Defyning (Upd: Jul 25, ’22)

“It is a question of a model that is perpetually in construction or collapsing, and of a process that is perpetually prolonging itself, breaking off and starting up again.” – Deleuze and Guattari¹

Tatsumi Hijikata used the term butoh, which is a shortened version of its original form known as Ankoku Butoh, ankoku meaning dark. Dark was used for the emphasis of entering into one’s being. The word butoh itself came from China and was adopted by Japan 1000 years ago. The word implies stomping or movement that descends to the ground.³

It is generally agreed that Tatsumi Hijikata along with Kazuo Ohno founded Butoh. Some add a third element, Yoshito Ohno (Kazuo’s son). Butoh began in Japan, and reached the international scene in the 90s. Butoh is generally now viewed as a worldly, universal performance art form, not just Japanese. Its modality includes but can also spread beyond dance, theater, acting, and performance art.

Patricia Aschieri classifies butoh into three: (1) original butoh; (2) post-butoh; (3) butoh-mix. The first category involves the founders Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. The second applies to any direct Japanese first generation disciples of Hijikata and Ohno. The third applies to anybody else from different cultural and artistic backgrounds.25 The only critique here is that there were several direct longterm disciples of Kazuo Ohno that were not themselves Japanese (e.g. Diego Piñón, Maya Dunsky). Perhaps making another branch of the “post-butoh” category serves better.

Butoh is always a performance. Even when the concept of performance is completely stripped such as Helena Katinkoski’s concept of “non-performing,” or “performativity of embodiment,”* it still follows that such a phenomenon is still a performance, albeit a non-dual or paradoxical one.15

What is performance? To Marvin Carlson, it is “all activity carried out with a consciousness of itself,”13 and to Richard Schechner, activity that is “marked, framed, or heightened behavior separated out from just ‘living life’.”14

Aki Yo

Butoh performance takes on endless themes. Butoh scholar Liao P identifies some major ones: (1) the search for identity; (2) social criticism; (3) seeking the Truth of life; (4) ceremony or festival; (5) body-mind coherence as a means of psychosomatic therapy.4

All butoh practioners/scholars will have their own view of Butoh. To Frances Barbe, “Butoh often works in the area of the absurd, or the grotesque, and might seek the double-edged image: the beautiful within the ugly, the old within the young, dark within the light. Extremity is a feature […]. Extreme slow motion, frenetic movement, extreme emotional expressionism, animal states, strange hybrid characters or material qualities that ‘reform’ the body.”

Poetically Kazuo Ohno states (as he always is in his writings) “basically, ‘butoh’ means to meander, or to move, as it were, in twists and turns between the realms of the living and the dead.”24

Both Helena Katinkoski and Jochelle Elise Pereña propose that paradox is the one thing that separates butoh from other art forms. Katinkoski claims butoh to be “a liminal art that arrives to non-dual performing by embodiment of a paradox,”15 and similarly, Pereña claims that “[Butoh] is a liminal art, meaning that it is part of the threshold or limen between worlds, and it is also part of both worlds – a paradox.”17 “Bipolar oppositionalism” coined by Arata Isozaki is what Katinkoski feels Hijikata based his butoh on such as death being life and ugly being beautiful.18

On that note, Rhizome Lee states that “Butoh is the continuum of an infinite quest for novel beauty […] [one] which nobody notices as beauty.”6 And what beauty is there than that which comes directly from the heart? Yoshito Ohno once said to Sondra Fraleigh, “Butoh is just a word for dancing from the heart,”8 which Antonin Artaud would have likely agreed with as he once stated, “the actor is the heart athlete.”10 

As for Artaud, Samantha Marenzi mentions that butoh is often seen as the “realization of the theatre of cruelty.”21

Tamano Hiroko just left the definition at, “Who . . . are . . . you?”19

To this manual, butoh is BODY = WORLD. It calls upon the glitch, the forgotten, the missing, the not smooth, the error.

There are also alternative notions of Butoh’s relation to human. Whereas Sondra Fraleigh places the human at the forefront: “They [butoh artists] turn back time and investigate themselves in basic terms of the human body and, even more broadly, the human,”9 Rhizome Lee, as Artaud has before, contrasts this idea by discarding the notion of human altogether.11* Lee’s interpretation of Hijikata’s relation to human is as follows:7

1. Abandon all human conditions in order to transform into a Shisha (dead) as the Suijakutai (weakened body or collapsed body) which resonates with the spirits of the dead, the insane, the handicapped, and/or collapsed bodies.

2. Enter dimensions outside of the human world in order to become various otherworldly beings.

3. Look at the living world as a dead from another world.

What makes human versus non-human only serves to obscure Butoh further, which is fine because Butoh never seems willing to be completely pinned down. Its nature is free and rebellious. Critic Marc Holborn even stated that butoh’s definition is its own evasion.22 Rosemary Candelario stated its “impossible complexity and multiple conceivable meanings are precisely the point.”12

What many butoh practitioners can agree on is that butoh may be a way of life. In Yuri Nagaoka’s words, “Butoh, rather than a style of dance, is a presentation of the way to live, or how to be. We have been educated since we were born on how to think and behave in our society, but is that the truth?”20

From such variation of definition, we can surmise that term butoh is full of ambiguity and abstraction. To Stewart Chase, writer of The Tyranny of Words, “butoh” would likely register as a semantic blank, an abstract word without a discoverable referent.23 This point, however, may only strengthen the art. If butoh were ever absolutely defined, it would likely immediately cease being itself (like the Tao). The magic would vanish.

The quote at the beginning of this page comes from the book A Thousand Plateaus, which has at its core the concept of the rhizome which is a non-hierarchical (non-tree) structure. In the authors’ own words, “a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.”² Such is what resembles my view of Butoh. In this manual, I can only manifest my slice or tree of Butoh of the multiplicities of Butohs.

Deleuze and Guattari have much to say about the tree vs rhizome.

“The tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, ‘and. . . and.  . . and. . . .’ This conjunction carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb ‘to be.’ Where are you going? Where are you coming from? What are you heading for? These are totally useless questions. Making a clean slate, starting or beginning again from ground zero, seeking a beginning or a foundation all imply a false conception of voyage and movement […] [But there is] another way of traveling and moving: proceeding from the middle, through the middle, coming and going rather than starting and finishing.²

But take anything in this manual with a grain of salt, sugar, other spices, or transform it completely. Thinking is often dualistic and associated with judgement anyway. One plus one may equal three if we have hijacked the nature of the base numbers. In the deterritorialized logic world, the non-sequitur reigns and the meanings/signifieds shift. Play at will.

“Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.” – Zhuangzi

Butoh According to the Co-Founder Tatsumi Hijikata

Where else to go than to the source? Tatsumi Hijikata had two recorded writings of his which had insights on what he felt butoh was. Below are two audio narrations of the writings.


1 Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum, 2004. P. 20. Print.
² page 25
³ Liao, P. An Inquiry into the Creative Process of Butoh. City University London. 2006. page 48. Print.
Page 47.
5 Barbe, Frances. The Way of Butoh and Contemporary Choreography: Reflective. Writing on Choreographic Research. n.d. Web. 20 April 2010.
6 Lee, Rhizome. The Butoh: A Dedication to Tatsumi Hijikata. 2018. Page 34, 35.
7 Page 10.
8 Fraleigh, Sondra. Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy, Illinois, University of Illinois. 2010. Page 32.
9 Page 4.
10 Artaud, Antonin. Artaud on Theatre. Edited with commentary by Claude Schumacher. 1989. Page 125.
11* Artaud along with Deleuze and Rhizome Lee share the idea of going beyond human: “For this [theater] reality is not human but inhuman and we must admit that man, his customs and nature count for little in it.” Ibid. Page 98.
12 Caldwell, Shane Thomas. Butoh: Granting Art Status to a Indefinable Form. Victoria University of Wellington. Masters Thesis. 2017. Page 2.
13 Carlson, Marvin. Performance: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.
14 Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. 3rd Edition. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print. Page 35.
15 Katinkoski, Helena. “Non-performing – Liminality and Embodiment in Butō Dance”. BA Thesis. The University of Stockholm.2017. Page 42.
16 Ibid. 44.
17 Pereña, Jochelle Elise. Chasing shadows: Exploring Butoh and the Liminal. M.F.A. Mills College, 2011. Page 9.
18 Ibid. 17.
19 Sakamoto, Michael. “Michael Sakamoto and The Breaks: Revolt of the Head (MuNK remix)”. The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance. London and New York: Routledge, 2018. Page 530.
20 Fernandez, Daniel; Sawheny, Nitin. Exprimenting With Butoh-Based Performance: An Artistic Inquiry Into Translation, Memory, and Dialogue. Rethinking Peace Studies Conferance, ICU Tokyo. June 2-4, 2016.
21 Marenzi, Samantha. “Foundations and Filiations: The Legacy of Artaud in Hijikata Tatsumi”.The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance. London and New York: Routledge, 2018. Page 143.
22 Dance Kitchen, Dustin Leavitt, Kyoto Journal #70 Archived 2008-07-04 at the Wayback Machine.
23 Chase, Stuart. The Tyranny of Words. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. Page 14.
24 Ohno, Kazuo and Ohno, Yoshito. Kazuo Ohno’s World from Within and Without, translated by John Barrett, Wesleyan, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 2004. Page 205.
25 Ashieri, Patricia. Entre Buda y Rodin: Traducciones culturales en los cuerpos de la Danza Butoh Argentina. Cuerpos en Movimento. Perspectivas interculturales sobre el movimiento y la danza. 2012. Page 266.
* All aspect of performance (or performativity) residing in being completely in touch with one’s body. Hence, according to Katinkoski ‘s view of the butoh state, there is no performance outside the body.
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