Butoh — dancing from the shadows

This text was originally written for a programme I curated for the 2023 edition of the Choreoscope International Dance Film Festival in Barcelona. The programme’s focus was on the Japanese dance form butoh, and featured six short films that were screened on the streaming platform Filmin. Below is a general introduction to butoh and some context for each of the short films. For consistency with the rest of the editorial material for the festival, Japanese names are rendered here in the Western format of given name first, followed by family name. A Spanish translation of this text can be read here.

Butoh was born in Japan in the aftermath of the Second World War, a period of riotous artistic tumult and social reconfiguration. From the ruins of the country’s destroyed cities and scarred landscapes, a cultural renaissance bloomed, growing out of deep political schisms and ideological battlefields. A labyrinthine network of artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and performers collaborated to produce often-revolutionary artworks, and at its centre was a new and provocative dance form called butoh. Perverse, obscene, an affront to established good taste — butoh emerged from the black markets and red light districts of Japan’s rebuilding cities and grew alongside new developments forming across the artistic scene. In addition to live performances, butoh could be seen in collaborations with key artists from the worlds of cinema (including several directors of the Japanese New Wave, such as Nagisa Ōshima), literature (writers such as Yukio Mishima), and photography (the provocative work of artists such as Eikoh Hosoe). These collaborative and trans-media origins have stayed with butoh until the present day, and in the programme presented here we hope you can glimpse some of the ways butoh continues to engage with new developments in technology, art, and society.

Although not the sole originator of butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata was its first acknowledged master, and his ankoku butoh (dance of absolute darkness), which often featured scandalous performances, set the tone for how the form would develop. An outsized personality who presented himself as a denizen of the criminal underworld as much as an artist, Hijikata processed the conflicts and desires of Tokyo’s febrile atmosphere through his new vision for dance. In part due to the US occupation of Japan in 1945, but also thanks to an ongoing influx of Western culture, philosophy, and industry that had begun at the end of the 19th century, the post-war cultural landscape of Japan was marked by a contentious relationship to Western popular culture: while jazz, rock and roll, films, and comics were embraced, there was an underlying (often explicit) unease at the perceived loss of Japanese cultural identity and the imposition of Western values and styles. Hijikata sought to develop a new language for the human body with the Japanese form as its model, and he looked to the farmers, peasants, and workers of the rural north where he grew up for examples of how the body could move and be reconfigured. Even today, groups such as Sankai Juku take inspiration from the movements of court ladies, the tea ceremony, and Noh theatre for their own expressive dances, and we can see in one of the films in this programme the influence of the great ukiyo-e artist Hokusai.

Tatsumi Hijikata photographed by Eikoh Hosoe for the publication Kamaitachi

Hijikata’s interest in the atavistic past of pre-modern Japan led him to undertake a series of visits to northern Tohoku with photographer Eikoh Hosoe; together they created the work Kamaitachi, whereby Hijikata became possessed by the eponymous destructive spirit of the northern winds and tormented the inhabitants of the isolated villages of the region. The influence of mythology was here mixed with another strand that would become central to butoh, that of the environment — whether ancient mountains and plains, frenetic cities, poisoned landscapes ruptured by atomic bombs, coastal regions devastated by tsunami and earthquakes, or the existential void that stretched beyond the limits of the Earth — the turbulence of the natural world was mirrored in butoh’s contortions of the human body. Similarly, Hijikata leaned into the animalistic, the erotic, and the fetishistic with his new dance, while blurring the worlds of performance and sex work (many of the dancers in his troupe performed at clubs in Tokyo’s red light districts), as part of a general approach aimed at provoking and destabilising society.

Hijikata’s frequent collaborator was Kazuo Ohno, who along with Hijikata is considered one of the two pillars of butoh; while the former is often associated with the carnal, dark, and technical side of the dance, Ohno is commonly referred to as embodying the transcendent, spiritual heart of butoh. The generation that followed included Kō Murobushi, Akaji Maro (leader of the world-renowned company Dairakudakan), and Ushio Amagatsu, leader of Sankai Juku, who have long entranced global audiences with their hypnotic, ritualistic performances. Each dancer brought with them their own voice — unlike other art forms, butoh has no codified rules, and there as many forms of butoh as there are dancers. As Dairakudakan’s Atsushi Matsuda puts it, somewhat wryly, in A Crooked Path Through The Dark, “With butoh you can do whatever you want … Well, I mean whatever in the sense that there’s no method. As long as it’s interesting you can do whatever you want.” This freedom derives in part from butoh’s origins in the counter-cultural post-war artistic scene, and is an example of how the dance has from its inception welcomed those who are, for whatever reason, outside of mainstream society or existing on its margins. Butoh is notable for the breadth of body types, abilities, genders, and ages among its practitioners, and for the diverse, sometimes contentious, artistic and philosophical positions that it presents.

Kazuo Ohno, Tatsumi Hijikata, and Yoshito Ohno photographed by William Klein in Tokyo, 1961

Butoh quickly found receptive audiences in Europe, especially in France, and artists such as Murobushi and Amagatsu established their centres of activities in Paris. As the form garnered more recognition and popularity in the West, butoh continued evolving. And while it became recognisable for a handful of signifiers — white body paint, slow-motion movement, generally dark and subversive subject matter — the full vista of the dance form reveals a more complex, multifaceted art that can change according to the performer, and which is frequently marked by great subtlety, expressive power, and grace — alongside often-overlooked absurdity, sly humour, and irreverence.

With this programme, we hope to introduce just a fraction of the diversity which can be found in butoh as it exists today. Several of the works presented here engage with butoh’s origins and history, through reinterpretations of the works of masters like Hijikata and Ohno, as well as through invocations of the fervent atmosphere of the post-war era. At the same time, many key active contemporary artists are represented here, both in front of and behind the camera, and their various approaches demonstrate the plurality of voices that butoh embodies. And while there is nothing to replace seeing butoh performed live in the flesh, these short films each in their own manner explore ways of translating an ephemeral performance into cinematographic form, engaging, often in a playful fashion, with screen dance, video art, and contemporary cinema, and further demonstrating both butoh’s flexibility and its origins in the trans-media furnace of post-war Japan. — David Franklin

Dreams of Love (dir: naoto iina. Japan, 2015, 7 minutes 54 seconds.)

Watch here: https://www.filmin.es/corto/dreams-of-love

At the beginning of this film, Takao Kawaguchi, a frequent collaborator of director naoto iina, can be seen peering through the window of a dance studio. Kawaguchi, a renowned dancer and former member of the multimedia group Dumb Type, in the last decade began performing versions of famed choreographies by butoh masters Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata to some controversy (criticisms which were interesting given butoh’s supposed openness and freedom), and has toured the world to acclaim with his show ‘About Kazuo Ohno’. His versions of past butoh performances are mediated through technology (via archival video and audio recordings), much like this film which features the spirit of a performance (and a performer) filtered through different media.

Yoshito Ohno, Kazuo’s son, was himself a renowned master of butoh, and at times performed versions of his father’s signature choreographies, such as ‘La Argentina’, which is referenced through a photo in this short film. Director iina writes: “Butoh dancer Yoshito Ohno manipulates a puppet of his father, Kazuo Ohno, who is one of the founders of butoh. Or is the puppet manipulating him? Yoshito’s gaze toward his puppet father’s back is sometimes rigid, hateful, but also kind, admiring, and full of respect. [Dreams of Love] was filmed in Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio, the legendary and historical studio full of conflict between father and son through dance. The space is full of posters, props, costumes of the day, and a photo of Kazuo with Pina Bausch. [The film] is based on the footage of Yoshito Ohno [used] in the stage performance ‘About Kazuo Ohno’ by Takao Kawaguchi, edited as an alternative short film version.” In Dreams of Love we can see a dialogue between three generations of performers, and witness the way in which butoh extends beyond the borders of dance, and beyond the limits of the human body.

naoto iina is a videographer, director, dramaturge, visual scenographer and producer based in Tokyo, Japan. iina is the founder of Dance and Media Japan and International Dance Film Festival. He is also an Associate professor at Tokyo Zokei University and lecturer at Za Koenji Theatre Academy. Recently he has been working on cross-genre works with video, dance and text. He is in charge of direction, composition, filming and editing of the online Butoh program “Re-Butoooh” (NPO Dance Archive Network).

Limit(less) (dir: Karolina Bieszczad-Stie. Norway, 2022. 16 minutes.)

Watch here: https://www.filmin.es/corto/limitless

This film offers a look at how butoh can engage beyond the formal limits of dance, to work with technology hand-in-hand to explore deep issues related to identity, humanity, and our connection to the non-human world. Director Karolina Bieszczad-Stie writes: “Limit(less) is a short art film, portraying a poetic vision of intimacy between a human and a robot. The film imagines a non-dystopian future through a dance duet, in which human and robot fuse in their tasks, becoming a new type of species. This vision challenges a common perception of technology as a threat to human relations and instead addresses new social questions that appear: How would genderless biological and non-biological bodies experience each other? How would they merge in their intentions and intuitions? What would their post-verbal communication be like?”

Karolina Bieszczad-Stie holds a PhD in Performing Arts from Brunel University in London, and has worked in the film industry in Norway as a director and editor. She runs a creative platform, Butoh Encounters, in Oslo, where butoh dance serves as an umbrella for various collaborative projects exploring the subject of transhumanism. Her recent works include the dance performance “Rebellion of the Cell” in collaboration with the Centre for Cancer Cell Reprogramming (CanCell) at the University of Oslo, and “Limit(less)” in collaboration with robotics researcher Mathias H. Arbo and the manufacturer of industrial robots, KUKA. She currently continues her work with CanCell through the “Micro-choreography” project, designing movement for cancer cells under the microscope.

Three (dir: naoto iina. Japan, 2022, 17 minutes 48 seconds.)

Watch here: https://www.filmin.es/corto/three

The second film in this programme from director naoto iina, Three continues the engagement with butoh’s history that we saw in the previous Dreams of Love, as well as the possibilities presented by reinterpreting dance through different media. The film was borne out of the Tokyo Real Underground festival, which celebrated butoh’s ongoing legacy as well as the dance form’s historical, physical, and conceptual links to the city of Tokyo. Kawaguchi, also the festival’s artistic director, appears again here, alongside noted performers Dai Matsuoka (also of Sankai Juku) and Mikiko Kawamura. Each of the three dancers performs a choreography by one of the legends of butoh: Kazuo Ohno, Yoshito Ohno, and Tatsumi Hijikata respectively. Uniting the performances are photos which can be seen at the beginning and end of the film, which are part of a sequence taken by American photographer William Klein in Tokyo in 1961. This powerful series of images captured the three dancers performing on the streets of Ginza and are the sole photographic record of the trio performing together; Klein’s rich images influenced the work of the Provoke group of photographers and were foundational in creating the image of butoh in the minds of international audiences.

Director iina writes: “As well as featuring butoh and dance itself, Three is also an attempt to archive butoh, incorporating video, exhibition, performance and VR technology. […] The choreography of ‘Tango, Bird’ (1971) by Kazuo Ohno is part of the performance piece ‘About Kazuo Ohno’ (2013) by Takao Kawaguchi, who is known for breaking the taboo of the butoh world by copying Ohno’s choreography from the video recordings of his dance performances. Dai Matsuoka, whom Yoshito Ohno taught in person, aims to hand down Yoshito’s dance ‘Hijikata Sansho’ to the next generation. To be more precise, Tatsumi Hijikata choreographed Yoshito Ohno, and Yoshito Ohno handed down the choreography to Matsuoka. Mikiko Kawamura has also perfectly copied the choreography from Hijikata’s ‘Hosotan’ (A Story of Smallpox, 1972). Each copy is not a plain imitation but reproduces the choreography through detailed analytics.”
Among the many points of note in the film are the way the three artists’ choreographies differ from each other, and from the typical image audiences may have of butoh as a slow, menacing form of dance.

A Perfect Day from Japan (dir: Emiko Agatsuma. Japan, 2022, 12 minutes 55 seconds.)

Watch here: https://www.filmin.es/corto/a-perfect-day-from-japan

A Perfect Day from Japan offers a different, sometimes humorous, view of butoh that manages to capture the energy of live performance through its setting in ordinary everyday spaces. Director Emiko Agatsuma presents an intriguing premise: “Memories are not only in our minds as images, but they stay in the unconscious deep within our bodies. [We can] see invisible things, hear inner voices that were almost forgotten through butoh dance.” This focus on the unconscious is significant for Agatsuma — butoh aims “to transcend conventional aesthetics and embrace the raw, primal, and often unsettling aspects of movement and expression. It invites us to see beyond the surface, to listen to our inner voice, and to reawaken a sense of wonder, curiosity, and connection with the profound mysteries of life.”

Emiko Agatsuma is a butoh dancer, choreographer, and artistic director at AGAXART. A former member of Dairakudakan, in recent years she has been working extensively in Taipei, Taiwan. In 2015 she was recipient of the prestigious Best Young Artist Award by the Japan Dance Critics Association, and she represented Japan at the 39th annual Battery Dance Festival in New York City, USA in 2020.

Hokusai Manga Butoh (dir: Emiko Agatsuma. Japan, 2022. 13 minutes 24 seconds.)

Watch here: https://www.filmin.es/corto/hokusai-manga-butoh

The second film in this programme from director Agatsuma, Hokusai Manga Butoh aligns the contemporary form of butoh, born in the second half of the 20th century, with the traditional art of ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints of Japan’s floating world. Hokusai is an undisputed master of this art form, and his numerous works and series are celebrated around the world. One of his most important collections is Hokusai Manga (manga meaning something like “whimsical drawings”), a series of instructional books for students which catalogued all of the objects and creatures, human and non-human, to be found in daily life. The collection would lend its name to the comic book form we know now as manga, but in the range and detailed expressivity of its countless drawings, the Hokusai Manga has been influential on myriad artists and art forms.

Agatsuma’s film features butoh dancers transforming themselves into forms inspired by the everday life and people of Tokyo’s Sumida district, in a manner similar to Hokusai’s great images. With its inclusion of workers and workshops from this old town, the film also engages with the mode of production of an ukiyo-e artwork — these were mass-produced prints, not unique paintings, and involved the efforts and energies of a team of craftspeople rather than a single artist. Ukiyo-e prints were intended for popular audiences and reflected daily life, as opposed to contemporaneous art in Europe which was often restricted to the eyes of nobility and the elite (even the Spanish master Goya had difficulty shifting copies of his prints to a wider public). Director Agatsuma writes: “In this performance, we researched Japanese traditional factories and transformed the skilled worker’s movements into dance like Hokusai drew people’s life and made it an art form. We are living in a world not only with visible scenery, but also with invisible things such as memories, history, and the future. This butoh dance will take you on a journey through time and space to think about what is “life”, with the music of the gaida, a folk instrument.”

A Crooked Path Through The Dark (dir: David Franklin. Ireland / Japan / Spain, 2022. 25 minutes 52 seconds.)

Watch here: https://www.filmin.es/corto/a-crooked-path-through-the-dark

A butoh dancer (Atsushi Matsuda, of the company Dairakudakan) travels across Tokyo on his way to rehearsals, traversing a subconscious landscape that bridges the interior world of the self with an exterior world that extends through the city to the cosmos. The dancer’s reflections on his creative process offer a phantasmagorical look at our connections to the world around us and the role of personal experience in shaping both lives and artwork. As storms boil and earthquakes rattle, A Crooked Path Through The Dark explores the visceral and moving process of destruction and renewal needed for the creation of a new performance.

Following from the principle that anything can be butoh, and that there is no set form, director David Franklin allows the ideas of butoh to infiltrate another medium, resulting in a film that attempts to express butoh through a cinematographic language rather than the language of the human body — a film that expresses dance instead of recording it. The film is shaped by the intangible and unconscious forces that weave together to make a performance. The invisible bonds that connect us to the streets we walk down, the energy of the landscape around us, and the marks left on us by profound experiences — like Matsuda’s tale of the earthquake that devastated Kobe in 1995 — all play as much of a role as any conscious act of creation. Matsuda speaks about the loss of identity that occurs when creating a new work, a painful process that involves severing his ties to the people and the world around him, and yet this process underscores a link with our environment, one which is porous, and which can be erased and redrawn.

The film is the first work from director David Franklin’s ongoing project focused on butoh, “Out of Earth and Sky”, made in collaboration with several butoh dancers, including members of the groups Dairakudakan and Sankai Juku.

David Franklin is an Irish visual artist and film maker currently based in Barcelona. He works at the crossroads of art, cinema, literature, and performance, utilising a range of media from painting to video, and has exhibited internationally and received grants from various institutions in Spain and Japan.