October Obituaries: Category XI – Tatsumi Hijikata
9th March 1928 – 21st January 1986
“The dance of darkness must spout blood into the air, in the name of the experience of evil”
– Tatsumi Hijikata
Throughout October Heathen Harvest will again be dedicating a number of articles to artists and visionaries who have shaped us: not just as a webzine but as people. These individuals do not only exist as influences to us, but categories which help define our entire being. This year we begin right where we left off in our running order. The Obituary feature articles will culminate with the release of the Heathen Harvest Samhainwork II album on 25th October.
In a dark room moves the shape of a white-painted dancer with slow deliberation. His body contorts, muscles tensing under terrible strain yet his face remains as cool and impassive as a pool of deep water. The control of every gesture, all the way to his fingertips is flawless. The walls begin to disappear, swallowed by the intensifying darkness. From the dancer’s movement I read strange beauty, so absolute that it becomes frightening. I am watching my first ever Butoh performance that eventually will lead me to Tatsumi Hijikata, a man whose ingenious art has inspired, touched and affected thousands – myself included. Observing this marvellous phenomenon unravelling on the candlelit small stage reminiscent of a ritual chamber, I am allowed a glimpse into a hidden world. Afterwards, I recall red colour, but as a whole the experience seems hazy, dreamlike. White fingertips, the slow flow of movement, sudden spasmlike contrasts breaking the otherwise eerie stillness of the dance. This is Butoh – the dance of darkness and it is about to leave an everlasting impression on my sense of aesthetics.
Originating from Japan, Butoh (or Buto) was invented in the 1960s, by the two masters of this art form – Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata. The first ever butoh performance in 1959, danced and choreographed by Tatsumi Hijikata was short, inspired by Yukio Mishima’s novel Forbidden Colors (“Kinjiki”) that touches on the subjects of homosexuality, death, eroticism and double lives. The performance had little to do with the actual story of the novel, but involved a handsome youth (Kazuo Ohno’s son) Yoshito and a live chicken on stage with Hijikata. Due to the disturbing choreography and theme of the show, the event caused a scandal which lead to a parting of ways between Hijikata and the dance festival’s other performers.
The American occupation in Japan had ended some years before “Kinjiki” was first performed and the country was in cultural turmoil. Some wished to pursue the traditional Japanese arts, but seeing as much influence had rooted itself in the art circles from outside, many believed that the time of geisha, Noh theatre, and other Japanese traditions, was over. Hijikata, as a radical, rejected the concept of Western beauty and instead turned into the hidden darkness within himself in search for expression. As a child he had been injured in a schoolyard brawl, which left his other leg damaged and shorter than the other and stopped him from ever becoming a classical dancer. Despite this he relentlessly pursued the career of a dancer – and understandably his path would have to be a experimental one. After a while, Hijikata began to refer to his dance style as “Ankoku-Buyou” – “dance of utter darkness”, a term that later on morphed into “butoh”, a name that still holds firm today. He expressed a wish that to the audience, a butoh performance should be as if someone who had already died would die over and over inside of them.
Hjikata’s childhood memories, especially the remote village of Tohoku in the Akita region where he was from, became an important, lifelong inspiration. At the time Tohoku was at the neck of the woods of Japan, often a cause of ridicule among the more “civilized” population. The climate was harsh, with much snow every year, and most of the population of Akita were poor farmers. Without radio and television, most of the evenings were spent storytelling or drinking. Cold winds from Siberia blew over the region and even after Hijikata moved to Tokyo, which he seldom left, these landscapes remained in his mind, morphing into an almost fantastic, otherworldly place. In his final years Hijikata became more and more obsessed with the north, and his collaboration with photographer Eikoh Hosoe studied this relationship between the dancer and the land in the vein of an old northern folk tale, Kamaitachi, where Hijikata became a sickle-wielding weasel who roamed the fields, rooftops and villages of the north, encountering children and peasants. In the folk tales, the weasel had razor-sharp claws and he would attack his victims, cutting their legs. On Hosoe’s photographs, Hijikata can be seen jumping after villagers, or running on the wide lands wielding a sickle, sometimes wrapped in a large Japanese flag.
Kamaitachi: Hijikata and a Girl
Like most artists, the study of nature was essential to Hijikata’s work. He said that the muddy fields of Tohoko taught him how to dance. Whereas the Western dance styles of the time reached high altitudes with their lofty ballet dancers, a butoh performer would dance like one possessed, reaching towards the earth, crouching, their faces contorted in a silent scream. The performances can be very still and concept-like, other times fervently moving, twitching, with awesome and ugly facial expressions. Macabre, disturbing, appallingly beautiful – butoh mixes all these together. In “The Words of Butoh”, Hijikata explained, “Only when, despite having a normal, healthy body, you come to wish that you were disabled or had been born disabled, do you take your first step in butoh. A person who dances butoh has just such a fervent desire, much like a child’s longing to be crippled.” The fascination of butoh lies much in that it seems to have no rules nor boundaries, except perhaps that it thrives in the dark, in small and dingy places, far away from huge stages and bright spotlights. It could be like a play of Artaud’s – that he wished would be performed at a cemetery. Butoh is best confronted uncomfortably close, so that one is able to get a sense of the otherness of the performer as in the midst of dance they sometimes seem to cease to be human altogether.
Throughout his career, Hijikata studied philosophies and perfected the hyper-controlled movement and the art of becoming empty, his obsessive process – a broken body, an expression of the grotesque that would then turn into beauty, and a deep-rooted fascination towards death. As a dancer and choreographer he was extremely disciplined, preparing for his rare shows intensely. Hijikata fasted, trained, poured over endless sources for inspiration. Yet in his thoughts a seeming insufficiency remained despite all – Hijikata mused “I adore rib cages but, again, it seems to me that a dog’s rib cage is superior to mine.” Despite turning away from both Japanese and Western culture, he admired many Western writers and even collaborated with some. To him, butoh was never supposed to be a solely “Japanese art”. The French novelists Antonin Artaud, Marquis de Sade and Jean Genet influenced him greatly. Hijikata was constantly reading and constructing scrap-books where he glued pictures of sculptures, paintings and human bodies, sometimes drawing in more bodies at the sides of the pages. The scrap-book project became more frantic towards Hijikata’s final performance, Revolt of the Flesh.
Hijikata also began to teach butoh, choreographing his students in his home/studio/bar Asusbesuto kan (“Asbestos Hall”) during night-time. As a teacher he was harsh. The “Hijikata-styled” learning process exposes the student to intense strain. The methods were stern and he is quoted to have often yelled at his students, making them endure through physical pain, starvation and sleep deprivation. According to the autobiographer Stephen Barber, Hijikata’s students, hunger and thirst driven, would sneak out in the early hours of the morning to steal milk from neighbours’ steps and as a result, get beaten by their master.
Hijikata choreographed and taught with the use of theme words, giving his pupils impressions of what they ought to find within themselves. In a way this is a psychological (as well as physiological) process of dying. Sometimes Hijikata would come up with his own terms that were incompatible with Japanese grammar, such as “ma-gusare” (“rotting space”) that speaks volumes of the way a butoh dancer must be able to transform. Despite saying that “if blue veins can be seen through a dog’s skin, there is no need at all for a woman’s body” Hijikata spent hours tutoring Ashikawa Yoko, his star student who would become one of the most important female butoh artists and leading names in the field of butoh. No one else was allowed in the room while they worked together, but she later on often taught these techniques to Hijikata’s other pupils. Some time after Hijikata’s death, Ashikawa stopped performing altogether, but his other students continued and formed their own groups. Despite his somewhat ill and strange reputation, Hijikata’s widow Akiko Motofuji has said that he was a very warm, humorous, stylish and loving man. It is possible that the dancer’s legendarily ill temper has been swollen out of proportion, as often happens with artists after their death.
As there wasn’t much income to be made from Asbestos Hall, Hijikata appeared in a few underground films by the notorious director Teruo Ishii (Blind Woman’s Curse, 1970 and Horror of Malformed Men, 1969) where he performed the movements of Ankoku-Buyou. These films were effectively banned in Japan and were only released a few years ago for DVD in the US. Still, they reveal an important documentation of Hijikata’s butoh art, with extended dance scenes filmed in wild landscapes. In Blind Woman’s Curse Hijikata plays alongside the legendary swordsman Meiko Kaji. The story of the film later inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
In his work Hijikata often touched on difficult subjects, such as death or a broken, emaciated body and sexual taboos. His very last public performance, “Revolt of the Flesh” was a chaotic work of art with savage imagery that included him tearing off the head of a live rooster. The final act concluded in Hijikata’s body being suspended high in the air as if crucified, or perhaps as a form of human sacrifice. Revolt of the Flesh lasted some two hours, and only a few minutes of it remain on film. Despite numerous efforts, the performance has never been reconstructed as it was seen. Perhaps this is exactly as the artist wanted it to be – a mystery, existing at the border of the audience’s psyche who, after the two hour noisy and visual terror were so shocked that they couldn’t quite remember what they had seen.
It is unclear why Hijikata stopped performing and retired in the Asbestos Hall at the age of 45 – yet he literally danced until his death. His body was destroyed by a decade of whiskey drinking, which lead to liver failure. On his final days Hijikata was hospitalised, at times unconscious. He was never alone, but was always surrounded by his pupils and friends. On his last day, with everyone gathered around him, Hijikata danced his final performance, groping at the blankets covering his chest in a series of choreographed gestures.
Even if Hijikata could perhaps be described as somewhat brutal (brilliant, but brutal) on his methods as an artist, he is still without a doubt one of the most interesting and important figures to come out of Japan in the past hundred years. Hijikata’s influence has carried far, inspiring countless musicians, directors, dancers, artists, architects and other artists around the globe. In this obituary I wish to honour the memory of a Butoh master, and respect the cultural heritage that he helped blossom. Still, no matter how many pictures of Hijikata I’ve seen, the few films of him that remain that I’ve watched, I can never quite remember how his face looks. Hijikata, like his art, remains shrouded in obscurity, ever changing. He is as difficult to catch and quick to change as shadows. On a grainy film he appears for a few flickering moments, a strangely fantastic figure clad in darkness, his body sometimes so thin that the bones and muscles stand out in their stark nakedness. His “dirty avant-garde”, as it was named, is far from forgotten.