Criminal Dance: The Early Films of Butoh Master Tatsumi Hijikata

30 September 2010
picture: Criminal Dance: The Early Films of Butoh Master Tatsumi Hijikata


With the 00's behind us and a new decade just beginning it seems like a logical time to take stock of the path that Japanese film has taken in the first ten years of the 21st century. While it has now been maligned by many, one simply cannot dismiss the importance of what came to be known as the J-Horror Boom during this time. The only precedent for the astounding international success that Japanese cinema enjoyed through films like Hideo Nakata's Ring, Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse had taken place five decades before. That was when Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice International Film Festival. That win "introduced Japanese cinema to the world" and had the executives at Daiei and the other major Japanese studios churning out jidai-geki dramas to feed the global desire for more films from the exotic Far East.

In the wake of the release of Ring the Japanese studios again began to glut the market with chilling, atmospheric horror films that often centered around "dead wet girls", as author David Kalat dubbed them in his 2007 book J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond. Lank-haired, pale white, and disjointed, the vengeful ghosts like Sadako from Ring and Kayoko from Ju-on shambled out of the dark corners of our collective unconscious to both frighten and fascinate worldwide audiences. The irony of the huge mainstream success of these characters was that they were brought to life by practitioners of a modern dance form that had long been rejected by the mainstream in Japan. That dance form was Butoh.

Outwardly Butoh dance can often appear morbid, its performers' contortions and white-painted bodies giving the impression of anguished ghosts, something that drew the attention of the J-Horror directors. One of Butoh's founders, Tatsumi Hijikata, was in fact famously quoted as having described the dance as "a corpse trying desperately to stand upright," an evocative but deceptively simple image that doesn't take into account the avant-garde art and theatre, zen-like (and sometimes nihilistic) philosophy, radical social politics, and extreme physical discipline that Butoh formed a synthesis of. In the end Butoh's part in the success of Ring and Ju-on were merely footnotes in a half-century of Butoh on film, and a closer examination reveals a 50-year secret history of Japanese cinema.

The beginning of this secret history doesn't start with darkness and death though. It starts in 1957 with Japanese stage and screen sweetheart Eri Chiemi. The daughter of self-taught musicians, Chiemi had gotten her start singing popular songs like Rosemary Clooney's Come on-a My House and Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King's Tennesee Waltz in G.I. bars during the American occupation. By 1957 she was signed to Japan's King Records and had chart-topping hits both as a solo artist and as part of the trio The Three Daughters whose other two members were Izumi Yukimura and "the queen of enka" Misora Hibari. Decades before music videos all three of these singers cross-promoted their albums with feature films. One of Chiemi's early movies was Nikkatsu's 1957 Birthday Girl Jazz. Directed by Masahisa Sunohara it put Chiemi front and center belting out her hits while backed up by dozens of dancers in elaborate productions that wouldn't look out of place in a Busby Berkley musical. One of the young men wearing a straw hat and providing twirls and high kicks behind Chiemi in Birthday Girl Jazz was a fledgling 29-year-old dancer/choreographer named Kunio Yoneyama.

Born in 1928 Yoneyama was a transplant from the frozen and impoverished Tohoku region in Japan's northeast. The tenth of eleven children from a silk worm and buckwheat farming family, he had been too young to fight (and die) with his brothers in the war and had instead worked in the local steel mill making munitions. All through that time Yoneyama had harboured a dream to become a dancer. By 1957 he had spent five years pursuing that dream in Tokyo, but life in the Japanese capital for a young man from the backwater of Tohoku wasn't easy. He lived in a series of flop houses throughout the city, and to support his studies with avant-garde choreographers Hironobu Oikawa and Mitsuko Ando Yoneyama would take dancer-for-hire jobs like Birthday Girl Jazz as well as picking up work in the Tokyo dockyards. If the money got too low he wasn't past taking a cue from his literary idol, the outlaw French novelist and dramatist Jean Genet, and resort to petty thievery. Yoneyama was so enamored with the author of the existential classics The Thief's Journal and Our Lady of the Flowers that he would occasionally dance under the stage name Hijikata Genet. Shortly after his job on Birthday Girl Jazz, Yoneyama settled on his permanent stage name, Tatsumi Hijikata.

picture: Criminal Dance: The Early Films of Butoh Master Tatsumi Hijikata

Life might have been easier for Hijikata had he followed in the footsteps of other contemporary dancers in Japan whose work was heavily influenced by Western ballet and modern dance traditions. This didn't interest Hijikata at all, and he knew there were others dancers who felt the same way. During his very first visit to Tokyo in the fall of 1948 he attended a dance recital given by a 42-year-old school teacher and war veteran named Kazuo Ohno. "Cutting the air again and again with his chin, he made a lasting impression on me," Hijikata would later recall, "For years this drug dance stayed in my memory." Like Hijikata, Ohno came from the north - Hakodate, Hokkaido to be exact. Ohno's father had been the manager of a fishing co-op and was often out at sea leaving the young Ohno in the care of his mother, a woman of genteel tastes - European gourmet cooking, and Western classical music being two of her greatest loves. Both his mother and the Christian faith that he had been baptized into in 1930 while teaching at a girl's school in Yokohama would play key roles in Ohno's personal development; while a 1928 Tokyo performance by Argentine flamenco dancer Antonia Mercé y Luque, best known by her stage name La Argentina, and training with Japanese modern dancer/choreographer Baku Ishii would deeply influence him as a performer.

It was WW2 that would be the most defining period during the first half of Ohno's life, however. Despite his lifelong pacifism Ohno had little choice but to answer the call of duty when he was drafted into Japan's Imperial Army in 1938. He served as a captain for nine years in both Manchuria and then in New Guinea, and while he never was a front line soldier (Ohno was responsible for the transfer of provisions) he witnessed horrifying violence and inhumanity during his military career. Ohno would eventually become one of 8,000 Japanese POWs held in a camp in New Guinea, and after two years of captivity he would be one of only 2,000 surviving prisoners released. After Ohno's return to Japan he was reticent to speak about his wartime experiences. "I carry all the dead with me," Ohno would later hint in an interview, and it was partly to give voice to those departed spirits, partly to express thanks for having not joined their ranks, that Ohno took to the stage with a renewed zeal.

Hijikata would finally meet Ohno in 1953 through Mitsuko Ando. Despite their opposing personalities - Hijikata was young, hard-drinking, and prone to morbid obsessions, while Ohno was mature, gentle, and a bit of a dandy - the two men recognized each other as kindred spirits and began an artistic collaboration that would ultimately last for over 30 years. It was in a converted studio in the Meguro-ku district of Tokyo dubbed Asbestos Hall (it was owned by the father of Akiko Motofuji, Hijikata's then girlfriend, a proud manufacturer of the poisonous insulation) that Hijikata set to work choreographing Ohno's subsequent performances and formulating an utterly new form of dance expression. Besides their shared love of Jean Genet (Ohno would often adopt the persona of the cross-dressing prostitute Divine from Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers in his dances) the two were both influenced by revolutionary spirit of such French avant-garde figures as the poet Comte de Lautréamont and actor/writer/madman Antonin Artaud. It was ultimately Hijikata's vision, though, to create a dance that would combine the absurdity and deviancy of Genet, the mandate to "reject form and incite chaos" of Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, the bawdy, disreputable origins of Japanese Kabuki, and the broken, bow-legged movements of the impoverished workers of his Tohoku homeland. Hijikata would later name this dance Ankoku Butoh, which roughly translated to "dance of utter darkness".

On May 24th, 1959 Hijikata finally unleashed his "criminal dance" on audiences. It was on that night at Tokyo's Dai-ichi Seimei Hall that Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno's then 21-year-old son Yoshito would perform Kinjiki, a ten-minute performance piece that would scandalize the Japanese dance community. Hijikata based it on Yukio Mishima's 1953 novel Forbidden Colours (Kinjiki), that chronicled the manipulation of a beautiful young gay man by a bitter elderly writer. Instead of simply translating Mishima's narrative into dance allegory Hijikata cut directly to the emotional heart of the book. Using grotesque, predatory movements Hijikata stalked Yoshito around the stage, culminating his dark seduction with a simulated rape during which a chicken was strangled to death between Yoshito's thighs. Although photographs exist of this groundbreaking performance there is sadly no filmed document of it. Based on the immediate outrage surrounding Kinjiki (Hijikata's membership in the Japanese Dance Association was revoked because of it) there was a distinct possibility that Ankoku Butoh could have been quashed right then and there. Thankfully there were people in the audience that night who weren't disgusted but fascinated by Hijikata's performance, and who saw the cinematic potential of his Ankoku Butoh.

picture: Criminal Dance: The Early Films of Butoh Master Tatsumi Hijikata

Before those in Dai-ichi Seimei Hall had fully recovered from the shocking conclusion of Kinjiki, Hijikata received congratulations backstage from author and Japanese film historian Donald Richie. Richie had come that night as the guest Yukio Mishima who had been curious to see how this young choreographer would interpret his work. Mishima, whose own morbid fascinations would ultimately lead him to commit ritual seppuku in the office of the Japanese Self-Defense forces after a failed 1970 coup d'etat, was impressed by the raw violence of Hijikata's dance. However, it was the admiration of Richie, an expat American from Lima, Ohio, who had first come to Japan as part of the U.S. post-war occupation, that was crucial to the history of Butoh on film; it was also an important prefigurement of how Butoh would be embraced by foreign audiences long before the Japanese would even acknowledge it. At the time of Kinjiki, Richie was the film critic for The Japan Times and his first book The Japanese Film: Art and Industry had recently been published, but he wasn't content to just write about film. Richie also made short experimental films that he likened to visual poems, and he proposed a collaboration with Hijikata. Just a couple of months after his Dai-ichi Seimei performance Hijikata and members of his nascent Asbestos Hall troupe (which included girlfriend Akiko Motofuji) accompanied Richie on a film shoot along the docks in Shinagawa-ku. Shot in grainy, under-exposed 8mm the 10-minute Gisei, or Sacrifice, captures Hijikata and his troupe for the very first time on film. Dressed in disheveled costumes they perform what can best be described as a farcical mummers dance in a vacant dirt lot. One of the dancers - a handsome shirtless youth - steps outside the group for a few moments silently considering his part in the proceedings. When he tries to rejoin the dance he's brutally punished for his moment of doubt. In a sequence that Richie said used clever if rudimentary special effects Hijikata's dancers hold the handsome youth down in the dirt and take turns urinating, defecating and vomiting on him before he is castrated with a cleaver. Long thought to have been lost Gisei was recently rediscovered and restored. Part of this restoration was the inclusion of the original soundtrack, Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. This added note of blasphemy completes what is still a truly shocking piece of cinema, and probably the best film record of the visceral impact that Hijikata intended his Ankoku Butoh performances to have.

Another supporter backstage at Kinjiki was Eikoh Hosoe. Today Hosoe's name is included amongst the most important photographers of the 20th-century, but on that night in May of 1959 he was just a 27-year-old graduate of Tokyo's College of Photography, a "restless sort of youth [who] could never accept the limits that society placed on me," Hosoe recalled in a January 2010 interview with Ko-e Magazine. If there was any artist that Hijikata could relate to it was Hosoe, and outside of Kazuo Ohno it was Hosoe who Hijikata would end up having the longest creative partnership with. That partnership began with two projects - a series of photographs of Hijikata and his girlfriend Motofuji that Hosoe would collectively call Man and Woman, and an 18-minute experimental film, 1960's Navel and A-Bomb. Hosoe's one and only film, Navel and A-Bomb was made under the auspices of The Jazzu Eiga Jikken-Shitsu, or The Experimental Jazz Film Laboratory, an artist collective founded by the legendary avant-garde poet, playwright, and filmmaker Shuji Terayama. "Let's get some people together that are into modern jazz and film," Hosoe recalled Terayama as saying, "even if they don't have any filmmaking experience whatsoever, and let's make one film each." The group of amateur filmmakers ended up being a who's who of mid-20th-century Japanese film, art, and culture. Composer Toru Takemitsu and poet Shuntaro Tanikawa teamed up to make a 10-minute film titled X (Batsu) about a young man who obsessively scratches X's on everything around him. Novelist, screenwriter, and future right-wing Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara's contribution to the collective was a short thriller titled Night Falls. Hosoe's film was probably the most ambitious one produced. The film took its inspiration from a poem by Abstract Expressionist painter Taro Yamamoto and was shot on a beach at Cape Taitozaki near the town of Ohara in Chiba Prefecture. Hijikata choreographed Yoshito Ohno, four local fishermen, and six village boys in a modern spin on the Adam and Eve story. After the dancers are expelled from Eden by a nuclear explosion a chaotic spirit from the sea, played by Hijikata, threatens another apocalypse by stealing the forbidden fruit of a boy's navel, the symbolic "pushing of the button" that would herald World War 3. In retrospect it's easy to see why Navel and A-Bomb was Hosoe's only film. While the violent energy of Hijikata's choreography manages to shine through it's often broken up and blocked by pretentious juxtapositions between domestic animals (as in Kinjiki a chicken is sacrificed for art), inter-titles of Yamamoto's original poem narrated by Hiroshi Mishuzima, and a rather dated bebop jazz soundtrack. It would ultimately be Hijikata's second collaboration with Donald Richie that would remedy the artistic excesses of Hosoe's film.

Hijikata returned to the beaches along of the coast of Chiba Prefecture in 1962 for Richie's film War Games. Jettisoning everything from Navel and A-Bomb except for the beach, a group of fifteen young boys, and just one domestic animal (a white goat) Richie presented a powerful allegory of war, death, and loss of innocence. In a way Richie even took Hijikata out of the equation as he only acted in the capacity of choreographer for the 22-minute film. War Games is a Lord of the Flies-like tale about a group of boys who fight over their pet goat on a stormy beach. In the ruckus over who will be able to play with the animal they accidentally kill it, a moment that saddens, confuses and fascinates the young group. Their burial of their beloved pet turns into a game and by the end of the film the boys have seemingly erased the atrocity they've just caused. Richie wrote extensively about Hijikata's creative contributions to War Games in his 1987 book of personal essays Different People: Pictures of Some Japanese. "Among the difficulties," Richie writes of the making of the film, "was the scene I wanted where the children, wide-eyed with knowledge of death, gradually forget what they have seen." Hijikata stepped in, acting as both choreographer and wrangler of the boys, and immediately intuited what the scene needed. "Slowly - well out of range of my camera - he pulled down his shorts so that his navel was exposed. Then, still slowly, he arched his back, stuck out his stomach." The reaction of the children to Hijikata's clowning is right there for all to see in Richie's film, nearly 50 years after it was shot - they are surprised, their eyes light up, and they shake with laughter. War Games isn't just a testament to Richie's filmmaking skills, but also to Hijikata's innate sense of what is required to make a moment come alive on stage or on film.

picture: Criminal Dance: The Early Films of Butoh Master Tatsumi Hijikata

These film collaborations, and the support and friendship of Richie, Hosoe (and Mishima), emboldened Hijikata after the controversy that surrounded Kinjiki. Throughout the early 1960s Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno would continue to stage what they called "dance experiences" both at the Dai-ichi Seimei Hall and Asahi Hall. These "experiences" were in no way designed as an entertainment, but as Hijikata described it in a statement from this time "Ankoku Butoh must spout blood into the air, in the name of the experience of evil." Despite his choice of words there wasn't actual bloodletting or any kind of black magic taking place at these events. Taken in context of the 1960s these "dance experiences" could be compared to the "happenings" that were beginning to occur throughout the global avant-garde. Influenced by the theories of American painter Allan Kaprow and composer and theorist John Cage artists began to create events that would confound and actively engage their audiences. French artist Yves Klein would create large-scale paintings by dragging naked female models dipped in paint across rolls of canvas. Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and artists Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor founded the Panic Movement which took its name from the entomology of the word panic, Greek Panikós, or relating to The Great God Pan. Their performances took the form of surreal and orgiastic celebrations involving nudity and sometimes self-flagellation by Jodorowsky. The performance art of The Vienna Actionists quite literally spurted blood with artists like Hermann Nitsch beginning to mount elaborate and violent public rituals that involved the slaughter of animals and mock crucifixions. Besides Hijikata's Ankoku Butoh "experiences" Japan contributed to this global movement through the Neo-Dadaist groups like Jiro Yoshihara and Shozo Shimamoto's Gutai, which would organize events that would highlight the beauty of destruction and decay, and Genpei Akasegawa, Natsuyuki Nakanishi, and Jiro Takamatsu's Hi Red Center, who would pioneer guerrilla-style street theatre performances throughout Tokyo. Like these groups Hijikata saw Ankoku Butoh as not just a dance to be passively observed, but a total theatrical experience; and it was because of these shared goals that Hijikata would befriend members of both these groups.

It was through one of the Hi Red Center performances that experimental filmmaker Takahiko Iimura first encountered Hijikata and, as he stated in a recent interview with Aaron Kerner, Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at San Francisco State University, "[Hijikata] was more senior than me, so I thought we should be friends." Iimura, who had studied at Keio University, was in the difficult position of wanting to learn about and make experimental films without actually having access to any. He was forced to read about the film experiments of Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Jack Smith and then incorporate their approximated influence into his work. After witnessing Ankoku Butoh Iimura approached Hijikata about filming his "dance experiences". "And he said 'Okay.' He didn't have much interest in film. [...] He just said 'Okay.' And he didn't instruct me, so I could do anything I wanted." It wasn't Iimura's intention to just set up a tripod by the side of the stage and start filming though. From the beginning he wanted to be an active participant in the dances, moving on stage with the performers, and often keeping his handheld 8mm camera only a few feet from the dancers' bodies. Therefore to call the two films that Iimura shot of 1963's Anma, a.k.a. The Masseurs, and 1965's Rose-Coloured Dance documents would be entirely incorrect. Iimura's camera was spring-wound and could only shoot 15-second segments of footage at a time, so it would have been technologically impossible to document the performances in their entirety. He used this limitation to his advantage by editing together these 15-second shots into non-linear films he called "cine-dances". Despite not providing a beginning to end account of these "dance experiences" Iimura's "cine-dances" give us a very good idea of what they were like.

Shot in 1963 at Tokyo's Asahi Hall, with stage design provided by Hi Red Center artist Genpei Akasegawa, Anma is like a chaotic dream journey into Hijikata's Tohoku childhood; and due to the nature of Iimura's film this journey is taken via a series of ambiguous flashes. Dancers, which included Yoshito Ohno and longtime Asbestos Hall member Akira Kasai, are rubbed down with plaster, a device not to give them the appearance of the dead, but so that the drying of the plaster would cause a painful burning sensation on their skin. At other points their heads and bodies are tied up with newspaper and twine. There is much running and even playing catch, the general impression being of schoolyard calisthenic exercises being performed on a dozen ever-shifting tatami mats held in place by male spotters. Hijikata bursts into the action riding a bicycle and dangling a full water bladder from between his legs, and in one particularly strenuous move twirls two male dancers from his shoulders before they all crumple, exhausted, down onto the tatami mats. Kazuo Ohno appears both in a white summer yukata dancing with a pachinko ball between his fingers, and in a dark business suit wearing a false mustache. It was Iimura's interpretation that Ohno represented an outsider in Anma, "The performance is modeled after villages in Tohoku where there is a very strict community, and if you're not part of the community you're always regarded as an outsider." Iimura's 8mm footage does not include sound (he would add an ambient soundtrack performed by experimental electro-acoustic composer Tomomi Adachi in 2007), but we can see that Anma would have been accompanied by a cacophony of music and noise. The dancers at points appear to be singing, men dressed in Western-style clothing rush onto the tatami mats banging pots and pans, while a trio of elderly women playing shamisen sit at the back of the stage like the hayashikata musicians in traditional Noh theatre.

Separated by two years Iimura's second "cine-dance" shows a dramatic shift in Ankoku Butoh. Performed at the Sennichidani Kokaido with stage design by Natsuyuki Nakanishi and famed pop artist Tadanori Yokoo, 1965's Rose-Coloured Dance still features surreal antics - the dancers, including Hijikata, having their heads shaved as the audience enters the hall, Hijikata being pulled in a rickshaw, and Natsuyuki Nakanishi's painting of a vagina on the back of one of the dancers - but these elements seem peripheral this time out. The core of the dance is a sensual and almost ballet-inspired duet between Hijikata and Ohno. Dressed in white gowns with tight-fitting leotard tops the two men alternately caress and man-handle each other with Hijikata at one point appearing to aggressively kiss or bite Ohno's neck. They are later joined on stage by more dancers dressed in similar gowns and wearing elaborate black feathered hats. Far from a standard dance recital Iimura's Rose-Coloured Dance does reveal (possibly through Kazuo Ohno's influence) that Hijikata's "dance of utter darkness" was admitting a little bit of light and moving towards the Butoh, Japanese for "dance step", that audiences are familiar with today.

Despite these compelling visual documents and early cinematic collaborations Hijikata's Butoh still had to undergo years of struggle and evolution to get the recognition it enjoys worldwide and the grudging praise from Hijikata's fellow Japanese. The successes and flirtations with the mainstream, like Hijikata's appearances in the ero-guro horror films of director Teruo Ishii like 1969's The Horror of Malformed Men (Kyofu Kikei Ningen) would be an antecedent to the use of Butoh in the J-Horror films of the 1990s. It's these early films of Richie, Hosoe, and Iimura that give us the rare glimpse not only of the revolutionary seed of what would become a global dance movement and a recurring touchstone in Japanese cinema iconography, but also of the pioneering days of Japanese experimental film and visual culture.

(This essay is an excerpt from an unpublished book entitled "Dance in Darkness: Butoh on Film" currently being researched and written by Japanese film blogger and freelance film curator Chris MaGee.)