Butoh in a Global Performance Context


A review of An Empty Room: Butoh Performance and the Social Body in Crisis, by Michael Sakamoto.

Butoh, a dance style that originates in Japan, reflects various interpretations and models of reception in and outside Japan. Published criticisms of butoh highlight these varying perspectives. Inside Japan, butoh is discussed as a product of Japanese modernization since the Meiji period. For example, dance scholar Kazuko Kuniyoshi analyzes the butoh technique along with an historical overview of Japanese dance since the Meiji modernization. By doing so, she aims to contextualize butoh as a postmodern dance movement. She writes that butoh dancers have redeemed the indigenous body, which Japanese people have tried to discard since the Meiji restoration. (Kazuko Kuniyoshi, “Tatsumi Hijikata and his Ankoku Butoh (Dance of Darkness) – The Retrieved Bodies,” Tatsumi Hijikata‟s Butoh: Surrealism of the Flesh Ontology of the “Body.” Kanagawa and Tokyo: Kawasaki Okamoto Taro Museum and Keio University Art Center, 2003, p. 11.)

In his dissertation, Michael Sakamoto, American practitioner of butoh-based performance as well as auto-ethnographer, contextualizes butoh within the American performance studies tradition, thereby analyzing a globalized butoh parallel to intercultural performance. In his writing on butoh, Sakamoto illuminates the voices of experimental artists inside and outside the United States while juxtaposing them in terms of their unique position within the genre.

Butoh is difficult to define and its definition is highly controversial. In terms of theory and practice, the writings of Tatsumi Hijikata are the most influential to butoh practitioners and scholars. Hijikata’s work is often regarded as the source of all butoh practice. In his dissertation, Sakamoto orients the form and dramaturgy of the genre toward Hijikata’s dancing while examining Japanese postwar identity crisis through Hijikata’s contemporaries in the avant-garde milieu. Throughout his discussion, Sakamoto unpacks ethnic and nationalistic identity politics embedded in the roots of this artistic practice. In order to illustrate such complexity, he utilizes various analytical references outside butoh discourse, including texts by Jacques Derrida, Takeo Doi, Yvonne Rainer, Paul D. Miller, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, and Naomi Klein.

In Sakamoto’s dissertation, readers can grasp the overview of critical discourse on butoh in the United States, while discovering Sakamoto’s own practice-based scholarship that highlight his theoretical analyses. In chapter 1, he lays out the relevant history of postwar Japanese art and culture within which butoh arose and from which it drew fundamental inspiration. In chapter 2, Sakamoto draws on butoh’s long relationship with photography to reveal butoh as a recursive socio-political practice rooted in subjectively imagined embodiments. Chapter 3 begins the work of reimagining butoh by redefining and recontextualizing its principles beyond the confines of its historical roots, laying out the core concepts of a theory he calls an empty room. This term is also used as the subtitle of his dissertation. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 explore the three primary elements of his theoretical framings: desire, trickster, and the cultural commons. In Chapter 6, Sakamoto concludes his dissertation by proposing the basis for application of this theory to contemporary discourses of democracy and sustainability in terms of performative, interpersonal, and intercultural behavior.

Performance Michael Sakamoto
The primary sources of Sakamoto’s research are Victor Turner’s and Claude Levi-Strauss’ achievements in anthropology and research on Japan and Japanese culture by John W. Dower and Donald Richie. The other sources cover translations of Hijikata Tatsumi’s texts published in the journal, The Drama Review, and archival materials in the Hijikata Tatsumi Memorial Archive, Asbestos-Kan. Artistic materials such as literatures by Kobo Abe and photography by Nobuyoshi Araki are also used as sources, while Sakamoto’s private interviews with dancers such as Shinichi Koga, Min Tanaka, and Ko Murobushi, constitute the basis of his study.

Sakamoto’s interview with the female dancer Natsu Nakajima uncovers the poetics of butoh practice and was especially compelling to me as a Japanese dancer and scholar. Quoting Nakajima, Sakamoto concludes that language and surrealism have marked butoh throughout its history as a poetic practice and points out its essential aesthetic difference between western and Japanese dance: “‘Japanese traditional music came from religious chanting, so it’s more language-based. Japanese dance was produced by language, not music, not melody. This is a very important point when we think about butoh…Our dance is a kind of action and language.’ If the form and content of Japanese dance is fundamentally determined by language, then the use of subversive, oblique, and absurd language initiated by Hijikata…determines the form and content of butoh” (p. 203). This illustrates the artistic root of butoh within the rich textual layers of theater and dance, while reinforcing why Sakamoto practices butoh, which stems from his conceptual and poetic thinking on the genre. In order to understand the textual tradition in Japanese performing arts, Sakamoto employs and combines the concepts of desire, trickster (who rearticulates the joints of language and produces new realities), and the cultural commons in his final chapters.

By discussing butoh in the field of globalized performance, Sakamoto successfully reevaluates butoh movement and democratizes the aesthetics of the form. For a long time butoh dancers were neglected by many Japanese dance critics, who considered butoh a less developed genre. Kazuo Ohno, for instance, has receiveed less respect and no honorary awards designated by the Japanese government. The dance scholar and critic Miyabi Ichikawa writes that the reason for this disrespect comes not from Kazuo Ohno himself but from dance critics and journalists in Japan, who have displayed a prejudice against butoh. Butoh dancers were thus outsiders in Japanese dance criticism for a considerable period of time, as opposed to their favorable and enthusiastic receptions overseas. (Miyabi Ichikawa, “Butohka Ohno Kazuo no Sekai,” Ohno Kazuo Hyakunen no Butoh, edited by Ohno Kazuo Butoh Studio. Tokyo: Film-art sha, 2007, p. 227.)

Resources of translated texts on butoh are scarce and Michael Sakamoto’s dissertation complements both Japanese and American butoh scholarship. The potential impact of his work will be equally appreciated in Asian American Studies and studies on butoh outside Japan. Sakamoto’s participant-observer approach in the field of butoh may also provide a unique resource to the Performance Studies community. In addition, his study may inspire artists-scholars in Japan, where neither a Performance Studies approach nor a method of practice-as-research has yet to be academically introduced.

Nanako Nakajima
Dance Studies and Dance Dramaturgy, Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS)
Saitama University

Primary Sources

The Drama Review
Hijikata Tatsumi Memorial Archive
The author’s experience as performer
Private interviews

Dissertation Information 

University of California, Los Angeles. 2012. 271 pp. Primary Advisor: Allen F. Roberts.

Image: Photograph of Michael Sakamoto and Waewdao Sirisook. Photographs by Janelle Weatherford and Boaz Zippor.

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