The Last Samurais: Why They Dance The Way They Do by Sondra Fraleigh Hijikata

The Last Samurais: Why They Dance The Way They Do

by Sondra Fraleigh Hijikata

While protesting the Western colonization of Japan, used the creativity he garnered from German Neue Tanz and European surrealism to invent his “Body in Crisis.” The crisis he embodied in his butoh grew from the turmoil of post World War II Japan. It also drew upon Hijikata’s somatic identification with the wind and mud of Japan’s countryside, and from his childhood terrors. Ohno Kazuo’s dancing, termed “poison dance” and a dance of “deadly power” by Hijikata, also peaked his development of butoh. (German Neue Tanz was called “Poison Dance” in Japan.)So how do we know butoh when we see it in the twenty-first century, and does it still bear a relationship to butoh founders, Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo?

Current performers dance the beautiful ugliness of butoh in a plethora of ways and through their own identities. Those who maintain the spirit of Hijikata and Ohno are often called “butohists.”I call them “the last samurais” in wake of the impeccable samurai warriors and their code –expect nothing, be ready for anything. The Samurai elite who dominated the military aristocracy from the 11th century gave way to modern armies in Japan’s 19th century drift toward the west, after America began to establish forceful diplomacy there in its desire to trade with Japan and to spread Christianity to “the yellow heathens.” This is of course the very shift that Hijikata would eventually battle with his “terror dance.” He defined himself as a “soldier,” making war on the rising societies of capitalist production with dances he called “weapons.” His was a battle for the Japanese soul.

Ohno was of course a real warrior in World War II, where for nine years he saw deprivation and blood. His last two years were as a prisoner of war. The very sensitive and spiritual Ohno was conscripted when his son and eventual dance partner, Yoshito, was just three months old. He went to war as a young man with modern dance training and returned to begin his dance career in middle age. We know that he doesn’t talk of war in his workshops, but rather of death and how we owe an enormous debt to those who die for us. “I carry all the dead with me,” Ohno says.

Clearly, Hijikata and Ohno provide the term “butohist” its original meaning and restive force. From the very beginning, Hijikata and Ohno intrigue audiences as much as they baffle them. In several ways their butoh is like all dance in this regard. Dances don’t tell stories, except in the tales of ballet and in narrative forms, and even then the stories are seldom literal or linear. Narrative in dance, as in the early modern dances of Martha Graham, is cast in metaphors and symbols that peak the body’s deep responsiveness to kinetic images. To dance is to explore human consciousness through bodily means.

Hijikata and Ohno invert consciousness, however, sublimating the body while extending its liminal states. These men are not narrative or symbolist modern dancers; neither are they neutrally postmodern. As butohists, they move past modern categories altogether. One does not so much read their butoh works to find meaning there; rather, one enters into morphing states of awareness through the performances. There is a difference between metaphoric and metamorphic imagery; butoh does not ride on metaphor, but rather on change and an ethos of becoming. Here we refer to a cultural disposition that appreciates the ongoing nature of life, never-ending in solid form, because it comes from emptiness, itself not really empty, but in process of emptying and filling, like breathing.

Meaning in butoh comes through one’s experience of the dance, and not from deciphering a message or choreographic intent. Surely there is an element of subjective reflection in being an audience for any kind of dance, but Hijikata and Ohno are the first to proffer wholly experiential avenues for relating to dance. Hijikata’s offering comes in the form of sacrifice; Ohno’s comes through reverence for life and the healing of trauma. Hijikata dances his darkness, constructs his body of pain and absurdity, and the audience morphs through these aspects of themselves. As for Ohno, people feel better in his presence and through the spirituality of his performances. The audience for butoh is offered an experience of theater that is not distanced –filtered through centuries of movement styles and character development –as in Kabuki and Noh, or even Western ballet. As Japan’s first butohists and last samurais, Hijikata and Ohno circumvent the abstractions of modern dance and transcend the neutral pose of Western postmodernism.

Quoted paragraphs in italics are from Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo(Routledge Performance Practitioners Series), an upcoming book by Sondra Fraleigh and Tamah Nakamura.Sondra Fraleigh is a panelist at The Shadow Body SpeaksSymposium, Sunday, March 19, 3-5pm, at The Shin Higuchi Institute, 3485 N. Clark St