Tokyo’s stage scene ranges from stately traditional noh to shockingly avant-garde performance art. The diversity of Japanese performing arts provides insights into what can seem a monolithic culture.
Playwright Shu Matsui reflects on the emptiness of modern life and rapid aging of society in Japan. I spoke to him after his work appeared at Festival/Tokyo.
Despite worldwide acceptance, grizzled Dairakudakan founder Akaji Maro insists butoh remains subversive. “They seem to be attracted to the bizarreness of it, like people are drawn to a haunted house at an amusement park.”
Every era has its art forms. Often, as with the blues, a new expression is born out of suffering. In a postwar Japan shorn of its pride and millions of citizens’ lives—with traditional culture wilting under an onslaught of Western art and values—something radical was called for.
In the late ’50s, that something emerged in the form of a new kind of dance pioneered by Tatsumi Hijikata’s group Ankoku Butoh Ha. Hijikata and his experimentally minded cohorts provided the name for what later came to be known simply as butoh. “It carried the meaning of darkness, of being in the shadows, out of the light,” recalls Hijikata disciple Akaji Maro at his company Dairakudakan’s modest studio in the student district of Kichijoji.
With its ghoulish performers—typically shaven-headed and whitewashed—and tortured movements expressing pain and anxiety, butoh provided a stark contrast to the grace and athleticism that characterized traditional dance.
Maro—known to the wider public through his role as Boss Ozawa in Kill Bill: Vol. 1—would later go on to found Dairakudakan (“Great Camel Battleship”), which in its fourth decade is butoh’s longest-lived company and still one of its most influential. “Butoh arose as the antithesis to classic dance, as part of a movement that was happening worldwide,” Maro explains. “Like other countries, Japan had come under the influence of classical Russian ballet from an early time,
and participated in the reaction against it.”
But it’s a mistake to think that butoh was simply a rejection of beauty in a post-nuclear Japan. Like the 20th century abstract painters who developed a new mode of expression, Hijikata, Maro and others sought to enlarge the meaning of beauty. “I try to generate another kind of beauty,” Maro, 62, explains in the midst of one of his many cigarettes.
“I don’t think that beauty has to be so limited…and anyway, do you really know the true character of the monster that is [traditional] beauty?”
Butoh was born at a time of student protests and political ferment. Like other arts of protest, however, it has gradually been co-opted by the establishment. Performances are now sponsored by the government at leading venues such as the New National Theater.
Still, insists Maro, butoh remains radical. “Butoh was an expression of doubt and testing of the country and structures of the time. My experience with butoh was a result of that and remains a continuation of that. The country has reached a consensus about butoh, so we’re now on a journey to discover a new ‘place’ for butoh.”
Maro’s Ama-Zone, which will premiere in December, serves as a reminder to an often-xenophobic Japan that its people did not evolve in perfect isolation, but came over the ocean from distant lands. Says Maro, “Japan is an immigrant nation: I want to dramatize how the Japanese islands came to be called ‘Japan.’”
Despite growing recognition and worldwide fame in fine arts circles, butoh continues to be little understood in its homeland. In performances at mostly obscure venues, it still possesses a dark, unsettling power that attracts a cult audience. And there is the dedicated band of new adherents, out of which come the young dancers that replenish Dairakudakan’s ranks. “They seem attracted to the bizarreness of it, like people are drawn to a haunted house at an amusement park.”
Butoh’s concern with death (and, adds Maro, the eroticism of death) also ensures that it remains disquieting. Even in an era when blood is used as a material in paintings, butoh takes viewers to places in the subconscious few dare tread.
It’s not that butoh dancers are morbid. With death hidden away by modern medicine and mortuaries, butoh reminds us that mortality is central to human experience. “All people are burdened by life and death,” Maro states. “In butoh performances, feelings about life and death naturally arise first. This enriches subsequent images and meanings.”
Unlike the tragic, romanticized death of classical ballet, death in butoh is erotic, but also part of the heroism of being, a notion that may owe much to 20th century existentialism. Maro has refined this concept in his philosophy tempu-tenshiki (roughly, “being born in the world is a great talent itself”), which underpins Dairakudakan.
But butoh, cautions Maro in his gravelly rasp, should take care not to become too refined. “Values change. But I don’t think so much in terms of evolution. On the contrary, de-evolution might be preferable. If butoh evolves too much it might lose its power.”
Later, watching Maro direct his company in a rehearsal for Ama-Zone, it becomes apparent why words can never capture the essence of butoh. Maro directs in near-silence, communicating his wishes to his dancers with minimal evocations of the motions they are to enact. There’s another kind of language at work—a language of subliminal feelings and experiences that flows from him to them, and later, in performance, to the audience.
With 30 million people in the metropolitan area, Tokyo is also one of the world’s largest performing arts markets. This means that a plethora of international touring acts grace its numerous hi-tech venues. I’ve been privileged to be able to go backstage at numerous shows including Blue Man Group.
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