The term “Japanese dance” evokes thoughts about classic, refined, slow court and geisha dances or the stylised dance sections in forms of classical theatre, all performed in sumptuous costumes and accompanied by traditional music. The aesthetic language of butoh with its rough and angular movements and white-painted, nearly naked bodies and costumes that create a “modern mosaic” seems to originate from another culture altogether. The only connection between butoh and classical Japanese dance seems to be an extremely slow and intense performance style.
Japanese Roots of Butoh
Nevertheless, both butoh and its contemporary avantgarde theatre (angura) connect decisively into Japanese national identity. Their background was in the 1950s criticism of commercialism, shallow copying of Western performing arts aesthetics and, especially, fight against the overwhelming influence of the United States in all sectors of Japanese life and culture after the Second World War. However, there was no desire to return to the prewar conservative nationalism or uncritical revival of traditional performance styles. The mission of both butoh and angora was to return to the roots of Japanese culture in rural rice fields, and to rediscover the movement patterns of early folk theatre and dance.
The political and cultural influence of the United States was heavily criticised, yet all Western culture was not shunned. In addition to own traditions, butoh appropriated European culture, especially the 1920s German expressionistic dance that teachers of the butoh generation had themselves studied and passed on to their own students. The French literary avantgarde was another major source of inspiration. The use of music was eclectic: Japanese music was deliberately combined with Western classical and popular music. Some Western scholars emphasise the influence of the war and nuclear bombings behind butoh’s aesthetics but this view has also been challenged.
Butoh’s aesthetic revolution was based on creative amalgamation of national traditions and international modern art. It has been said that in its bold combination of styles, periods and cultures butoh was the first postmodern dance style in Japan. Postmodern dance in the United States evolved approximately during the same period as butoh, in the 1960s and 1970s, and they share some similarities but stronger affinities can be found with the postmodern tendencies in 1980s performing arts. It is not surprising that, especially from the 1980s on, butoh became extremely popular in those parts of the world where postmodern dance was establishing itself. Both butoh and postmodern dance share challenges of definition and categorisation. Common features include emphasis on processes rather than end results, open structures, avoidance of linear narratives, anarchy, grotesque elements, playfulness, challenge to gender stereotypes and mixing of varied cultural elements. Part of butoh’s postmodern character is reflected in its lack of unified aesthetics. During more than 50 years of its existence, butoh has undergone as much metamorphosis as the individual performers in their acts.
Tatsumi Hijikata and the First Generation
There is no doubt that Tatsumi Hijikata (1928–1986) is the most acknowledged founder and developer of butoh. His dance background included classical ballet, jazz dance, step dance, flamenco, mime and modern dance in the German expressionist tradition. Furthermore, Hijikata’s art cannot be categorised only as dance. It consisted of experiments with other dancers, visual artists, photographers, film makers and writers. In many ways, the performances resembled happenings or what is currently defined as performance art. In Japan, these multifaceted creations can justifiably be said to have revolutionised traditional aesthetic perceptions of art. At the time, the themes of the performances were revolutionary and groundbreaking. Madness, the grotesqueness of old age, violence, pain and homosexuality were brought on stage. It goes without saying that the early butoh stages were not any established theatres for huge mainstream audiences but small cellar spaces and shady night clubs. Tokyo was an evident hub for all sorts of counterculture. However, the strong communality and unpaid experimental work made many butoh communities move to the countryside where living was much cheaper.
Crucial developers of early butoh included Kazuo Ohno (1906–2010) and his son Yoshito Ohno (1938–2020). Their respective careers continued decades after their collaboration with Hijikata. Other dancers and performers that are usually called the first generation of butoh included Natsu Nakajima, Yoko Ashikawa, Akiko Motofuji and Akira Kasai. All of them respected Hijikata’s groundbreaking work, yet each enriched butoh’s aesthetics with their own personal styles and elements.
Hijikata’s students and closest followers were Japanese and he himself never performed abroad. Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno and the other first generation butoh artists, however, started attracting foreign students. Parts of this was due to their visits to Europe from the end of the 1970s. The 1980 festival in Nancy, France, made Kazuo Ohno a celebrity in Europe. In Nancy, Ohno performed a memorable choreography, Admiring La Argentina, that Hijikata had created for him in 1977. It had been slightly tailored for international audiences and consisted of several parts of which the first derive from an early collaboration between Hijikata and Ohno, Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours) in 1959. There is no doubt that Admiring La Argentina bears similarity to the gender presentation of the Western postmodern dance a few decades later.
Internationalisation of Butoh in the 1980s
From the early 1980s, Japanese butoh visits flooded to Europe and United States. Producers, festivals and entranced audiences and students were craving something new and butoh responded to the needs of both contemporary Western dance and its audiences In addition to the first generation butoh artists, the second generation gained international visibility. Among them were Akaji Maro with his Dairakudakan group, Ushio Amagatsu and the Sankai Juku group, as well as Min Tanaka and Masaki Iwana. Many of the second generation artists had worked with Hijikata but had eventually started to create their own kinds of butoh. Their performances differed from each other: Dairakudakan created strongly theatrical, surrealistic collages, while Sankai Juku’s performances were characterised by ethereal and chiselled visuality. Kazuo Ohno’s multilayered, poetic and sometimes melodramatic solos followed their own aesthetics.
International interest in butoh was noticed in Japan. In 1985, the first butoh festival took place in Tokyo. Butoh had clearly crawled out from the cellars and reshaped its early underground aesthetics. It has been counted that in 1988, around one hundred performances categorised as butoh were performed in the Tokyo area alone. This corresponds with the amount of Japanese butoh visits abroad during that year.
In the 1980s, butoh developed in close interaction with the international, mostly Western, art scene. Interest in butoh reflects the vigorous economic growth of Japan, followed by various Western and Japanese theories on the uniqueness of Japanese culture and mentality (nihonjinron). A certain amount of mystification and orientalism was present, partly because of communication gaps due to the lack of language skills and cultural understanding. Japanese butoh artists conducted short workshops in which they did not necessarily follow any fixed methods or training systems. Depending on the instructor, the workshops included, for example, philosophy of life, mental visualisations and learning the typical butoh walking technique (hokotai). Sometimes the visiting teachers themselves could indulge in pragmatic self-exoticism and mystification of “Japanese” nature.
Belonging to the butoh lineage became cultural capital. Calling performances or workshops butoh was useful in selling them to Western consumers. Unfortunately, it was a label that stuck even if many Japanese artists did not necessarily wish to identify themselves and their art as butoh. This led the performers to negotiate new ways to bring out their own artistic identity. For example, Eiko and Koma did not want to call their performances butoh after moving to the United States. Paris-based Masaki Iwana started using the term “white butoh” when wishing to differentiate it from Hijikata’s ankoku butoh. Aki Suzuki, whose main base was in Finland, gave up her butoh name Akeno and shunned butoh classification by calling her own style hikari, “dance of light.” Min Tanaka created his own Body Weather method that he actually had started developing before his collaboration with Hijikata. Akira Kasai combined his butoh with eurythmics.
In the course of the 1980s, the second generation gave way to the third generation. More and more Japanese artists established their permanent bases in Europe and the United States. For example, Carlotta Ikeda, Sankai Jukuand Masaki Iwana stayed or established their bases in France. Anzu Furukawa ended up in Germany from where she made several visits to Finland. The Japanese economy slumped in the early 1990s and saturation in the butoh market meant that many Japanese butoh artists saw better working opportunities outside Japan. This trend continues. In the 21st century, many Japanese butoh artists live in liminal spaces between cultures. They are outsiders both in Japan and in their chosen countries of residence. They form a reserve of artistic migrant workers that moves around globally following work opportunities. Their art is versatile and multifaceted, yet they have decided to keep butohand Japanese identity because those still guarantee better opportunities to market their work in Western and global contexts.
Those Japanese butoh artists who have put down roots in the West, have for several decades not only influenced Western dancers, but themselves been a part of Western art dance. Furthermore, in the 1980s, many Western dancers became butoh dancers in their own right in the 1980s. Some of them even built their identity on their connection to their Japanese masters and butoh genealogy. Some of them took the butoh name given to them by their Japanese teacher. One example is Swedish Susanna Åkerlund who is better known on her butoh name Su-En. Some travelled to Japan and studied in the country for long periods or took several workshops with different Japanese butoh artists. Some dancers integrated butoh apprenticeship into other postmodern dance styles. Åkerlund eventually returned to Sweden and performs Nordic butoh with her company SU-EN.
In the 1980s, butoh aesthetics connected naturally with postmodern art dance. This trend was apparent in Finland where butoh was one of the multiple styles of new dance techniques that, at that time, were not even called postmodern. Many well-known butoh artists visited Finland during the decade, conducted workshops and collaborated with Finnish dancers. Some Finnish dancers also travelled to Japan to study with butoh masters.
Philosophy and Aesthetics
Coherent definition of butoh as an art form is challenging. It reminds one of a mirror splintered into thousand pieces. The outer form of performances does not suffice for definition, nor do all contemporary butoh artists have a particularly close connection to the lineage and generations. There are as many definitions as their creators. Nevertheless, it is possible to map some aesthetic and philosophical principles that have been present in butoh’s changing history. Looking at them helps to understand butoh’s contribution to 1980s postmodernism and Western art dance.
When considering butoh’s aesthetics and philosophical principles it is good to remember that Hijikata was a dancer, choreographer, performance artist and researcher who appropriated divergent cultural and practical experimentation in his art. Extremely slow fragmentary, jerky, athletic and everyday movements were repeated and aimed “to break down the unconscious conventional movement patterns.” This resulted in well-structured, nonlinear choreographies with movement patterns inspired by mental images and the affects they evoked. Combinations of contradictory and controversial images were typical for Hijikata. Sacred and profane, seriousness and humour, as well as avantgarde and popularity unified into a whole.
Mental images often originated in natural phenomena. They could also be surreal chains of associations. Hijikata and his colleagues wrote down material that emerged in their workshops. Thanks to Hijikata’s notebooks and students’ preserved notes, butoh has a notated archive of mental imagery (buto-fu), which has been transferred from one generation to another. There are many butoh teachers who still use Hijikata’s mental image exercises along with their own course material.
The most important aspect deriving from Hijakata’s work in the 1960s and 1970s is an interest in examining interactions between the body and mind (bodymind) and conscious erasure of Western body–mind dualism. Hijikata himself did not see any philosophical trends in butoh’s early stages but similarities to Western phenomenological philosophy have not escaped researchers and theorists. For example, Phillip Zarrilli considers that psychophysical processes deriving from mental images form the core of butoh. They can help a performer to open up both inside and outside and can thus be useful in actor training. Butoh’s corpus of mental images uses verbal stimuli and activating images that are transferred into the performer’s bodymind and create possibilities for both inner and outer movement that is communicated to the audience.
Another important element that butoh brought to contemporary Western dance is re-evaluation of the dancer subject. Butoh scores derive from personal experience. Yet, the dancer is not an individual subject but primarily a conduit for a flow of impressions and memories. The dancer’s “self” is a constantly evolving collective being. The dancer concentrates on mental images, lets them flow through their body, abandons them and gives space for new images. In spite of this, butoh performances are not improvised but grounded on choreography. The main difference is that, unlike Western or classical Eastern dance traditions, butoh does not seek virtuosity. Lack of technical emphasis has been considered liberating both mentally and stylistically. In many cases, dance and performance art are intertwined. It has also been said that, especially for female dancers in the West, butoh’s grotesqueness has offered an opportunity for wider registry of expression. These possibilities were discovered by Japanese female dancers much earlier, in the 1960s.
Many Western artists and researchers emphasise butoh’s therapeutic and healing impact and connect it with shamanistic and even alchemic traditions. No doubt, similarities can be found but it is good to be aware of the dangers of uncritical and ahistorical mystification of Japanese culture and philosophy which can easily lead to amnesia regarding the international versatility of butoh.
During the 1960s and 1970s, butoh was undoubtedly part of aesthetic revolution in Japan. It emerged during the same time as postmodern dance in the United States. However, it gained its strongest Western – and global – resonance as part of postmodern dance during the 1980s. It inspired with its psychophysical investigations and theatrical performance style, creating new possibilities between dance, physical theatre and performance art. Butoh’s nearly 60-year history proves that it was not just a trend or an “exotic” intermezzo. Butoh lives and keeps constantly changing and morphing in global context.
1 Butoh is a combination of Japanese words meaning “dance” and “step.”Originally, it referred to a variety of Western popular dances whereas the word buyo meant Japanese dance. The first version of the name was ankoku buyo, but Hijikata soon named it ankoku butoh, “dance of darkness.” Kazuko Kuniyoshi (1994, 4) considers that ankoku butoh should be restricted only to Hijikata’s work and butoh should be used when other butoh artists are referred to.
2 Fraleigh 1999, 24.
3 “Western” is a controversial term. In this chapter, it is used to refer to the European and/or North American (US) cultural sphere. “Eastern,’ of course, is equally inaccurate. During the time when angura and butoh were born, Western realistic theatre and popular performances had a long tradition on Japanese stages. However, they were criticised for both aesthetic and political stagnation. Western classical ballet became popular only after the Second World War. Modern dance was mostly represented by Japanese dancers following the tradition of German expressionistic dance.
4 Especially Baku Ishii and his disciple Mitsuko Ando and Takaya Eguchi who, like Ishii, had been Mary Wigman’s student.
5 For example, surrealism, Antonin Artaud, Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre.
6 Fuller 2012, 323.
7 Fraleigh 2010, 30.
8 On definitions of “postmodern,” see 2014, 23–42.
9 The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance, edited by Bruce Baird ja Rosemary Candelario in 2019, gives an excellent overview to butoh’s history and its current global nature. Sondra Fraleigh’s Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy introduces butoh’shistory and development through the writer’s own artistic and philosophical points of view.
10 For example, writer Yukio Mishima, film directors Donald Richie and Takahiko Iimura, as well as photographer Eiko Hosoe and visual artists Natsuyuki Nakanishi and Yoko Tadanori.
11 Multidisciplinary, improvised events popular in the 1960s that encouraged audience participation.
12 For example, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hijikata and his students held workshops and created experimental productions at Asbestos-kan in Tokyo. In the same period, the group performed in nightclubs around Japan. Some experimentation was introduced even in the nightclub shows but mainly their function was to collect funds for the company. Coker 2019.
13 Kazuo Ohno’s World from Without and Within (2004) by Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno gives an excellent introduction to Kazuo Ohno’s art and philosophy. For many Western dancers, studying with him has been a groundbreaking mental and artistic experience. For example, Maureen Momo Freehill (2019) gives a vivid description of her apprenticeship with Kazuo Ohno. Finnish dancer Tero Saarinen also has warm memories: “Ohno showed me a completely new way to masculinity in dance: intuitive, primitive, free – and at the same time beautiful and strong,” in Thuring & Miettinen & Rosenberg 2018, 190.
14 Generational definitions are always controversial. In this chapter, I follow the classification by Bruce Baird and Rosemary Candelario (2019).
15 Kuniyoshi 1994, 1.
16 For example, Katherine Mezur (2019) writes extensively on butohand gender representation.
17 Kuniyoshi 1994, 2.
18 Both Kuniyoshi (1994, 2) and Fraleigh (1999, 8) think that the new expressionism, with Pina Bausch as its best known representative, aligned with the strong interest in butoh during the same period.
19 Kuniyoshi 1994, 4, 6.
20 Fuller 2012, 323.
21 Baird & Candelario 2019, 12.
22 Baird & Candelario 2019, 13–14.
23 Method developed by Émile-Jacques Dalcroze in the early 20th century. It aimed to develop body control and expressivity through music and movement.
24 More about Anzu Furukawa’s choreographies for Helsinki City Theatre Dance Group in the 1990s in Thuring & Miettinen & Rosenberg (2018, 117–118). Kuopio Dance and Music Festival commissioned a solo piece from her in 1997.
25 Mezur 2014, 219.
26 Rosemary Candelario (2019, 252) condenses butoh’s internationalisation in three key areas: diasporas, pilgrimages and new locales.
27 Kukkonen 2014.
28 More on butoh visits to Finland in Thuring & Miettinen & Rosenberg 2018. The book includes interviews with Finnish dancers inspired by butoh, such as Paula Tuovinen, Ari Tenhula, Tero Saarinen and Mammu Rankanen.
29 Baird & Candelario 2019, 13.
30 Literary and other Hijikata related material (costumes, props, posters, videos) are preserved at a special archive at Keio University, Tokyo.
31 Baird & Candelario 2019, 3.
32 Morishita 2000.
33 Baird 2015, 321–323.
34 Fraleigh 2010, 43. The best known of these is Butoh Kaden edited by Hijikata’s student Yukio Waguri. It is available also as a DVD-ROM and even as an iPhone app. van Hensbergen 2019.
35 Fraleigh & Nakamura (2006, 101–114) include exercises of mostly Japanese butoh artists and teachers. The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance ((2019, 409–480) contains both Japanese and international dancers’ observations and experiences. For deeper understanding of butohpedagogy, it is advisable to personally participate in workshops. Finland-based Ken Mai gives regular courses both in Finland and around the world.
36 Fraleigh 2010, 47.
37 Zarrilli 2020, 224–229.
38 Fraleigh 2010, 72.
39 Fraleigh 2010, 66.
40 Mezur 2019, 372.
41 Fraleigh 2010.
42 Fuller 2010, 323.
43 Fraleigh 2010, 3.
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Anna Thuring (PhD) is a teacher and theatre researcher whose main areas of research are physical (psychophysical) theatre and performing arts in Asian countries. She is particularly interested in the interaction between Asian and Western cultures and related issues of postcolonial and gender representation, both historically and today.