- Hijikata: Revolt of the Body by Stephen Barber
In 2013, two major museum exhibitions in New York revisited the prolific postwar Japanese avant-garde. The Museum of Modern Art’s Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde provided an overview of the myriad artists and artist groups making visual, performance, and installation work during this pivotal and productive period, and argues that this avant-garde made significant contributions to body-based and intermedial arts practices. Gutai: Splendid Playground [End Page 625] at the Guggenheim homed in on the Gutai Art Association (1954–1972), an avant-garde arts collective founded by Jiro Yoshihiro whose work in painting, events, and performance prefigured Happenings and installation art. Hijikata Tatsumi (1928–1986), who rocked the Japanese modern dance scene with his first formal work of choreography, Kinjiki (Forbidden Colors), in 1959, was an active participant in this vibrant and volatile community, full of dynamic and brilliant artists challenging the artistic and social status quo. Indeed, he is included in the MoMA exhibition through photographic collaborations with Hosoe Eikoh and video documentation by Nakamura Hiroshi.
In contrast to these recent examinations of the Japanese avant-garde as a movement, Hijikata: Revolt of the Body makes a claim for Hijikata’s singularity and supremacy, asserting that his butō “overrules all influence or inspiration” (p. 107). This is a bold claim for such a slim volume. At just over one hundred pages, the book comprises an introduction and fifteen short chapters that do not follow a strict chronology of Hijikata’s life. This largely makes sense, given the author’s interest in highlighting the dancer’s layered and fragmented gestures and images. Indeed, what he calls the “absence of a whole, enclosed body” (p. 107) is a major theme of the book. In life, in death, and in his traces in filmic and photographic images, Barber argues that Hijikata is never representable as a whole, but rather that parts of him are always already disappearing. The chapters themselves reinforce this idea, offering tantalizing glimpses of Hijikata’s life and work, but never aspiring to comprehensiveness.
Hijikata: Revolt of the Body both opens and closes with Hijikata’s death (“Introduction: Ankoku Butoh and Hijikata’s Death”; chapter 15, “A Gesture Torn from the Body of Hijikata”), arguing that death pervades Hijikata’s dances, as theme, gesture, and context. It is also through death that Barber approaches his subject; the first image of the dancer in the book is Hosoe’s photograph of the corpse in its coffin. Indeed, Barber’s analysis is strongest when he clearly positions himself alongside the dancer’s deceased body, rather than his living work, seeking to understand Hijikata’s continued influence and reverberations rather than the works’ original contexts.
Many of these reverberations, Barber argues, are concentrated in the photographic and filmic traces left by Hijikata’s body and dances. The book features twenty-four pages of black-and-white photos, stills from video and film, and promotional posters. Some images, like those from Hosoe’s collaboration with Hijikata, Kamaitachi (literally, “Sickle Weasel”), are well known, while others are less commonly viewed. The images are directly related to the strongest chapters of the book, chapter 7, “Hijikata and the Photographic Image”; chapter 8, “Hijikata and the Film Image”; chapter 9, “Fragments of the Human Body”; and chapter 12, “Back to the North: Kamaitachi.” In these chapters, Barber analyzes William Klein’s photos of Hijikata with Ōno Kazuo and Ōno Yoshito (which provided the first glimpse of butoh outside Japan), Hosoe’s images, projects with experimental filmmakers, filmed documentation of Hijikata’s live performances, and his participation in commercial cinema. These traces of bodily movement, Barber suggests, cannot possibly represent Hijikata’s butō, and yet, as fragments of a dance that itself was based [End Page 626] in fragmentation, they can paradoxically communicate the force and impact of the work.
Barber introduces an interesting counterpoint to Hijikata in the Vienna Action Group (chapter 10, “The Dirty Avant-Garde,” as well as chapters 8 and 9), which serves as a reminder...