A Masters Dissertation – A CORPSE DESPERATELY STANDING: The Literary Influences on Hijikata Tatsumi’s Ankoku Buto
is in the process of being edited and revised. This may become
available in the future. For now, two short introductory pieces
concerning the genre are posted.

SEETHING CAULDRON (An introduction to Butoh)

The seminal form of Butoh, Ankoku Butoh (The Dance of
Utter Darkness) was birthed in the chaotic vacuum of post-war, post
capitalist, American occupied Japan in the mid 50s by Hijikata Tatsumi
(1928-1986).  Hijikata’s revolutionary spirit and fiery creativity
incinerated all that was stale, mediocre and fossilised by convention in
the Japanese dance world, and what he conjured from the ashes has, in
the words of Maro Akaji,  “spread like a virus throughout the world”.

The influences upon the formulation of Ankoku Butoh
were a complex and eclectic mix.  Hijikata, in the spirit of a
magpie, collected inspirations from many varied sources.  From the
arenas of performance he drew from phlebian forms of entertainment:
Mimosa, Yose, Carnival, from Karuga, folklore, and also from early
Kabuki (before its sanitisation), as well as the contemporaneous
Happenings and Action Art. He soaked himself in literature and poetry,
particularly French Decadent authors (Lautremont, Baudelaire, Sade
etc.), held Satre and Genet in high esteem and fed upon Artaud’s
ferocious demands for performance/theatre reforms. He had an intrinsic
linkage with the visual arts, collaborating with many artists,
particularly those from Yomiuri Independent and Hi Red Center,  and with
filmakers and photographers. All these fragmented treasures,  and many
more besides,  stirred together with his own experiential existence and
childhood memories of a harsh rural Japan, Hijikata brewed in a cauldron
of his own creativity.  What emerged was a potent, intoxicating and
powerfully innovative/evocative concoction, beautiful and terrible –
essentially shamanic in essence.

When Ankoku Butoh made its first inception onto the
boards of the stage on May24, 1959 with KINJIKI, it caused a shudder of
revulsion to vibrate through the dance world.  Its homoerotic subject
shocked, but more than this…the body was exposed AS IT IS: false,
dislocated, suffering.  The anarchic rejection of consensual ideas of
beauty and the violent thrusting aside of all prior dance convention
caused his expulsion from the mainstream dance as a ‘dangerous rebel’.
But as an unprecedated creative performer, Hijikata was embraced by
those on the cutting edge of art, and though his performances  initially
continued in small venues, on the streets, in fields or on beaches, his
art and charismatic personality soon gathered many disciples and

From Hijikata’s initial Ankoku Butoh many variants have
spawned, many other ‘butohs’.  Whereas most do not share the same
degree of violence and eroticism as evidenced in Hijikata’s work, all
retain an emphasis on the exteriorisation of the ‘dream’ and the
gravitational pull of the earth.  Indeed, the earthbound state of the
human body is one of the quintessential elements of Butoh, and as such,
it has been seen as the antithesis of ballet.

Butoh disregards all notions of sophistication and
symbolical referencing.  It does not seek idealised form or harmonically
choreographed patterning, but embraces the spontaneous, the grotesque,
the ungainly, the raw, non-aesthetically encoded body.  Butoh gropes
beneath the overlay of socialisation and cultural authoritarianism for
‘the body that has been robbed’…the ‘fiery body’, the wild inner flame
in the heart of darkness.  In the very best of Butoh performances a
deep communion between dancer and spectator emerges wherein both become
participants in an ancient rite.  Both dismembers the social body,
plunges into the darknes of Chaos, returns to bleeding nature, undergoes
catharsis and rebirth.  Yet, Butoh is not a religion, not a form of
healing, nor a response to nuclear bombing of Hiroshima (as some state),
but a dance-theatre based on a distinct approach, a sort of non-dance,
springing forth from the realms of the imaginal, from bones, sinew and

Defying standardised ‘good taste’, commonly held
aesthetics, convention, logocentricity, linearlity, compartmentalisation
and so forth, Butoh aslo defies precise definition.  Any attempt to
undertake definition in unequivocal intellectual terms must inevitably
meet with failure, and would be as futile as trying to put a full stop
on eternity. It is by very virtue of an absence of manifesto, dogmatism
or coded structure, by its refusal to be adequately defined, that Butoh
has flourished to become an international phenomena with a continuing
and a growing influence.  Not only has it engendered some of the most
powerful of dance/theatre performances but also some of the most
stunning photographic images ever seen in relation to the perfoming
arts.  It has cast its shadowy influence on computer graphis artists,
fine artists, film makers and rock musicians.   It can seep into and use
any from nature or culture….and is spreading like Artaud’s plague. 
Perhaps, because, in the words of Hijikata -“Butoh can never be


When Amaterasu O Mi Kami, the Japanese Sun Goddess, hid in the ama no iwato (sacred
mountain cave) after a dispute with her brother, the Storm God, the
world was plunged in darkness. Constant night reigned and evil powers
held all at their mercy:

…and  the cries of myriad
deities were everywhere abundant like summer flies and all manner of 
calamities arose  (Ortolani, B., 1990)

In response, the first matsuri  (sacred rite) was performed by the kami  (gods
as ancestors) in order to entice Amaterasu from out of hiding and to
bring her light back into the world. Along with the tools for divining,
papaya wood and the shoulder bone of a male deer, a tree with many
branches was pulled up from the mountain, roots and all, and set before
the cave. In the tree were placed strips of blue and white nikite cloth
(cloth made from the bark of tress), a string of precious jewels and a
large mirror. The matsuri began. Cocks were brought forth and made to
crow in anticipation of the dawn. Futodama no Mikota made offerings, Ame
no Koyane no Mikota chanted prayers, and Ame no Uzume, covering her
head with matsaki vine and holding a bundle of sasa leaves, danced. Ame
no Uzume, a miko (female shaman):

[…] prostrated herself at the
door of  the cave in a hazy, buoyant condition and then began to dance
violently, stamping her feet  and roaring. She became possessed by a god
or spirit, unbarred her breasts and lifted her vagina covering, whilst
the myriad of gods shouted in laughter.  Amaterasu then appeared at the
entrance to the cave, caught sight of her reflection in the mirror and
light was restored to the world. (Fairchild, 1962)

Possessed of obvious commonalities, in ritualistic
formatting and symbolic construct, is the  European  sabbat as engaged
in by an authentic witchcraft coven based in England’s rural Yorkshire,
which, some time ago I was fortunate enough to be involved with. I cite
here, as indicative example, the basic symbolical patterning and
physical configurations of two tangential seasonal Sabbats that bear
direct correlation to the myth of Amaterasu O Mi Kami.

There is a dark time in the turning of the wheel of the
Year, marked in the Celtic pagan calendar as the phase between Shamain
(pronounced Sowain) 31 October, and Yule, the Winter Solstice, 2123
December. Samhain is the ending and beginning of the cycle. Lord of the
waning year crosses the sunless waters. The Goddess withdraws deep into
the Earth and shows only Her dark face. All is cold, barren, desolate
and blanketed in blackness. We plunge into chaos, dangers lurk in the
shadows and the air is laden with sobs. The veil  between the worlds of
the living and the dead are thin, the barrier betwixt conscious and 
unconscious, fragile. At midnight on the eve of Samhain, in a secluded
nemeton (sacred grove of trees), we gathered, cast a circle around us,
summoned our guardian spirits and make sacrifice to the ancient Hag
Goddess of Death. As we sang over bones and gazed into still black
water, our ancestors whispered to us their secrets. At Yule time we met
again. The circle was cast, offerings lain and evocations made. We
curled up, foetus like, upon the frosty frozen ground. 

One beat out a rhythm upon a drum, another chanted, as
we slowly, very slowly, coiled and come to standing. Little flames from
many candles began to flicker and illuminate the dark enclosure as we
paced spirally and entered gnosis (a state of consciousness akin to
semitrance). The drumming got louder, faster, the chant became one of
many voices and pacing became dancing, sometimes wild, erotic, sometimes
hypnotic and slow. The dancing had no predetermined patterning; it was
more given over to the visions experienced and the impulses of our
being. The flesh of our bare feet ceased to feel the cold and the grove
swirled with flames as we passed through a metaphorical membrane.
Laughing, singing, joking, feasting, we made merry until the shining Sun
Child was birthed and the light shafts of dawn pierced through the gaps
in the branches.

Both sacred rites, The Japanese matsuri and the Celtic
Sabbat, share the same structional  elements: intent, the preparation of
special place, use of selected materials, sympathetic magic/ mimesis,
offerings, sacrifice (which in more ancient times were invariably blood
sacrifices), evocation, chants, trance and dance form the basis of their

Similar pagan rituals may be evidenced as belonging to
many indigenous cultures across the globe. As cultures were swallowed up
by the industrialised, mechanised world, practices such as these were
rendered extinct, or diluted, denigrated into folk custom and stripped
of purpose, only to be monopolised by tourist boards. Only in the most
isolated and rural areas, or through secret groups and covens made up of
dedicated individuals, have such practices remained relatively intact;
being passed on from generation to generation (not necessarily in a
familial manner but by a careful selection of candidate). From the
outside, such practices have, and are, looked upon with derision,
ridiculed as the superstitions of unenlightened simpletons, or responded
to with abhorrence, being considered the barbarous ceremonies of devil
worshippers. From the inside, there is a firmly held belief that to
attempt to run counter with nature is folly, attunement to it is
essential, both to personal individual natures and the wider nature of
which the individual is a part. Such rites, thus, serve a dual purpose.
They are both seasonal observances reconciling participants to nature’s
cyclical motions and vehicles for permanent psychophysical

For the majority of Japanese, the myth of Amaterasu O
Mi Kami is the genesis of theatre, its roots lying in prehistory, in
archaic shamanic practices which share prevailing features worldwide. 
Many scholars have acknowledged the evolvement of theatre from these
antediluvian beginnings (Victor Turner, Richard Schechner),  but over
the course of history, theatre lost its sacred function and became a
mirror to societal attitudes rather than nature, seeking to do nothing
more than indoctrinates with a religion, politically persuade and/or
simply entertain. The twentieth century, however, witnessed certain
individuals within the avantgarde groping toward a theatre considered
more efficacious, more communal, more ritualised; an attempt to bring
theatre back into the margins of the sacred; sacred, that is, in terms
of alignment to the natural, particularly the natural in the human

One of the quintessential rudiments of the avantgarde,
across all its multifarious expressions, is ‘primitivism’.  Its first
notable expression was evidenced in the works of painters after the
World War 1, particularly the Surrealists, and most notably the renegade
Surrealist automatists, Andre Masson, Roberto Matta and Max Ernst.
Those who fell under their influence, placed emphasis upon spontaneity,
process, and the unconscious aspects of creation whilst working in
semi-trance states. Primitivism, in this sense, is defined not solely in
terms of a neonostalgic hankering after a more simplistic and
uncultured means of expression for artistic stylistic concerns, but by
its serious explorations based upon the idea that there be a
prelinguistic and mythopoeic level of the psyche that the artist can
access in order to discover fundamental truths. In this respect,
primitivism, as employed in the fields of art, bears correlation to
shamanism and witchcraft (true witchcraft, the craft of the wise, being
essentially rooted in shamanic practice: the term deriving from wicce,
meaning wise and also to bend.  The shaman/witch contends that s/he
makes journeys to separate realities, otherworlds, the lands of the
faerie, realms of the dead, through means of ecstatic techniques,
altered states of consciousness (ASC’s}, to obtain wisdom, knowledge and
guidance, to return to the source of their being.

Many avant garde artists have, and do, proclaim or
aspire to do the same. In the context of theatre, if it is to be
accorded with a sacred primality, the avantgarde director and/or
performer must, therefore, take on a different role(s) other than
normally assigned in more institutionally traditional forms: must become
more akin to priestess, or ‘master of ceremonies’ (to coin Artaud’ s
phrase), to shaman, to witch. Moreover, aligned with the original
purposes of sacred rite, such theatre must also cross the gulf which
separates performer from spectator, seek to facilitate an attunement to
the natural and a lasting alteration in performer and spectator (or more
properly participant). Though the people of earth speak in many
different tongues, such a position necessitates a fundamental belief
that there be a twilight language all understand, even if not wholly
consciously. A universal language that flickers in the flame of the
spirit, roars in the wind of breath, surges on waves of blood, resounds
in the clay of flesh and cracks in the bone, bespeaking of nature’ s
ways, archetypal journeys of the soul and existential experiences that
are the same for all peoples, in all places, at all times. Theatre, not
limitedly defined by specified building, may be seen as a liminal space,
a betwixt and between the worlds space, that, in this instance, must
aim to mollify, aid and support the creation/destruction spiralling
motion of our being. Theatre, then, is sacred only in so far as it does

Theatre practitioners with varying degrees of success
have undertaken experiments in producing theatre based on these
concerns. Rather than being religious in the commonly understood sense,
these experiments have appeared (paradoxically perhaps to many) somewhat
sacrilegious when set against patriarchal formatted belief constructs
and issues of faith dependent upon the notion of a montheistic god as
supreme judgmental creator force. The urge toward such sacred theatre is
essentially a primal, existential one, rooted in earth and body,
unencumbered by dogma and unappropriated with moralistic scripture. Yet,
in relation to the myth of Amaterasu O Mi Kami, the more popular
traditional Japanese theatrical forms of Noh and Kabuki are not so much
conjured for me as that of the more current avantgarde dance/theatre
form of Butoh, with its dark archaic primality, its tortured, screaming
physicality, derangement, metamorphosis, eroticism and sagacious

Stepping out of the Eurocentric constraints of
perceiving cultural otherness (whilst still acknowledging the encoded,
foreign, sociocultural elements), I couldn’t fail to recognise the
distillation of certain rudiments of the avowed aims of Western
practitioners, not to mention core elements of the witchcraft I had
encountered. My fascination is, therefore, selfexplanatory. Moreover, I
am of the opinion that Butoh, originally formulated by the poet, dancer
and choreographer, Tatsumi Hijikata, in its most genuine expression,
more than any other attempt to do so, may have actually succeeded in
bringing the sacred onto the boards of the stage; and, by the employment
of certain techniques, achieved the transformation of performer into a
sacrifice, a medium, and the spectator into participant … returning
theatre to participatory archaic rite…. mysterious … cathartic.
Butoh continues  to disrupt traditional ideas of what constitutes dance
and theatre, and to challenge the compartmentalisation of dance, theatre
and performance art. Both the approach to training techniques and
performance is unconventional and challenging. Its tendrils have
uncoiled  in many parts of the globe and an increasing number of Butoh
and Butoh influenced  performers seem to spring forth each year,
evolving a wide range of styles. For many, Butoh offers a more radical
perspective and a more fulfilling expression  than most other
performance methodologies and forms. The divergence of stylistic
approach and standpoint entails a peeling off of cosmeticised layering
in some cases, before being able to penetrate into its heart and to sift
and analyse its fundamental principalities and practice. As a genre it
appears to break down constrictions of time, space and culture.

Writers on  Butoh have had a tendency to portray it as
isolated Japanese phenomena. Though it sprung from Japanese soil, a
wider glance demonstartes it to have been birthed in tune with a
particular global artistic climate prevalent at a certain historical
time.  By crossreferencing the  principle tenets, aesthetics and
concrete form of Butoh with the postwar work of relevant  avantgarde
artists and theatre practitioners, the notion of Butoh as purely
monocultural is  brought into question (indeed, it is only by such 
analysis that any specifically inherent sociocultural Japanese elements
can be isolated and discussed). Yet, although it can be historically
traced as a genre, Butoh’ s premodern and postmodern proclivities, along
with its continuing evolvement, seem to confound any real attempt to
tightly confine it within a  delineated time period. This, together with
comparative analysis of more ancient magickal and shamanic rites from
across the globe in relation to Butoh’s methodology, tenents, practice
and performance not only calls such a notion into dispute, but suggests
it to be pretty shortsighted and blinkered. Rather than  trace the
outline of Butoh as a lone branch, therefore, both the trunk from which 
it springs and some of the other branches bending  with it as they
struggle toward the  same light, albeit a light only contained within
the darkness, should be woven into any investigative analysis.

When one of Japan’s leading Butoh performers, Akai Maro, saw Aboriginal dances for the first time, he proclaimed that it wasButoh!!!
And when I see witches dance at the sabbat I also could proclaim
something very similar – for there is a recognisably archaic and
universal substratum within shamanically rooted performance that, when
experienced, is unmistakable.