“Groundbreaking and compelling” Review in Metropolis by Rob Schwartz

Rob Schwartz, Review: Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits
Metropolis Mar 29, 2012 Issue: 940
Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh:

The contemporary Japanese dance form of butoh, originally called ankoku butoh (loosely, “dance of darkness”) is the only post-war style of dance from these shores that has made a significant impact internationally. In fact, among worldwide contemporary dancers and performance artists, butoh is considered quite influential and strikingly compelling. Strange, then, that the form is not better known among Japanese people themselves or the world at large.

One explanation for the latter is the relative dearth of literature on the art in European languages—including English. Stephen Barbar’s introductory work Hijikata: Revolt of the Body (Solar Books, 2010) and Sondra Fraleigh and Tamah Nakamura’s impressionistic text Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo (Routledge, 2006) have gone part of the way in bridging the gap (though the latter has been criticized as being inaccurate and subjective). The scholar Miryam Sas (a professor at UC Berkeley) has written some insightful articles and book chapters, but no monograph solely on the topic.

Bruce Baird’s work, Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits, is an epic leap forward in archiving, describing and analyzing the important art form of butoh, in English. Based on Baird’s Ph.D thesis at the University of Pennsylvania, this highly detailed study of butoh’s founder, Hijikata Tatsumi, took him 13 years to complete. Butoh itself is notoriously difficult to summarize, as Baird notes:

“Observers seem compelled to verbal contortions to articulate what they see: ‘the grotesque and beautiful, the nightmarish and the poetic, the erotic and the austere, the streetwise and the spiritual.’”
Indeed, butoh must be seen to be comprehended, and spoken descriptions all fall short. For this reason Baird goes to great lengths to describe precisely Hijikata’s dances, as well as relate the historical and artistic conditions and ideas that informed them.

Briefly, butoh started when Hijikata, as well as Ohno Yoshito—son of dancer and collaborator Ohno Kazuo—performed Forbidden Colors (Kinjiki, based on the Yukio Mishima novel) on May 24, 1959. Erotic (with explicit references to gay sex), transgressive and shocking, the presentation be described as performance art today rather than dance, and it was from this outline that Hijikata went on to develop what can rightly be called a dance form (if an abstract, mutable and conceptual one). Some of the more recent butoh groups have gained greater recognition than Hijikata himself. These include Sankai Juku (which has toured the US many times) and Dairakudakan (founded by Maro Akaji).

Baird’s book accomplishes three necessary tasks in laying the groundwork for butoh scholarship. First, Hijikata is put back in the spotlight. Though widely acknowledged as the founder of butoh, because he never toured outside of Japan, did most of his important performances in the 1960s and early ’70s, and died over 25 years ago, few know the particulars of his life and art. Baird’s work explains why it’s so crucial. Second, Baird addresses the frenzied and anarchic years between 1959 and 1968, when Hijikata presented his seminal performance Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: The Revolt of the Body. Previously, practically nothing has been written in non-Japanese languages about this formative ten-year period. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the author gives a conceptual framework for the Hijikata method. Though butoh appears improvised, Hijikata actually created and catalogued a series of positions and moves used in the art. This canon is known as the Hijikata method (or butoh-fu), and has never been outlined in English before. In fact, even some familiar with butoh are not aware of it.

These achievements, as well as incisive overall analysis of Hijikata Tatsumi’s work, make this book both groundbreaking and compelling. It’s not an exaggeration to say Baird has laid the foundation for butoh study in the west, and provided an invaluable resource for all those interested in the dance form.

“Rewards the curious reader” Review in Tokyo Notice Board by Gianni Simone



By Bruce Baird
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 293 pp., $95.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Gianni Simone

The first time I encountered butoh was at a Carlotta Ikeda’s solo performance in my hometown. I only remember a few details - the empty stage, and this tiny white-painted woman with an old-fashioned hat perched on her head. She spent most of the time struggling through the stage, an umbrella in her hand, as if she was about to stumble at every step. Most of all, I remember my confusion in experiencing something that was so distant from the kind of dance, and performance in general, I was used to. It was so utterly different that I didn’t know what to make of it. Maybe, I later realize, I didn’t have to think; it was enough to feel.

Even now, more than 50 years after “Forbidden Colors” - the first officially recognized butoh piece - premiered at a dance festival in Tokyo, butoh continues to mystify and confound, eluding people’s expectations. This book tries to make sense of this alien entity that, in the words of author Bruce Baird, “is always an unfinished project” which resists interpretation. By chronicling the life and painstakingly analyzing the work of one of its protagonists, Tatsumi Hijikata, Baird highlights the contradictions that make butoh beautiful and grotesque, poetic and nightmarish, erotic and austere - all at the same time - mesmerizing the audience while escaping the usual cliche´s that make mainstream performance art attractive and easily digestible. One of the book’s best qualities is that Baird firmly puts every new phase in Butoh’s development within the context of the richly creative cultural milieu of postwar Japanese culture. Especially the ebullient and often violent climate of the 1950s and ‘70s seems to be mirrored in an art form which rejected traditional technique for a form of sometime extreme physical and mental training whose goal was the release of that primordial energy that modern society had gradually suppressed. Today even the casual observer is acquainted with butoh’s performers whose white-painted corpse-like bodies struggle through unnatural movements and contortions. In the middle of all this experimentation we find Hijikata, a contradictory figure who never sold himself cheaply and through his Surrealism-influenced poetic seemed to revel in misleading people through exaggeration. The Akita-born artist helped shape and codify this “theater of pain” that he saw as an answer to social violence and inequalities. Baird helps the reader go beyond the confusion and shock effect through minutely detailed descriptions of Hijikata’s works. Based on his Ph.D. thesis, the book is a veritable treasure trove of information and reflects the many years it took to complete the project. Indeed, this is first and foremost an academic study, and casual readers could be overwhelmed by all the details and Baird’s preoccupation with approaching each idea from different viewpoints. This said, it is also a book which rewards the curious reader who wants to learn about postwar Japan from a different perspective.


“Essential” Review in Choice by Coleen Lanki

Baird, Bruce.  Hijikata Tatsumi and butoh: dancing in a pool of gray grits.  Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.  293p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780230120402, $95.00. Reviewed in 2012 Oct CHOICE.


The art of butoh is so diverse and incomprehensible that it can never be completely described by the written word. But Baird (Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst) has come close. He has crafted a wonderful study of the origins, development, and heart and body of butoh by following its growth through the journey of its central founder, Hijikata Tatsumi. Through Baird’s painstaking research and fascinating analysis, the reader gains insight into Hijikata’s choreographies, his aesthetic, and his philosophies. Baird looks at Hijikata’s butoh through “the body” and the “Japanese people,” placing Hijikata’s insanely physical art in time and place, connecting it to the changing society of Japan since the 1950s. Baird’s analysis of Hijikata’s work is illuminating, but the book also offers firsthand accounts and photos of Hijikata’s dances, quotes from his own writings, and samples of Hijikata’s choreographic “movement instructions”–thus allowing readers to make up their own minds about the significance of these performances. Baird’s book is of great importance to anyone interested in butoh, the performing arts, the avant-garde, or Japanese society. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates, graduate students, researchers, and faculty. — C. Lanki, University of the Fraser Valley

“Meticulously researched description and analysis” Review in Asian Theater Journal by Rosemary Candelario

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.


Rosemary Candelario

Texas Woman’s University

“Breton would be proud” Review of my book in Japan Forum by Hosea Hirata

Japan Forum Vol. 24, no. 4 (2012), 504-506.

A review of Bruce Baird, Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2012, xv + 293 pp.


Hijikata Tatsumi, globally one of the most influential Japanese artists of the last century (if not the most), occupies the center stage of this monograph. It is truly astonishing to see how an avant-garde dance Hijikata invented in the late 1950s and the 1960s in Tokyo has spread to all comers of the world, and is now known everywhere as butoh. There have been a few books on butoh in English but none has focused exclusively on this seemingly singular genius, Hijikata Tatsumi. This book, however, is not a critical biography. Although it contributes much to our understanding of the history of butoh, its main concern is interpretation—how to read Hijikata’s performances as well as his writings. Therein lies a fundamental problem for anyone who intends to study avant-garde art. What is the point of interpreting something that openly flaunts its anti-hermeneutic nature? How do we find any meaning in an art object that screams at us that it has no meaning?

The author, Bruce Baird, is well aware of this absurd situation as he begins the book with these words: ‘Butoh defies description’ (p. 1). Nevertheless, he earnestly engages in describing what Hijikata left for us in the next 218 pages of the book. Academically speaking, this is the most fruitful result of conscientious research on one of the most bizarre art forms on stage. Phenomenologically speaking, it simply lacks the power of a butoh performance that might change your life. But that is the fate of any academic work on the avant-garde. The difficulty that Baird must have encountered initially in this project goes beyond this fundamental absurdity of dealing with an avant-garde art. If the subject were avant-garde poetry, we would still have the poems intact before us to study. Unlike poems, dances disappear unless recorded. In this age of ubiquitous video cameras, it surprises us that so few moments of Hijikata’s dances were ever filmed. Baird, thus, needed to imaginatively reconstruct Hijikata’s early performances through bits and pieces of information scattered in reviews, notes and photos. Baird’s painstakingly careful reconstructions of Hijikata’s performances are to be highly valued.

The book mainly traces Hijikata’s major works, starting with Forbidden Colors (1959), through his influential Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: Rebellion of the  Body (1968), and culminating in his magnum opus Great Dance Mirror of Burnt Sacrifice—Performance to Commemorate the Second Unity of the School of the Dance of Utter Darkness—Twenty-seven Nights for Four Seasons (1972). In the penultimate chapter, Baird also analyzes Hijikata’s surrealist ‘memoir’ Ailing Terpsichore (1977-1978). Somehow inspired by Mishima Yukio’s novel of the same title, Hijikata’s ‘first work’ (p. 15) was staged on 24, May 1959. It was obviously designed to shock the audience. Baird quotes a description:

In this piece a young man (Yoshito Ôno) has sexual relations with a hen, after which another man (Tatsumi Hijikata) makes advances to him. There is no music. The images are striking: the young man smothers the animal between his thighs to symbolize the act. (p. 16)

Apparently many people in the audience walked out in disgust. Now, how do we handle something like this ‘academically’? Baird’s strategy is exemplary, though it may appear counter-intuitive. Our (hetero-normal, anti-pedophiliac) instinct may tell us to walk away. There is nothing to understand. It is simply, and singularly, weird and disgusting. And this effect might have been what Hijikata was intending. But Baird is patient. He contextualizes this performance within what was culturally and even politically happening in the ‘contentious era’ (p. 17) and convinces us that it could be read as a critique against the heteronormal society, or any custom and convention that binds our body in a certain way.

As we read on, we learn the fascinating history of Hijikata’s collaborations with other avant-gardists of Japan in the 1960s. In one of the ‘happenings’ in which Hijikata participated, the Dadaist Kazakura Shô branded his own chest with a hot iron hook. Hijikata apparently helped brand him again even after Kazakura fainted. Baird analyzes such avant-garde events in terms of ‘scandalous psyche-marking experiences’ (p. 66) or a search for ‘actuality (akuchuariti)’, which he believes was a key term circulating among the artists and intellectuals of the 1960s, including Mishima who wrote an essay ‘Crisis Dance’ for Hijikata.[1] Essentially, ‘actuality’ indicated a new reality disposed of all socially and culturally assigned meanings. We also learn that Hijikata was deeply indebted to some pivotal French writers, including Breton, Genet, Proust, and Artaud. Especially fruitful is Baird’s comparison of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and Hijikata’s butoh. Baird sees that while Artaud seems to orient his theatre toward an absolute state of nonmeaning, Hijikata was ultimately concerned with ‘the possibility of communicating ideas with other people’ (p. 135). Herein lies the very raison d’etre of Baird’s book: understanding in the face of something that refuses our understanding. Baird proposes a number of counterarguments to the current conceptions of butoh. One of the trickiest conceptions of butoh is that it is uniquely Japanese and is about the Japanese body. In fact, Hijikata seems to have gone through his own ‘return to Japan’, so to speak, departing from his youthful fascination with things French and re-engaging with his home in Tohoku and with his childhood memory of his protective mother, who was often abused by his father. Yet, Baird, as his careful analysis of the event titled Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: Rebellion of the Body shows, remains steadfast in not allowing such essentialism in assessing Hijikata’s legacy. I believe that one of the best arguments Baird makes in this book comes from his grasp of surrealism and its fundamental mechanism, which he sees present in Hijikata’s every work: juxtaposition of multiple and diverse realities and the resulting tension. This tension could be interpreted in terms of aesthetics, ethics,

social power structures, gender, sexuality, or one’s (national) identity. Now, because of this book, I am convinced that Hijikata must be one of the very best manifestations of surrealism in the world. Breton would be extremely proud of Hijikata and his legacy, including this book.


© 2012, Hosea Hirata

Tufts University