Rosemary Candelario. “Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits by Bruce Baird (review).” Asian Theatre Journal 30, no. 1 (2013): 263-266.
HIJIKATA TATSUMI AND BUTOH: DANCING IN A POOL OF GRAY GRITS. By Bruce Baird. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 310 pp.; 59 illus. Cloth, $95.00.
In 1984 New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff described butoh—newly arrived in the United States from Japan via France—as “a highly theatrical form” that is “a compound of the grotesque and the beautiful, the nightmarish and the poetic, the erotic and the austere, the streetwise and the spiritual.” Despite butoh’s contemporary ubiquity and wide-ranging influences on contemporary dancers and performers, knowledge about the dance’s history, and particularly the development of the form by Hijikata (1928–1986) from his first choreographed work in 1959 until his death in 1986, remains sparse, growing surprisingly little over the last three decades. Baird aims to remedy this situation with a meticulously researched description and analysis of Hijikata’s most significant choreographic and textual productions in his excellent new book. A particular strength of Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh is Baird’s contextualization of the artist’s work in Japanese historical, political, and artistic contexts, especially important today when the form is often essentialized as Japanese even as it is universalized—by dancers, critics, and audiences alike.
The book follows a chronological account of Hijikata’s artistic production, beginning with his first piece of choreography, 1959’s Forbidden Colors (Kinjiki). From early on, Hijikata was a voracious consumer of other artists’ work, from which he freely took inspiration. His first work, for example, took its title and theme of male homosexuality from the 1953 novel by Mishima Yukio. Many of Hijikata Tatsumi’s early works were presented in shared concerts with other artists. The programs for these concerts featured essays by Hijikata alongside texts by noted writers and artists, including Mishima. At these events—or “experiences,” as Hijikata named them—performance and text, writing and movement bumped up against one another, disagreeing and taking inspiration, theorizing and enacting the other. Together they constituted a project to grapple with a society that required its members to manage a surfeit of information in an increasingly competitive environment in order to understand and even alter the artistic practices and social norms of the day in a quest for actuality. Baird attempts to restage these vital and contentious dialogues between performance and text, the body and the word, on the pages of his book in order to capture how butoh was developed in the heady mix of artistic experimentation and foment in Tokyo in the 1960s. A downside of this approach is that the dances sometimes become buried in, rather than explicated by, the texts (including posters and programs) that surrounded them. Of course, this may have also been the effect that they had on the audiences at the time. The dances may have been as overdetermined for their viewers as their descriptions are for Baird’s readers.
Within a year, Hijikata abandoned the choreographic approach used for Forbidden Colors in which the dancers execute recognizable movements (walking, running, watching, handing a chicken from one person to the next, two men rolling together in simulation of sodomy) in service of a relatively transparent narrative. His experiments instead turned to fundamentally altering the uses, techniques, and significations of the body. Baird signals this transition through the opposition between what he describes as “mimetic” dances and movement in which Hijikata began exploring “bending joints in the wrong way,” a phrase the author uses as shorthand to signal the choreographer’s attempt to mobilize a corporeality utterly in opposition to societal or artistic conventions.
When dealing with a period of work that is commonly thought of as Hijikata’s “return to Japan,” Baird challenges this work as simple nostalgia for the rural Tohoku of Hijikata’s youth. He argues that projects like the photo series with Eikoh Hosoe collected in Kamaitachi (1969) are not a celebration of rural Japan, as they have often been interpreted, but instead are a continuation of the critiques in which Hijikata was already deeply engaged. If the artist was concerned with the socialization of the body, Baird astutely observes, “Eventually he had to deal with the fact that much of the socialization of his body had occurred in a place called Japan” (p. 51). The author discerns in this body of work a sharp criticism of Japanese society.
In the chapter “My Mother Tied Me on Her Back,” Baird argues that the multilayered and multivalent aspects of Hijikata’s earlier performances, in which the movement was but one aspect, now began to be condensed into the bodies of the dancers. In other words, in earlier performances the dancing body provided but one layer of the information and action that the audience would have to wade through in search of meaning. Beginning with Hosotan (1972), it was Hijikata’s dancers themselves who were called upon to negotiate multiple layers of information in the form of several concurrent movement instructions—including image sources, physical directives, movement tone, and so on—that they were required to hold in tension simultaneously in their bodies as they performed. Rather than engaging in athletic or shocking movements, they now embodied juxtaposition, fragmentation, and tension. Baird’s deepest insights into butoh come in the chapter “The Possibility Body,” in which he explores Hijikata’s new methods for generating movement vocabulary and novel operations for structuring dances from the perspective of the dancers and the audience. Here he draws from interviews with Hijikata’s dancers as well as the dancers’ own notes and writings about Hijikata’s surrealist creative process in order to elucidate what kind of body butoh cultivates and how the dance effects transformation. While doing this, Baird notably takes the opportunity to simultaneously clear away mystifying tendencies that have accrued around the form even as he insists on the form’s resistance to simplification and explication. Its impossible complexity and multiple conceivable meanings are precisely the point.
Baird gives sparse treatment to Hijikata’s artistic productions after 1972’s highpoint of Hosotan, discussing in depth only the surrealist memoirs Ailing Terpsichore (serialized 1977–1978) and 1976’s performance Human Shape (Hitogata). Baird’s explications of Hijikata’s written texts are subtle and nuanced, providing sensitive translations of passages that give non–Japanese speakers a strong sense of how the choreographer engaged in wordplay with Chinese characters much the same way he sought and crafted multivalent movement images. I am left wondering when Hijikata started writing, and if this production (as it seems from Baird’s account) began simultaneously with his choreographic work. Appendices listing a full chronology of Hijikata’s productions and publications would have been a useful addition.
When Baird attempts in the epilogue to explain why Hijikata’s later dance works were disappointing to audiences, however, his discussion is largely limited to this sense of disappointment. It would have been helpful to have a fuller sense of Hijikata’s work until his death in 1986, including a renewal of his collaborations with Kazuo Ohno (through which Ohno received international acclaim), and a late-in-life project with Min Tanaka that was instrumental in the latter’s development of Body Weather Laboratory. Instead, the artist who has loomed larger than life for most of the book seems to recede from view as the text comes to a close.
Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh is a major contribution to the Anglophone literature on butoh, particular through its extensive referencing and explication of archival materials and texts not available outside of Japan. For scholars of postwar avant-garde Japanese arts, Baird’s work brings dance fully into the conversation, particularly with literature and visual art. For butoh dancers, this book is significant for the way Baird challenges the mystification and mythologizing that has grown up around Hijikata (and was indeed often generated by Hijikata himself). For example, in his discussion of Forbidden Colors, Baird points out the successive distortions of the work that occur in English texts, going on to demonstrate how the work was “sufficiently iconoclastic without the necessity of exaggerating it” (p. 27). Ultimately, this kind of approach presents butoh dancers with a much more nuanced understanding of the founder of their form. Finally, for dance scholars, Baird’s detailed descriptions of Hijikata’s unique methods for generating movement vocabulary and his layered choreographies will be of particular interest.
Even where I question some of the specifics of Baird’s interpretations of Hijikata’s work, he, like his subject, presents his readers with a profusion of evidence while leaving room for other approaches to the work. Baird argues that Hijikata “was faced with a strange conundrum of trying to highlight the socially constructed layers of a society that was beyond his control, and at the same time, supply an alternate density for his dancers that would be open to various interpretations” (p. 156). In a similar way Baird presents his readers with the many socially constructed layers of Hijikata that influenced and were reflected in his productions (e.g., the Tohoku of his childhood, Tokyo in the 1960s and 1970s, Japanese and European surrealists and avant-garde artists), while leaving open the possibility of other interpretations. This openness to interpretation is Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh’s greatest gift.
Texas Woman’s University