:: Article

Excerpt: Butoh War Games

By Stephen Barber.

I remember during the frozen Tokyo winter of 1997-98: I took long walks in the dead of night through the Shinjuku Kabuki-cho district of endless bars, subterranean clubs and abandoned cinemas with Donald Richie, the American writer and film-maker (and the first-ever film-documenter, in 1959, of Butoh) – already in Tokyo for over 40 years at that moment and determined still to explore that city to his last living instant. Walking across the Shinjuku plaza, after taking the subway from Ueno district, I watched the livid multi-coloured projections from the digital-image screens on the surrounding towers incise and deepen the already-entrenched furrows of his aged, disintegrating face, casting animated sequences across it – in Tokyo’s illuminated plazas, memory corrosively infiltrates the body itself, abrades it, honing-in especially on the face, eyes and mouth – as his lips vocally conjured memories of his friendships of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s: Kawabata, Mishima, Hijikata, all dead by the time of that walk through haunted Tokyo, so, as we walked, he was evoking ghosts…

After passing the derelict wooden structure of the immense Koma cinema that Richie loved and would be demolished soon after, the cacophony of Shinjuku faded out and we entered the near-darkened, near-silent and dense alleyways of the Golden Gai area, almost untouched for 50 years, and arrived at the discretely signposted bar, ‘La Jetée’, owned by Richie’s friend, another obsessive agent of memory, the French film-maker Chris Marker, possessed by his own memories of the future, which Tokyo above all other cities disgorges, annulling or reversing linear time, oscillating between future-directed political contestations and now-lost corporeal gestures, transforming the megalopolis’s facades and the imprinted bodies they momentarily contain.

In 2017, 20 years on from that Shinjuku walk, Richie and Marker have become part too of the infinite ghost population of Tokyo and of the oscillating time which that population inhabits. As with image-screens and lips and vocal-tracts, films pre-eminently conjure ghosts. In 1959, only seven years after the seven-year Occupation of Japan by the USA and its allies ended, Richie’s first film of Butoh, Sacrifice, was shot with a malfunctioning super-8 camera in a schoolyard in Tokyo’s Shinagawa district, documenting a performance created explicitly to be filmed, by Tatsumi Hijikata, along with his wife, Akiko Motofuji, and several members of the still-fluctuating dance company based around Hijikata’s Asbestos studio. Over the next three years, while Hijikata was tentatively formulating and instigating Butoh – writing manifestoes inspired by the provocations of the French writer Jean Genet, and exploring gestural sequences with close collaborators such as Kazuo Ohno and Akira Kasai – he and Richie continued to meet and work together, especially on the intermittent ‘650 Experience’ events at the Asbestos studio that spanned experiments in dance, film, jazz, photography and urban architecture, involving wide-ranging collaborators such as the theatre-director and film-maker Shuji Terayama, the architect Arata Isozaki and the Surrealist poet Shuzo Takiguchi. But in 1962 they decided to make another film together, this time focused on their joint preoccupation with the memory of warfare: War Games. The film was shot over a weekend, partly during a violent storm, on the then-isolated Kujukurihama volcanic black-sand beach on the exposed east-facing side of the Chiba peninsula, two hours by train from Tokyo. Between his two films in collaboration with Richie, Hijikata made another film on that coast – Navel and A-Bomb, 1960, shot by the photographer Eikoh Hosoe – with its sequences of askew gestural compulsions intercut by archive footage of nuclear explosions. The aberrant content of that film (the sole film, in Hosoe’s long career as a photographer of Butoh) launched Hijikata and Richie’s still-more awry film.

At that determining moment, a decade and a half or so after the end of Japan’s war, the bodies of Butoh were marked with warfare, along with corporeal absences and graftings. Hijikata’s back was burned and scarred during an aerial attack on the munitions factory in the city of Akita in which he was working as a teenager in the summer of 1945 (if he had been any older, he would have been conscripted into the army and consumed by the intensive slaughter of the war’s final months, returning in a ceremonial box of ashes as several of his older brothers had, or not at all); his wife, Akiko Motofuji, related to me a terrifying night walk she took in the earlier months of 1945 in Tokyo with her closest female friend, in which they were caught in an aerial-bombing firestorm and her friend abruptly vanished without trace, rendered whole into the firestorm’s incandescent void, not even subsisting as ashes, though the two of them were holding hands at the time; Kazuo Ohno was experiencing his long years as a Japanese soldier, witnessing immense slaughters during Japan’s East Asian campaigns, followed by his incarceration as a prisoner of war; Eikoh Hosoe, born five years after Hijikata and Motofuji and still only 12 years old at the time of Japan’s defeat and the arrival of the Occupation forces, experienced another corporeal response, visiting US army bases near his home to do menial favours for the soldiers and soon learning to speak fluent American-English, to replicate the soldiers’ gestures, hairstyles and appearance. Each body which survived the war carried either scars or deformations, or else had to learn a new set of gestures and obsessions.

This extract is taken from the essay ‘Butoh War Games’, to be published in the forthcoming Project Godie anthology (ed. Andrew Stevens).

Stephen Barber has been hailed as “the most dangerous man in Britain” by The Independent. The Times has called his work “brilliant, profound and provocative”. He is a noted cultural historian and author of many acclaimed books. His writing has won many awards and been translated into Japanese, French, German and Italian. Formerly Professor of Digital Media at the University of Tokyo, he is currently Professor of Media Arts at Kingston University.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 5th, 2017.