On August 6th and 9th, 1945, two atomic bombs detonated over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, killing more than 350,000 civilians. Dropped by the United States, the attacks were the last major blow to the Japanese military after years of fighting between the two powers in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. With a total estimate of over 2.5 million Japanese individuals dying as a result of The War, the island nation officially announced its surrender on the 15th of August, 1945. In his speech transmitted by radio across the Empire, Japanese Emperor Hirohito stated,
The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.
For the first time in human history, man had entered a point in which they would be able to obliterate themselves and destroy the Earth. At any point, Armageddon was a real and ever-present possibility. As a result, cultures reacted. In the years following the formal end of World War II, like the United States and the majority of the world, Japan entered the 1950s with unease and uncertainty. Like the rest of the world, Japan attempted to cope and understand the atrocities that unfolded in the prior decade under the constant fear of death and decimation. Similar to that of the avant-garde and their response to the events of the modern warfare of World War I, artists around the world attempted to react to the events of World War II.2 Artists like Jackson Pollock and the ab-ex community created works influenced by atomic destruction and explosions.
Like the artistic terrain of the US, Japan also transformed, specifically in the performing arts. As the world entered the 1960s and the jet age took flight, the world began to shrink. With an influx of western culture mixed with post-war shock, a desire emerged to create something new. Straying from the traditional, strict, and classical forms of Kabuki and Nōh theater emerged Butoh. Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno founded this new style of dance, two individuals heavily influenced by postmodernist ideas. Initially associated with the Tokyo underground arts scene, Butoh derives its name from the combination of bu, meaning dance, and toh, meaning step. Characterized by slow arrhythmic movements, performers are usually covered head-to-to in white body paint, representing the purity of the soul. Often described as being in a trance-like state, Butoh performers embody slow, careful movements in their performances. The highly charged stillness and slow-motion dancing can heighten the dancer’s and the audience’s awareness to the detail of the dance. Furthermore, the dance’s careful and precise movements result from the performers being in a state of hyper- presence, aware of everything happening within themselves and around them. Butoh performers often create a highly responsive body, which is open to both external and internal stimuli. Frances Barbe describes Butoh’s complexities.
A wave passing through the spine and limbs will reveal physical resistances, and in repetition can develop greater receptivity to being moved by that wave. In butoh is often said, ‘the dancer should not dance, but be danced’.
Ultimately, a butoh dancer’s ability to transform the spirit of the space and engage with the audience is what makes a performer great. Butoh dancers use their highly skilled performances to explore themes beyond the everyday. Butoh is unconventional by nature and mainly focuses on the person’s ability to transform. Many performances often showcase impressions of birth, becoming something new, or going through a painful, arduous journey. Performers will usually take a fetal or prostrate position before rising and contorting their bodies in a commanding, upright state. The art form also often explores untraditional themes and taboo notions. Forbidden Colors by Tatsumi Hijikata was the first butoh piece and premiered in 1959 at a dance festival. The work explored homosexuality and ended with a live chicken being held between the legs of Kazuo Ohno’s son Yoshito Ohno. Later in the performance, Hijikata chases Yoshito off the stage in darkness. The audience was outraged by this performance. So much so, Hijikata was banned from ever performing at the festival again, establishing him as an iconoclast. While butoh was radical then, it is now a celebrated art form today, with many continuing the legacy of Hijikata and Ohno.
Brooklyn-based Azumi O E continues the Butoh tradition by creating a visual relationship between the outer and inner human dimensions. Born in Kyoto, Azumi creates mesmerizing, shocking, and playful movements in her work. Choreographed with meticulous timing, Azumi
usually creates solo experimental performances, and at times, collaborates with other artists across multiple mediums. Sense 2009 Azumi O E has shared her talent through a countless number of live performances, mostly around New York City. Throughout her wildly successful career, she has also appeared in many films and music videos. Through her performances, Azumi O E constantly attempts to exceed artistic constructs.9 Azumi O E constantly works to continue and share the power butoh through her thought provoking and stylistic performances.
Rising from the dark times set forth by The Second World War, countless individuals attempted to reason with a new world order. Artists across the globe sought comfort and reason in their expressive forms. In Japan, two artists, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazoo Ohno, took traditional notions of dance, like Kabuki and Nōh theater, treasured in Japanese culture, and turned them upside-down. Arising from the Japanese underground arts scene, butoh emerged as an expressive way into understanding and reacting to a new world, one that was all too familiar with headships and destruction. Focusing on the transformation of the natural world and or taboo notions, the
movements of butoh are often viewed as a grotesque and arrhythmic. Ultimately, however, the movements are carefully timed, and are a way to express the arduous journey that is life. Striving to connect with performers self, and the audience, butoh caries a unique spiritual quality, understood only through a live performance. Carrying on the legacy of Hijikata and Ohno, artists around the world, like Brooklyn-based, Kyoto-born azumi O E, invites the audience to witness the human exploration that is butoh.