Revolt of the Body

By Stephen Barber

war-game-donald-richie.jpgWar Games, 1968

The radical experimental culture of post-war Japan grew out of the response to American occupation

The performance-art form ‘Ankoku Butoh’ –  the ‘Dance of Darkness’ – was the creation of the choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata, born in 1928 in Akita, a north-western coastal region of Japan. Hijikata first arrived in Tokyo soon after the Second World War, which ended with the destruction by bombing of many major Japanese cities. Tokyo itself was extensively fire-bombed in the closing months of the war, and large areas of the city were decimated, with hundreds of thousands of human casualties in the civilian population. In documentary film footage taken of Tokyo in the months following the end of the war, in August 1945, there is almost nothing left to see beyond heaps of debris. Surviving citizens of Tokyo spoke of this time as being literally the end of their world.

However, the city was very rapidly re-constructed under the American Occupation of Japan, which lasted until 1952 and saw a proliferation of black-market activities, and the resurgence of film and performance cultures, which were placed under an often-erratic regime of censorship. With the end of the Occupation, much of the American military and cultural power over Japanese life continued, and resistance to that influence grew throughout the 1950s into an oppositional culture of riotous protest, especially against the presence of American airbases in close proximity to Tokyo, and against the perceived subservience of Japan to the military priorities of the United States with regard to Korea and, in the following decades, Vietnam. The culture of resistance and street protest in Tokyo was a highly disciplined, committed one, and especially in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, the riotous confrontations between organized student groups and police, in such districts as Shinjuku, were violent and sustained.

The atmosphere of protest and upheaval moved almost without transition into the areas of experimental culture, notably in the form of an intersection between film, choreography and performance art. Tokyo’s culture was crucially one of the human body, whereby one set of perspectives on the form of the body had been abruptly curtailed at the end of the war, and an imagery of a new, constantly transforming human body was developed. This was a body infused with the deviant forms of sexual culture and social dissidence that together powered the experimental cultures of post-war Tokyo. At the end of the 1950s, when Hijikata began to create his own choreographic form, these corporeal and urban upheavals in Tokyo’s culture were already in full swing. They often took the form of nihilistic, neo-Dada experiments in performance, painting and music, but it was especially in the areas of film and photography that Hijikata’s choreography found its alliances.

Often, collaborative series of events took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s which formed amalgams of work in film, dance, poetry and musical cacophony – the series in which Hijikata’s own projects developed was called the ‘650 Experience’. One of the vital influential figures behind the development of Hijikata’s work was the French theorist of cruelty and the body, Antonin Artaud, who had died in 1948. Hijikata’s engagement with Artaud’s work was sustained, lasting from the 1960s until his own death in 1986. Hijikata became preoccupied with a book which Artaud had written about the chaotic, excessive reign of the third-century Roman emperor, Heliogabalus. All of Artaud’s work forms a ferocious polemic about the body, and against social institutions, and it provided the inspiration for Hijikata’s most infamous performance, Revolt of the Body, undertaken in October 1968, at the time of the most intensive street-riots in the avenues surrounding the performance-space in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.

Much of Hijikata’s work at the end of the 1950s and through the first half of the 1960s was undertaken in the form of collaborations with experimental film-makers, including three of the most prominent Tokyo-based film-makers of the time: the American film-maker and writer, Donald Richie (now best known for his books on Ozu, Kurosawa and Japanese cinema history), who has lived in Tokyo for nearly sixty years; Takahiko Iimura, who was partly based in New York in the 1960s and collaborated with Yoko Ono there on projects about the material substance of film (Iimura now works on CD-Rom and digital projects about issues of language and perception); and Eikoh Hosoe, now renowned internationally as a photographer, especially for his book of extravagant, obsessional portraits of Yukio Mishima, Killed by Roses, from 1963, but who was involved with the medium of film at the beginning of the 1960s.

The first filmic collaboration between Hijikata and Donald Richie, Sacrifice, was undertaken in 1959, the same year as the first Butoh performance, and it carries the raw and gestural style of choreography which Hijikata and his group of dancers were initiating at the time. Richie shot his film in a deserted schoolyard in an industrial zone of the Shinagawa district of Tokyo.

The film dealt with Richie and Hijikata’s shared preoccupations with rituals of death and resuscitation: after a procession around the yard, one male dancer is surrounded by the other dancers who appear to urinate on him, defecate on him, and finally tear him open. Richie’s concern was to create a visual alliance between sex and death, and some of his own inspiration in the film’s style was taken from images in Jean Cocteau’s films, and from Kenneth Anger’s 1947 film Fireworks, which has the same preoccupation with the act of looking through the surface of the body via the forces of desire and violence. Richie wanted especially to emphasize the homoerotic element of Hijikata’s work, and to highlight the ability he saw in Hijikata’s choreography to be able to move, almost without transition, from one sex to another, from life to death, and from youth to old age and back again. Three years later, Hijikata and Richie collaborated on another film, War Games, which was shot during a typhoon at the fishing village of Osato, on Kujukurihama, the immense stretch of beach to the north-east of Tokyo. In this second film, the preoccupation of the film-makers is still with rituals of death and resurgence. Hijikata gathered together a gang of boys from the fishing village, and Richie filmed them killing a goat on the beach. He wanted to catch the exact moment at which the boys forgot that they had just killed the goat, and went back to the rhythm of their everyday lives.

While Richie was filming the gang of boys in their confusion, Hijikata danced on the beach, outside the film frame, attempting to provoke the boys. At first, the boys looked at Hijikata in disbelief, then they suddenly broke into laughter, and their act of killing was forgotten. These two collaborations between Richie and Hijikata deal with the processes of conflict and their impact on the human body, and they explore the two irreconcilable responses – of submission or of active participation and resistance – which were the options open to the inhabitants of Japan at that moment of renewed, social conflict.

The two films by Takahiko Iimura are very distinct from those which Hijikata made in collaboration with Richie, since they fall more into the genre of performance documentation than that of original film works; but they also reflect Iimura’s preoccupation – like that of the filmmaker Kurt Kren in his work of the same period with the Vienna Action Group – with the capacity of the film image to develop a fragmentary existence in its own right, caught in reaction to the body in performance. Iimura filmed two of Hijikata’s performances – Masseurs in 1963 and Rose-Coloured Dance in 1965. Iimura’s films constituted what he calls ‘cine-dances’, in which the images were assembled in a very rapid montage of fragments of bodies and movements. Iimura shot the performances of Hijikata and his collaborators with an 8mm film camera that enabled him to approach the performers’ movements with flexibility, from different angles and at different levels of proximity. The resulting films are designed to form their own, autonomous visual counterpart to the performances, with a parallel exploration of the body and its gestures: some actions being seized in their entirety, and others only partially or peripherally captured. Iimura’s films experiment with the ways in which choreography is perceived by the spectator, and with the idea that it is often the incoherently perceived fragment of a gesture that can have a more evocative, direct impact on the spectator’s perception and senses, rather than a smoothly assimilated movement.

Eikoh Hosoe made a film with Hijikata entitled Navel and A-Bomb in 1960; he shot the film on a beach at Cape Taitozaki, near the town of Ohara, on a peninsula to the south-east of Tokyo. The marine landscape possessed a particular atmosphere for Hosoe: a place where images that had been forgotten or hidden away in the urban environment could be unleashed. Hosoe viewed the city of Tokyo itself as a kind of living body that could mesmerize its inhabitants like a work of choreography, inducing sensations either of astonishment or of pain. His film Navel and A-Bomb makes direct connections between the body of Hijikata and Japan’s embedded forces of destruction: in the film, Hijikata emerges from the sea as a capricious god of wrath who steals away the navel of a child, engendering a power of disequilibrium and chaos that forms the condition of post-war Japan.

But the film is also an aberrant mixing of sensations, moving abruptly from humor to calamity and back again, from the sound of a jaunty jazz soundtrack to the noise of a nuclear explosion. Navel and A-Bomb proved to be Hosoe’s only film; from that point onwards, he collaborated with Hijikata solely in the medium of photography, notably in the form of a project entitled Kamaitachi, photographed ‘on location’ in rural Akita, in which Hijikata appears as a wild devil who stalks the fields, attacking peasants and leaving deep but bloodless wounds in their flesh. Like William Klein’s legendary series of photographic anatomizations of cities (Tokyo, New York, Rome, Moscow), the resulting photography book of Kamaitachi, published in 1968, was designed as an engulfing visual object, its images possessing a sweeping, filmic quality for their viewers.

Hijikata’s collaborations in film and performance-art from the late 1950s and early 1960s, still largely unknown in Europe, form a seminal moment in the development of Japanese experimental cinema, and in the determination of that moment’s performance culture (a desire still urgent in contemporary Japanese digital art), to incise and transform the human body.

Stephen Barber is a prolific writer and commentator. Many of his books are published by Reaktion Books and Creation.