The Body as the Universe: Hijikata Tatsumi’s Ankoku Butoh and Georges Bataille’s Informe
by Penske McCormack
In 1950s post-war Japan, Hijikata Tatsumi created his iteration of the transgressive dance form Butoh, forming the style Ankoku Butoh, often translated to “Dance of Utter Darkness.” For his performances, Hijikata pulled inspiration from Western avant-garde authors, including Jean Genet, Antonin Artaud, and Georges Bataille. Hijikata supplemented those ideas with a form of movement and symbolic language based in the cliché, the burlesque, the grotesque, and the violent. Scholars often consider the 1968 solo performance Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: Revolt of the Flesh as the marker of Hijikata’s departure from Western-demarcated form and content and turn towards shamanistic elements which developed Ankoku Butoh into a uniquely Japanese avant-garde dance form. I propose to reimagine Revolt of the Flesh, and Hijikata’s intention, as a subverted so-called Modernist impulse. I argue that Butoh uses Georges Bataille’s theory of informe, or formlessness, to undermine the purity of form Modernism promoted at the time. By integrating elements of Japanese and Western culture, Revolt of the Flesh interweaves the rigid semiotics of caricature with Hijikata’s warped form and bizarre movements. The integration of legibility and confusion in the performance allows it to act not only as cultural criticism, but as a tripping wire for the descent into transformative darkness. This, I argue, is Ankoku Butoh’s titular aim.Keywords: dance, performance, Modernism, Japan, surrealism, Butoh
The dance form Butoh was founded in 1950s post-war Japan by two performers, Kazuo Ohno and Hijikata Tatsumi. Although the two men worked together frequently throughout their careers to develop and expand their art, their styles and schools of dance were highly divergent. Kazuo Ohno’s practice was far more gentle, ethereal, and wondrous, full of imagery of moths and childhood. In stark comparison, Hijikata Tatsumi’s iteration of Butoh went by the name of Ankoku Butoh, most commonly translated to “Dance of Utter Darkness.” It was distinguished from its brother by its transgressive nature. Visually, it evoked elements like mud, sexuality, rot, and torture. In its mission, the dance sought to trespass against inner and outer limits.
Ankoku Butoh reacted against Japan’s post-war New Theater (shingeki) and Japan’s cultural environment as it rapidly Westernized in the wake of defeat. In this mode, Ankoku Butoh criticized cowardice, refinement, comfort, and complacency. From another perspective, the dance provided a playground for Hijikata’s memories of his childhood in Tohoku, a place for meditative inner transgression, and a transfusion of Western avant-garde dance and literary influences. Hijikata garnered inspiration from the ideas of such figures as Jean Genet, Antonin Artaud, and Georges Bataille, and supplemented those ideas with a visual language and choreographic style based in the cliché, the burlesque, the grotesque, and the violent.
Fig 1. Hijikata in golden phallus. Hijikata Tatsumi. Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: Revolt of the Flesh. 1968. Hijikata Tatsumi Collection, Keio University Archive, Tokyo. Accessed from: Lucy Weir. “Abject Modernism: The Male Body in the Work of Tatsumi Hijikata, Gunter Brüs and Rudolf Schwarzkogler.”
Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: Revolt of the Flesh is an hour-and-a-half long performance that features a starved and overly-tanned Hijikata dancing through a parade of incongruous costuming, a series of identities and non-identities which address essentialized gender and sexuality in contemporary Japanese culture. Hijikata is first carried by litter onto a sparsely-lit stage lined with large suspended brass panels. He wears a bridal kimono backwards; in the course of the first dance, he removes the kimono to reveal an erect golden phallus girdle, thong, etc (fig. 1). Within the first dance, Hijikata frantically thrusts the phallus against one hanging panel, upon which is strung a dead chicken. Through the thrusting, Hijikata expresses an emphatic need to pierce, while the impenetrability of the brass panel refuses his instinct, the two together displaying ineffectual masculinity, which Hijikata thought plagued the male population of Japan. Throughout the remainder of the performance, he puts on, among other things, a ball gown, a G-string, a young girl’s short kimono and high white stockings, and a can-can skirt worn over a girdle (fig. 2). He dances in wildly variant styles to suit each costume, including “flamenco-like,” “like a cheerleader,” and a hobbling, tortured walk. Counterpoint to his action, a pianist plays disjointed tones, accompanied by the sound of engines, implanting the soundtrack of modern life. At the penultimate moment of the performance, Hijikata bolts about the stage, flinging himself against the metal panels and creating sound through bodily mutilation, the edges of the panels pressing into his flesh like blades. At the performance’s close, wearing flimsy white strips of fabric about his hips, Hijikata is lifted above the stage on ropes forming a semi-crucifixion above the audience (fig. 3).
Fig 2. Hijikata in satin ball gown. Hijikata Tatsumi. Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: Revolt of the Flesh. 1968. Hijikata Tatsumi Collection, Keio University Archive, Tokyo. Accessed from: Lucy Weir. “Abject Modernism: The Male Body in the Work of Tatsumi Hijikata, Gunter Brüs and Rudolf Schwarzkogler.”
Hijikata’s tattered black hair, wide-eyed grimace, and warped male-body unite these images of disjuncture. Mocking social identities of contemporaneous Japan, Hijikata stitches together caricatured representations of gender, age, nationality, and status. Through these identities’ disagreement with one another, and their clash with the emaciated, twitching figure who has adopted them, Hijikata forges a mythical non-identity, whose falseness reveals Hijikata as a body without purpose. The sound of engines and the piano’s (adjective) tones give the body a cityscape in which to be lost. In the context of Japan’s post-war, production-oriented modernization, Hijikata deconstructs the body on a societal level.
Fig 3. Hijikata lifted above the crowd at the culmination of the performance. Hijikata Tatsumi. Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: Revolt of the Flesh. 1968. Hijikata Tatsumi Collection, Keio University Archive, Tokyo. Accessed from: Lucy Weir. “Abject Modernism: The Male Body in the Work of Tatsumi Hijikata, Gunter Brüs and Rudolf Schwarzkogler.”
The 1968 solo Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: Revolt of the Flesh is often considered the marker of Hijikata’s abrupt departure from Western-demarcated form and content, his embrace of shamanistic and obscure elements, and the beginning of Ankoku Butoh’s maturity as a Japanese avant-garde dance form.
Hijikata’s original aim, however, is sporadically approached in studies of Butoh. The clouded nature of Hijikata’s performance and writing installs barrier after barrier to comprehension of Butoh’s purposes, and the intention of the dance, by definition, is shrouded in darkness. Both attributes support the understanding of Hijikata’s Butoh as a physical interpretation of Bataille’s informe, or “formless.” His thesis, L’informe, was one of a series of Bataille’s treatises positioning excrement, eroticism, and mutilation, often considered perversions against the ideal, as sacred entry point to understanding and possibility. Bataille acknowledged informe as an adjective, but considered it closer to a verb, being, in essence, an active unmaking of form.
In his article “Modernism and the Retreat from Form,” Martin Jay justifies informe as action, connecting it with formalist ideals commonly accepted as the Modernist canon, and specifically referencing Greenberg’s emphasis on the hegemony of sight and medium specificity. Jay defines an aspect of form to be the mind’s ability to absorb sensory details from the external world, and create from the multitude of mixed sensations an ordered system of meaning. He positions Bataille’s informe as a transgression against this ideal, and dubs the transgressive impulse an alternative strain of Modernism; the accepted purpose of the Modernists was to perfect form through different, segregated artistic media, distilling sensation down to undiluted form through purity of media and formal elements. Through informe, in contrast, the chaos of hyperstimulation, the sensory input of mixed media, and the dynamic formlessness of life is pursued.
Hijikata’s Ankoku Butoh is often oversimplified as violent or grotesque for the sake of such, or as societal commentary alone. As representative of Bataille’s informe, it has its place in a pursuit of a kind of Modernism which is in line with Jay’s interpretation. While the canonical Modernist narrative is the search for a universal beauty or truth through the purification of medium, Hijikata utilized radical interdisciplinary performance, narrative, and theatricality at their utmost kitsch and obscene as a subversion of form, and an intentional movement away from medium toward the experience of a formless reality.
The informe as method can be seen in the peripheral imagery and the treatment of the body within Hijikata’s Revolt of the Flesh, as well as the words with which Hijikata surrounds his Ankoku Butoh as a whole. Interpreting through such a lens opens a fissure of potential understanding found within the cloud of obscurity too often treated as an obstacle to Hijikata’s meaning. Beyond the societal commentary readily apparent in Hijikata’s performance, there are elements of informe, his dispensation of what Bataille calls the universe’s “mathematical frock coat,” and his focus upon the incomprehensible.
Butoh as Experience
Hijikata’s objects, symbols, and costumes act as anchors of fixed meaning, but are of such absurd and splayed origins that their definitions confuse rather than clarify. This casts the audience into an instinctual search for comprehension which is constantly nullified, to the point that his impenetrable theatricality becomes pure sensory experience. The use of supplementary symbols—the dead chicken, the crucifixion, or the dead rabbit hung from a pole—speaks to his goal of surrealism as affect. Catherine Curtin explains these inclusions:
He interweaves an abundance of dissonant items and places them in unpredictable relationships, creating a complexity of signs and indeterminacies. In his often chaotic arrangements, Hijikata violates representation, as such objects refer back only to themselves and revel in their own ‘objectness’, their incompletion rendering them irreducible to sense or purpose.
In the formalist impulse, pure experience of a work is the goal of the artist; however, in Revolt of the Flesh, the point of the performance is not to focus solely upon it, but to follow the physical stimuli away from themselves to where they gesture, to nebulous meaning and nests of reality as formless, shifting masses. The dead chicken does not exist to make the audience revel in its objectness, but to open the viewer’s perception of that which surrounds the chicken, to widen the flower of informe outwards from a single knotted point, until experience itself as a formless object is understood.
The body—both that of the performer and the audience—is the center of this process, as Hijikata sought to create a collective, ritualistic transformation through his dance. In Revolt of the Flesh, Hijikata’s violence against his own body—intense fasting prior to the performance, repeated collision with metal slabs, and the sexual half-crucifixion—puts him in physical crisis. In his body’s experience, and in the sympathetic response of the viewer’s body, the body is in danger, and by extension, so is the inner being that the body guards. However, Hijikata and the viewer are both aware that Hijikata has placed himself in this crisis; there is no passivity to his suffering, a critical element of the day-to-day understanding of danger. The mind is instigating its own harm, and making itself helpless against that harm. The viewer’s self, seeing its own weakness mirrored in Hijikata’s form, experiences the body as something other than the protector of the mind. The body ceases to be a tool for survival and enters the realm of the material, no different than satin, metal, or food. Here Bataille’s informe is completed through the physical abjection of the body, as its conceptual attributes are integrated into the larger external experience.
Students of Hijikata’s Butoh are taught the particulars of the transformation through an intense methodology. Kamakura Nanako describes an exercise taught by Hijikata’s protégé Ashikawa Yoko. The exercise, called mushikui, asks students to imagine bugs crawling across their skin. The number of bugs described gradually increases, and the students continuously expand their abilities to recognize each individual presence on their body. The body is eventually swarmed by bugs, entered through the pores, and consumed from within until students’ bodies are hollowed. Kurihara describes this as expanding the students’ ability to make and unmake the body, both physically and psychologically. She states that as a result, “butoh dancers can transform themselves into everything from a wet rug to a sky and can even embody the universe, theoretically speaking.” Elsewhere, Hijikata is described as asking his students to mime bringing various organs out of their body, handling them in space, and consuming them.
Exercises such as this are accessed as the expression of the sensation of the degradation of form, informe in its most literal sense. Sondra Fraleigh, as a practitioner herself, describes dancing Butoh to be an art of decomposition, and self erasure. Such decomposition, however, leads not to destruction, but to transformation; the goal is to dissolve the perceived body to the point of nothingness and subsequently reassemble it, a complete abstraction which prevails in spite of actions outlining the limits of the physical body. Fraleigh explains how the quality of weakness in Hijikata’s movement interacts with these ideas of representation and abstraction:
Unlike most dance, Hijikata’s does not up the ante toward physical strength; rather, it excels in the use of yielding qualities, including weak and wobbly movements. His manner of letting go requires physical strength and also holds a psychic component, as he uses visual and verbal images to construct his choreography. These are not formal or literal images, and his morphing gestures are not mimetic. They are abstract as concretely distilled in essence.
His cultivation of such “weak” movements has its inspiration within the articulation of bodies affected with disfiguring diseases, such as leprosy, rickets, or scoliosis. Hijikata claims that “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.” The wide range of movements displayed by the caricatures within Revolt of the Flesh lead the viewer to understand that Hijikata, as a performer, has full access to bodily movement. However, in subtleties of certain characterizations, and in the long series of contortions, Hijikata repositions himself within the boundaries of the body as ruled by external forces. This paradox of artistic control and fundamental terror creates a hyperawareness in viewers of their own vulnerability. Through the viewer’s embodiment within Hijikata’s abjection, both viewer and performer are brought closer to Hijikata’s understanding of the body.
Fig. 4 Hijikata Tatsumi, “Nadare-ame” (Dribbling Candy) butoh-fu dance notation. Tatsumi Hijikata Archive at the Keio University Art Center, Tokyo. From: Performing Arts Network Japan, http://www.performingarts.jp/J/art_interview/1008/1.html (accessed April 25, 2018).
Butoh and Language
In a flagrant transgression of Modernist ideals of medium specificity, Hijikata incorporated language into the creation of Butoh. Choreography is recorded using a nonlinear visual/poetic collage dance notation known as butoh-fu, documents of which are given evocative names such as “Dribbling Candy.” These capture choreography through a combination of drawings, magazine clippings, arrows, and surrealist poetry (fig 4). Actual verbalization within the Hijikata’s performances are rare. In the later years of his practice, however, Hijikata incorporated more language alongside dancer Ashikawa Yoko. Hijikata shouted words, and Yoko would interpreted these words in space. When the meaning of the word had been captured, the movement was recorded as butoh-fu. For larger narrative material, Hijikata regularly drew inspiration from literary figures, including Genet (Forbidden Colors) and Shibusawa (Rose-Colored Dance). Most notably, he wrote surrealist essays of clouded, esoteric commentary on his art, the art of others, and the world as a whole.
These final works tend to frustrate. Bruce Baird writes “I tried to infer what [Hijikata] was trying to do…and with a great deal of suspicion, I have looked for corroboration in so far as is possible in his twisted prose.” Hijikata’s words actively work to obscure and conceal, and his inspiration from surrealist poets creates more distance between what the viewer experiences watching his dance and what the reader experiences in his words. It should be noted, however, that Butoh practitioners generally experience a sudden and significant resonance with those same words: Fraleigh frequently references Hijikata’s words with comfort and clarity; Kurihara describes feeling that Hijikata’s words were “self-mystifying” until beginning classes with Ashikawa, after which point, “I was convinced his words were an accurate expression of what he thought and felt.” This resonance provokes the assumption that there is a connection between Butoh as experience and the ideas Hijikata’s language attempts to evoke.
Hijikata describes his development as an artist and synthesis of Butoh in his surrealist essay Inner Material/Material, which explores his youth, his encounters with German Expressionist dance, interactions of his avant-garde “gang,” and his eventual discovery of the conceptual and physical “material” which would transform his dance practice. The opening line, quoted from a letter he sent an acquaintance, begins: “You have to pull your stomach up high in order to turn your solar plexus into a terrorist.” This line, neither explained nor illustrated in subsequent prose, provokes the mind’s instinct to dissect while denying it understanding. It is possible to read direct meaning and metaphor into such a statement, and it seems evident Hijikata had thoughts and justification behind the use of those words. Discerning his meaning, however, seems antithesis to his intentional barrier of impenetrable understanding. His purpose lies elsewhere; the reader hesitates at incongruent words shoved together, and linking combining “solar plexus” and “terrorist” without explanation creates confusion and a fruitless search for meaning. When the need to find that significance is abandoned, however, one is left with only the experience of the words, unbound by context or logic.
Kurihara puts forth an intriguing interpretation that Hijikata’s words exhibited Heinz Werner’s “physiognomic reception” when the psychologist personified inanimate objects in his poetry. This was an act of forging and responding to his own universe, seeking out where the essence of life congregates outside of living things. Such a fluidity of life essence equates to the fluidity of meaning and significance. Therefore, in Hijikata’s understanding, using words for their definitions is both useless and impossible. This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that Butoh practitioners, who have, on some level, developed an intuitive and sensory sympathy with Hijikata, understand Hijikata’s poetry with complete clarity. Miryam Sas addresses this in saying Hijikata’s words “secrete” meaning, and that “this informe [formless] secretion that appears or is secreted ‘of itself,’ challenges the idea of origin.” Hijikata does not deal in meaning outside of the world, but instead what is contained within it. Hijikata, and Butoh practitioners, are able to conceive of words as singular experiences rather than codified meaning, or one link in a chain of communication. The individual word becomes the beginning and end of its own existence.
Compare this interpretation of Hijikata’s essay’s opening line to the concluding line of Bataille’s L’informe: “On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.” Bataille’s last two nouns, like Hijikata’s, present that one can feel the meaning of something by its visceral nearness to human experience, but one can still be denied access to it by the mind’s barriers. Words become object, like the dead chicken. “Solar plexus” and “terrorist” perform the same function as Hijikata in a satin ball gown: the two together become a definition which does not exist.
Within Hijikata’s work there is superfluous language, both verbal and bodily. His blood, gaudy expressions of suffering, smeared white paint, and sexual imagery speaks to a kind of grotesque vocabulary well-grounded in the popular imagination of horror and burlesque. Such vocabulary enables misinterpretation and distillation down to the most basic concepts of form and content. Viewers are led to understand the works as commentary, visualization of inner turmoil, or even interpretive dance.However, the goal of Ankokuh Butoh is not expression, but reintigration of the body and mind in reaction to the Modernist dissection. Within Revolt of the Flesh, Hijikata’s body constantly subsumes identity, and in its repeated deconstruction and reformation, it becomes more wholly itself. This is the “failure of life to remain frozen in formal patterns,” which formalists despair of and purveyors of Bataille’s informe celebrate.
To return to Bataille’s text, he makes this dismissive statement, “In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape.” The confusion felt upon Hijikata’s performances, systems of movement, and words is not a foreign presence in our psyche or understanding. Rather, the apex of that confusion, its widest point, is the world of Ankoku Butoh. It can be understood from the point of slapstick, the rubber chicken that wheezes when one character uses it to strike another—what could be more pointless, more inexplicable? Hijikata’s universe begins and ends at such a release of clarity. To watch Hijikata’s Butoh is to experience the actual state of the universe, mind, and body, upon which there have been enforced incomplete and inadequate structures of meaning and identity. To dance Butoh is to return to the truth of the matter.
Baird, Bruce. Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: dancing in a pool of gray grits. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Bataille, Georges. “Formless.” In Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Edited and translated by Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Curtin, Catherine. “Recovering the Body and Expanding the Boundaries of Self in Japanese Butoh: Hijitaka Tatsumi, Georgia Bataille and Antonin Artaud.” Contemporary Theatre Review 20, no. 1 (2010), 56-67.
Fraleigh, Sondra Horton. Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
Fraleigh, Sondra Horton and Tamah Nakamura. Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Hijikata, Tatsumi, and Kurihara Nanako. “From Being Jealous of a Dog’s Vein”, TDR 44, no.1 (2000): 56-59.
Hijikata, Tatsumi, and unlisted translator. “Inner Material/Material,” TDR no. 1 (2000): 36-42.
Jay, Martin. “Modernism and the Retreat from Form” In Force Fields: Between Intellectual History and Cultural Critique. Edited by Martin Jay, 147-157. New York: Intellectual History and Cultural Critique. Edited by Martin Jay, 147-157. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Kurihara, Nanako. “Hijikata Tatsumi: The Words of Butoh.” TDR 44, no. 1 (2000): 12-28.
Sas, Miryam. “Hands, Lines, Acts: Butoh and Surrealism.” Qui Parle 13, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2003): 19-51.
Szynkarczuk, Pawel. “Intercorpreality: Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology of Flesh and Butoh Dance practice.” PhD diss., Goldsmiths, University of London, 2015.
Lucy. ‘Abject Modernism: The Male Body in the Work of Tatsumi Hijikata, Gunter
Brüs and Rudolf Schwarzkogler.’ Tate
Papers, no. 23 (2015). http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/23/abject-modernism-the-male-body-in-the-work-of-tatsumi-hijikata-gunter-brus-and-rudolf-schwarzkogler, accessed 9 February 2018.
 On differences between Tatsumi and Kazuo: Sondra Fraleigh and Tamah Nakamura, Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo (New York: Rutledge, 2006), Passim.
 Weir, “Abject Modernism,” page #?
 Bruce Baird, Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 2.
 Baird, Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits, 2.
 Curtin, “Recovering the Body,” 58.
 Lucy Weir. “Abject Modernism: The Male Body in the Work of Tatsumi Hijikata, Gunter Brüs and Rudolf Schwarzkogler,” Tate Papers 23 (2015).
 Catherine Curtin, “Recovering the Body and Expanding the Boundaries of Self in Japanese Butoh: Hijitaka Tatsumi, Georgia Bataille and Antonin Artaud,” Contemporary Theatre Review 20, no. 1 (2010): 60.
 Georges Bataille, “Formless,” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. and trans. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 31.
 Fraleigh and Nakamura, Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo, 9.
 Curtin, “Recovering the Body,” 61.
 Pawel Szynkarczuk, “Intercorpreality: Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology of Flesh and Butoh Dance Practice,” (PhD diss., Goldsmiths, University of London, 2015), 143.
 Kurihara Nanako. “Hijikata Tatsumi: The Words of Butoh.” TDR (1988-) 44, no. 1 (2000): 16. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1146810.
 Curtin, “Recovering the Body,” 63.
 Sondra Fraleigh, Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 49.
 Sondra Fraleigh, Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy, 82.
 Hijikata Tatsumi, “From Being Jealous of a Dog’s Vein,” TDR 44, no.1 (2000): 56.
 Sondra Fraleigh and Tamah Nakamura, Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo (New York: Routledge, 2006), 53.
 Kurihara, “Hijikata Tatsumi: The Words of Butoh,” 21.
 Baird, Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits, 229.
 On connection between contemporary Japanese surrealist poets, see: Miryam Sas, “Hands, Lines, Acts: Butoh and Surrealism,” Qui Parle 13, no. 2 (2003).
 Kurihara, “Hijikata Tatsumi: The Words of Butoh,” 15.
 Fraleigh, Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy, 85.
 Hijikata Tatsumi, “Inner Material/Material,” TDR no. 1 (2000), 1.
 Kurihara, “Hijikata Tatsumi: The Words of Butoh,” 16.
 Miryam Sas, “Hands, Lines, Acts: Butoh and Surrealism,” 30.
 Szynkarczuk, “Intercorpreality,” 146.
 Jay, “Modernism and the Retreat from Form,” 71.