has occurred called “Second Boom of Butoh” different from “First Boom of Butoh”. In short, “Second Boom of Butoh” was formed by the “Imitation” of the Japanese Butoh by the foreigners. But, “Second Boom of Butoh” is different, this boom has been formed as a “New Dance World” based on the characters of each foreigner dancers without the nationalities. So, in these years, at several times I have been thinking one theme of “International Butoh”. I hope soon it will be established in our world. It is a true still now “First Boom of Butoh” is alive and it exists into “Second Boom of Butoh”, but I know many nice Foreign Butoh Dancers and Choreographers there, so it will be not a pipe dream. I think we can jump to a new dance field beyond the difference between “Butoh with Darkness” and “Improvisation Butoh”.


Butoh is a step from within. But, in general speaking what is a main effect of Butoh? For example I know one story as a possibility for getting freedom from my Turkish friend, Olcay Karahan. She was one of top excellent dancers at one famous contemporary dance company in London. But little by little she had started to suffer her spirit without reason and stopped her dance. She returned to Istanbul in silence and she did nothing for 5 years. She kept herself cooped up in the house.

Then, suddenly, she wanted to start a dance again. In that time she could choose my Butoh Class in Istanbul. When I saw her dance first time I was surprised to her, because she didn’t dance just she continued only the action of fall down although I could feel she has kept a high dance technique. So, I asked to her why she joined my class and she explained its reason as “I needed the absolute freedom for getting back my spirit and my dance. I could feel Butoh has its ability”. Yes, in truth Butoh keeps it, everything free, with movement or without movement, just we can follow only our favorite feelings. Finally at last day of my class I could see her excellent dance, it was great and she was truly free and quite fine with a smile, no illness. I and other participants cried to her dance. Like this story, through Butoh everybody can get the sense of liberation. 


But, I think we can’t develop Butoh as more wide scale if only Japanese Butoh Choreographer leads Butoh. For example, in Judo World, after the time when Antonius Geesink, Hollander Judo Player, could get a gold medal at Tokyo Olympic Game on 1964 in Japan, Judo World underwent a complete change. Because “Japanese Mythology” in its world collapsed, and many foreign young Judo players started to come to Geesink to study a Judo, not come to Koudokan, a Mecca of Judo, in Tokyo. Then, “International Judo” could start. In short, Judo could get the wealth for the first time by the appearance of Geesink and “International Judo”.


So, I think now Butoh have a same possibility. But, as long as Japanese Butoh Choreographers lead Butoh and teach the characteristic of Japanese way how to use the body to foreign Butoh student and the student only study it, Butoh can’t get the wealth. Otherwise, the students need to develop their own way based on the “Cultural-Body” of their country through the study. Because, it is Butoh. We have different cultural-body depend on our countries. Japanese don’t know other cultural-bodies, he knows only Japanese cultural-body. So, Butoh students should find its ways by themselves depend on their roots. Only in that time the true “Diversity” will appear, then Butoh can get its true “Wealth.”


Like that, from my view point, it seems Vangeline, Artistic Director of The Vangeline Theater keeps same possibility with Geesink. At first site, Vangeline’s Butoh is close to Japanese Butoh. But, I know in fact it is completely different. Vangeline is a French Butoh Choreographer, she lives in New York City for 24 years. Recently CNN television made her very nice document. Particularly I know Vangeline’s sense for the beauty is great, just as French artist she could continue to express very beautiful original many scenes on her stages. Our japanese Butoh Choreographers can’t express that kind of beauty. We have same stories, for example when we see a film about “Love” we find very different 2 qualities about love between Japanese film and French film. Also, her attitude to master Butoh is like a seeker after truth and like a monk, so people love both her daily life and her way. Now several japanese dancers and foreign dancers come to her in NY to study her Butoh. So, I believe, sure Vangeline will be one of woman-Geesink to establish “International Butoh”.

[all rights reserved copyright @ tokyo space dance 2017]

© 2015 Tokyo Space Dance