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The Dirty Avant-Garde

Extracts from Hijikata: Revolt of the Body – a biography of the founder of the Japanese Ankoku Butoh performance art – by Stephen Barber.

Ankoku Butoh and Hijikata’s Death

The first movement is death. The human body can barely be seen, and has always eluded being written about. It is an infinite mystery that creates its own language, lost at the periphery of vision, while simultaneously grating its movements together from raw flesh. When the gestures of the body are torn and fragmented to the extreme, another body emerges, interrogative of ecstasy, collapse, and human obliteration. And its movements transform or annul the eye, as they transform and annul the body itself. To write about such movements is an act of wilfulness. Tatsumi Hijikata wrote and spoke about these movements, while spending an entire lifetime anatomising them, and called them the projections of ‘Ankoku Butoh’: the ‘dance of utter blackness’, or, simply, ‘dark dance’.

Hijikata is the supreme figure in the second half of Japan’s twentieth century experimental culture, and the most seminal and inspirational figure of that previous century for innovative artists, choreographers, film-makers, musicians and writers working in contemporary Japan. At the moment when Hijikata began his work, the history of Japan had ended: the human body had been consumed into ashes at the close of the first half of the twentieth century, and that history then rebuilt itself as though nothing had happened, when everything had changed. And Japan had been torn open, as never before, to the vast rush of imageries, influences and obsessions from outside itself: to Europe, and especially to the USA. Hijikata’s thirty-year-project of intensive reformulation of the human body took place precariously, as a stamping on the cracked surface over a void; it took place in Tokyo, during the decades in which the destroyed city escalated from a swathe of horizontal debris to an immense megalopolis of vertical towers, unprecedentedly wealthy, but simultaneously coursed by fracture-lines of riots and violent unrest, generated by its upheavals. Hijikata never left Japan, and rarely even left Tokyo, from the time of his arrival there in 1952, until his death in 1986; for over a decade before he died, he had refused to perform, and had stayed-put in his studio in the Tokyo district of Meguro, negating movement itself until it focused down to his own, endlessly prefigured and imagined death. Inversely, the international impact and repercussions of his Ankoku Butoh performance art expanded as his own body’s movements diminished; during the final years of Hijikata’s life, and then in the subsequent decades, Ankoku Butoh increasingly seized the attention of artists working worldwide, setting off virulent sequences of imageries, languages and corporeal transformations, extending far from the domain of choreography, into digital art, music, and performance. But such movements remained always bound in enthralment with the moment between creativity and death.

Hijikata’s own death came from comprehensive liver failure, after a decade of concentrated whisky-drinking, on a ward of the Tokyo Women’s Medical College Hospital, on 21 January 1986, at the age of fifty-seven. His death had not been sudden; he had been working in his studio until the previous month, and then his body collapsed, leaving him with several immobilised weeks in his hospital bed, moving in and out of consciousness. On the final day, his friends assembled at his bedside, and helped him to sit upright. Then, he performed his final act of Ankoku Butoh. One witness remembered Hijikata on the point of death: ‘This gesture arose from his hazy semi-consciousness: he assembled the fingers of both hands and formed the outline of a ball of paper within the empty space between those fingers, rolled the ball on his chest and then wedged it delicately under his cheek.’ Another friend remembered the characteristic final hand-gestures of a dying alcoholic – scrabbling blindly at the blankets covering the chest – being suddenly transformed by Hijikata in the last moments of his life into an infinitely nuanced set of choreographed gestures, sending human bodies into intricate contortions with those fingers.

In the year before his death, Hijikata had spoken of one of his ambitions for what the performance acts of Ankoku Butoh would reveal to their audiences: ‘I would like to have a person, who has already died, die over and over inside my body… I may not know death, but it knows me.’ Before Hijikata’s body was cremated, one of his friends, the photographer Eikoh Hosoe, recorded an image of Hijikata in his coffin, surrounded by bunches of flowers; a photograph placed alongside the coffin showed his face vividly in the act of speaking, fifteen or so years earlier, during the period when he had still been active in giving performances. Hijikata’s face in death appeared aberrantly tranquil, his mouth open, his waist-long hair combed back from his forehead. A cast was also made of his muscular, dancer’s foot: the right foot, displaying an ovular, empty space between the big toe and the other toes.

Hijikata’s Ankoku Butoh formed a multiple excavation of death. Like his closest collaborator, the dancer Kazuo Ohno, and the European writer he admired most, Jean Genet, Hijikata conceived of his audience as being that of the dead. Not only the living bodies of the spectators were there before him, but also the innumerable presences of the human figures who had already died, but remained attached to the space in which Hijikata’s body was emanating the acts or gestures of death. Jean Genet wrote in the 1960s of his desire for his theatrical work to be performed in vast, derelict cemeteries, with the tower of the crematorium chimney looming over the spectacle; the audience would flicker between the ranks of the living and the vaster ranks of the dead. Hijikata saw his performance acts ricochet between his own body and that of the bodies of his audience, who, apparently alive, had been engulfed by a power of death (superficially, that of the full-tilt monstrosity of contemporary, consumerist Japan, but, more profoundly, a power meshed into the vital substance of the corporeal itself), and now demanded to be reactivated and resuscitated, for a moment, at least. While his own body carried death as a latent spectacle to be revealed by gesture – that projection always imminent, and a membrane away from exposure – the audience too exuded its own death, and as a result of that identicality, it intimately attached itself to the fragments, convolutions and seisms of Hijikata’s body.

That body probed the possibility of a dance solely and uniquely constituted from gestures of death. Hijikata used the movements of death with acuity, to pivot infinitely in time, around the fragile moment of the body’s incipient disintegration; that moment might be explored with excruciating slowness, but it remained a moment of suspended curtailment, always urgently imbued with death. Hijikata’s movements of death worked to unleash the human body. Finally, Ankoku Butoh itself possessed no origin, but death and the body did.

The Dirty Avant-Garde

Throughout the 1960s in Tokyo, Hijikata’s Ankoku Butoh embodied what was known in the Japanese media as ‘the dirty avant-garde’ – the experimental art and film which, in exploring the extremes of the human body, of social power and of sexual acts, unearthed and revealed materials that were perceived as abject and reprehensible: anatomical detritus and illness, transsexuality and imageries of male homosexuality. That ‘dirty avant-garde’ existed as a contrary refusal of the ‘clean’ traditional performing arts of Japan (such as Kagura, Noh, and Kabuki), staged in concert halls or at religious shrines, though many of those traditional art forms’ elements had developed from preoccupations with riotous behaviour (whether of gods or human beings) and with rituals of prostitutional sex and blood. Although Hijikata believed that Ankoku Butoh could only emerge and assert itself, as an unprecedented, contemporary art form, if it was not swamped by the histories of those other forms, he was intimately aware of all of them. Ankoku Butoh was reviled and regarded with distaste in Japan’s media and cultural institutions since its death-obsessions and gruelling corporeal transformations, undertaken in darkness and emanating infirmity, worked to negate the ‘clean’, illuminated Japan of the 1960s, which was then attempting to purify and absolve its own postwar reputation as the massacring destroyer of East Asia, through events such as the Tokyo Olympic Games, by its technological inventions, and in the building of vast new cities studded with gleaming corporate towers. But the distaste shown for that ‘dirty’ avant-garde also reflected its subterranean, marginal existence, with Hijikata’s own spectacles taking place only intermittently, and for relatively small audiences: it was beneath contempt, and its lowly, poverty-instilled status only emphasised its excremental character. Hijikata himself (like Artaud and Genet) positively allied his work to ‘dirt’ and abjection, and perceived the arbitrary nature of what, at one moment or another, could be perceived by society as ‘dirty’: ‘The dirty is the beautiful and the beautiful is the dirty, and I cycle between them forever.’

Part of the distaste displayed for Hijikata’s Ankoku Butoh resulted from the perception that it formed an element of the insurgent culture of unrest and revolutionary aspiration of the 1960s. Like all experimental artists of that era, Hijikata opposed the Vietnam war and the all-engulfing consumerism of Japanese society, and his audiences and dancers were largely composed of the young activists and students who formed the perpetrators of that period’s upheaval. But Hijikata was too enmeshed in his own obsessions, with anatomical transformation and reinvented memory, to subjugate himself to collective action. And although the Ankoku Butoh spectacles appeared provocative, they were never broken up by the Tokyo riot-police. In Austria during the same period, the Vienna Action Group performance artists were receiving lengthy prison sentences for their work as art-criminals; however, Hijikata never returned to prison after his 1950s arrests for petty theft. At the time of his manifesto of 1959, To Prison, composed during the period when he was immersing himself in the novels which Jean Genet had written in prison, Hijikata had expected Ankoku Butoh to be a project he would have to develop under conditions of incarceration. However, Ankoku Butoh would be an art form whose social threat and negation proved insidious and virtual, rather than explicit. Rather than Hijikata, it would be Genet himself, during one of his visits to Tokyo (and by then engaged with direct social protest, rather than with the preoccupations of his 1940s novels), who took part in the most violent Shinjuku street-riot of 17 December 1969, opening himself to physical danger by taunting and harassing the riot-police lined-up before the thousands of protesters – while Hijikata, as the photograph of him carrying a watermelon indicates, was heading off in the opposite direction at that moment, increasingly swallowed-up in his own, insular concerns. To some extent, it was the prestigious support shown to Hijikata by prominent writers and poets, such as Yukio Mishima, Tatsuhiko Shibusawa and the veteran Surrealist Shuzo Takiguchi, which insulated Ankoku Butoh from outright illegality, even as those writers stressed that dance’s Sade-inspired aura of criminality and outrage.

Although Hijikata’s Ankoku Butoh remained peripheral and derided throughout the 1960s, it had begun to achieve a greater public profile by the early 1970s, when Hijikata undertook a long series of celebrated performances with his dancers at the Shinjuku Art Theatre, and also occasionally took them to perform outside Tokyo, in large municipal or university venues; by that time, the momentum of revolutionary aspiration and urban street-violence had cracked apart and dissipated, and the covert work of Japanese terrorist cells, allied to international radical movements, was then underway, far from public view. In that ‘cleaner’ context, Hijikata’s Ankoku Butoh project started to establish its prominence, before he decided to abandon public performance and withdraw into seclusion, leaving his former pupils and other choreographers to consolidate the international reputation of Butoh over the next decade. His work never emanated the same kind of reprehensible, ‘dirty’ status for those international audiences as it did in Japan, even during the period when its non-Japanese spectators had been limited to a few expatriate residents of 1960s Tokyo. Hijikata courted that small audience, almost always inserting English-language performance titles and details on the posters which announced his spectacles; he never viewed Ankoku Butoh as exclusively ‘Japanese’, or as closed-off to other audiences or performers. His friend Donald Richie wrote arts columns at that time for the main English-language newspaper in Japan, The Japan Times, and Richie intermediated Hijikata’s infrequent Ankoku Butoh performances – undertaken only yearly, even in their most intensive phase in the mid-1960s – to Tokyo’s non-Japanese readers: ‘White is, of course, the local death colour, and for Hijikata the childlike is never far from the dead… This year, death is to be more prominently featured, it would seem. It would seem – because one is never certain what a Hijikata entertainment will turn into. Last year a helpless group had their heads shaved on stage, and the audience was raided from time to time. This year the audience will be left alone but Hijikata promises that sex (that unchildlike pursuit) will ‘‘get what it deserves’’.’

A raw sexual charge was essential to Ankoku Butoh, from Hijikata’s performance of Kinjiiki in 1959, with its savage homosexual acts derived from Mishima and Genet, to the melancholy, prostitutional princesses and sexual doll-girls of his final spectacle, A Summer Storm, in 1973. Near-naked dancers (both male and female), together with ragged costumes which focused the spectator’s eye towards the performer’s sexual organs, formed integral elements of Hijikata’s Ankoku Butoh; nakedness was far from unknown in Japanese performance art and film, especially as the 1960s went on, but Ankoku Butoh’s concentration on young naked bodies, their exposed skin often appearing excoriated and incised by disease, as though to reveal yet another layer beneath nakedness, constituted an intensive, corporeal provocation. The performance of sex also proved pivotal in the survival of the Asbestos Hall and of its young dancers. From the earliest stages of Ankoku Butoh, its participants (including Hijikata himself, and Akiko Motofuji) had also performed in commercial sex-cabarets; by the end of the 1960s, much of the Asbestos Hall’s income was generated by activity in sex-cabarets of varying degrees of explicitness. Akiko Motofuji managed those activities and expertly co-ordinated the appearances of Hijikata’s young pupils in the Tokyo sex-industry. From April to December 1969, the (usually-separated) art-focused and sex-industry-focused facets of Ankoku Butoh reached their closest proximity, in a series of spectacles choreographed by Hijikata for his own dancers (such as Saga Kobayashi and Yoko Ashikawa) and other performers, at the Space Club Capsule venue, located in one of Tokyo’s principal upmarket sex-industry areas, Akasaka; the performances, with titles such as Space Capsule Illusionetique, featured intricate sequences of sexual tableaux, including lesbian sex-acts. The vast, multi-faceted Tokyo sex-club and prostitution industries would remain a principal, enduring source of income over the next decades, for both male and female Butoh performers.

The media phrase ‘dirty avant-garde’, even when aimed as a term of abuse, still carried a grudging recognition of ‘progressive’ creative work, in the context of 1960s Japan, when every element of society was experiencing rapid, unsettling change. Hijikata was asked, in a 1974 magazine interview, soon after he had abandoned public performance and withdrawn to the Asbestos Hall, whether he considered his work to be avant-garde. The term ‘avant-garde’ was itself a European linguistic imposition, with no direct counterpart in Japanese language or art; it had originated as a military term, and its use had switched from describing experimental social communities to artistic movements, across the course of the nineteenth-century in France, before eventually attaching itself most closely to art and literary movements of the 1920s and the 1960s. Hijikata denied that his work was avant-garde, ‘dirty’ or not: ‘I’ve never thought of myself as avant-garde. If you run around a race-track and are a full circuit behind everyone else, then you are alone and appear to be first. Maybe that is what happened to me…’. By 1974, the term ‘avant-garde’ was being applied to concerns with technology and conceptual ideas in art, and to non-narrative experiments in literature – areas distant from Hijikata’s own obsessions; but contrarily, by the end of the twentieth century, it would be the kinds of exploratory reflections and experiments that Hijikata was making, especially on corporeality and memory-traces, that had become the vital focus of the worldwide ‘avant-garde’. However, Hijikata’s obsessions always retained a core of aberrance that set them firmly on the peripheries of any society or any art-form. At the time of that magazine interview, Hijikata had become preoccupied with observing the gestures of people whose bodies had suffered severe attacks of polio. He watched them in the act of picking up a cup, and would be fascinated by the beauty and extremity of a spasm-driven gesture of the arm that would begin by heading violently in exactly the opposite direction to the cup, before tracing a wide arc of flight in space, and then buckling-in on itself to finally grasp the cup.

Hijikata: Revolt of the Body by Stephen Barber is published by Creation Books.


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, including Burning World, the best-selling biography of Edmund White, Tokyo Vertigo, Caligula: Divine Carnage, Projected Cities, Jean Genet, Fragments of the European City and two studies of Antonin Artaud, The Screaming Body and Blows And Bombs. 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: Sunday, July 29th, 2007.