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Japan inside out: a journey

Jonathan Marshall

Adam Broinowski, Vivisection vision Adam Broinowski, Vivisection vision
photo Katsu Miyauchi
As I sit at my laptop, a DVD by Dumb Type composer Ryoji Ikeda purchased in a Tokyo department store plays on another computer nearby, blinking out an austere visual language of precisely located, oscillating blue/white lines and planes, echoed by the sound of Ikeda’s clearly separated, high-pitched tones. It seems strangely ghostly, intangible, abstract and distant; cool yet powerful—like my memory of Japan. A sudden flash of digital readouts in the DVD recalls an LED installation of ones and zeroes which I saw within the awesome, grandly abstract space of the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, but much else of my recollection seems difficult to locate. I pour a coffee to break the monotony, and am reminded of the dearth of decent coffee in Japan. I converted to the cold green tea one finds in the omnipresent vending machines, gulping it down during intervals in various theatre foyers to cope with the unseasonably hot July weather.

No wonder I’m starting to get a headache every time I write about Japan. There are so many cliches about the nation. Japan as radically different from the West for instance—and yet it is so imbued with a long tradition of Western arts that one of the major translators of Shakespeare’s complete works, Professor Shoyo Tsubouchi, has become a figure of some veneration within Waseda University’s excellent theatre history museum (the lovely facade of which is a copy of Britain’s Elizabethan Fortune Theatre).

Outsiders are told that Japan is a land of paradoxes, as commentators contrast quiet temples nestled in Kyoto’s hills with the bustling, highly industrialised zones of cities like Osaka. But is this antithesis really any more distinctively Japanese than that between a nunnery in country Victoria and Melbourne’s main shopping drag the day before Christmas? The really significant contrasts of Japan are not to be found in these banal truisms, but rather in the cultural significance attached to such motifs.

From the inside out

In discussions with dance makers in Kyoto and Osaka (Kansai), as well as Tokyo, I found artists were especially keen to connect a model of Japanese contemporary performance and its forms—especially Butoh dance—to the concept of ‘spirit.’ As a central organising choreographic principle, spirit is scarcely unique to Japan, but while in Euro-American culture such inner values tend to be associated with either classic Expressionist choreography or such post-war ecstatic traditions as the Living Theatre, in Japan this idea of dancing from a profound psycho-emotional core outwards seems common to a wide variety of aesthetic modes, ranging from Noh to contemporary dance.

Butoh mutations

When Min Tanaka was in Melbourne in 2001, he told me that there is no clear definition of Butoh, and so the field was open for anyone to do whatever they liked and label it ‘Butoh.’ The members of Hanaarashi, for example, a Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe)-based female trio, describe their interpretation as being “about the adventure of the body and the fun of the body” rather than the “darkness” (Ankoku Butoh), which earlier groups like the Kyoto-based Byakko-sha had focussed upon. This is despite the fact that Hanaarashi’s work lacks most of the readily recognisable external features which would mark it as Butoh.

Similar ideas about spirit are espoused outside of Butoh as well. Shigemi Kitamura, for example, is an independent who choreographs for the relaxed, largely comic female ensemble Ca.Ballet. She too stressed that, for her, the actual movement vocabulary is a secondary concern compared to the playful, embodied emotional impulses which underlie both her aesthetic and that of Ca.Ballet.

Moreover, Naoto Moriyama of the Kyoto University of Art and Design reminded me that Japanese theatre and dance has recently experienced a “waning of the dictators”, in which the charismatic absolutists of the 1960s through to the 1980s (Tadashi Suzuki, Tatsumi Hijikata, Akaji Maro etc) have been succeeded by younger artists working within more diffuse ensembles. This has also opened up a greater space for independent female artists who are moving beyond what Hanaarashi’s Chikako Bando describes as Hijikata’s “shamanistic role for women.” For both Bando and Kitamura, this involves treating the body as an eccentric toy, producing in Kitamura’s case a mixture of bouncy, referential games and warm, geometric forms, versus Bando’s varied, somewhat improvised pallet of actorly pedestrianism and long, held moments.

Even so, ‘classic’ Butoh choreography has not disappeared. I saw a great solo by ex-Dai Rakuda Kan member Makiko Kamata which was very much in the style of her old company. All of the trademark signatures were present: various degrees of nakedness, white rice flour makeup, matted hair and wigs, fetishistic play with shoes, moments of daft humour (such as the finale where she upturned a bucket of water over her head and wore it), and suspended pseudo-religiosity. Perhaps most ironically, given Hijikata’s claim that Butoh was adapted for the supposedly squat Japanese body, this ‘classical’ Butoh performer was one of the most statuesque, tall dancers I saw in Japan, contrasting markedly with the short, wonderfully gamin and highly varied members of Ca.Ballet and Hanaarashi.

Kamata and Ca.Ballet performed at DanceBox in Osaka, an institution which acts as something of a centre around which Kansai arts revolves. Though the venue itself is another of the small, black box studios which act as the primary sites for much new performance in Japan, the organisation nevertheless regularly houses Australian guest artists like Phillip Adams, Kate Denborough and Kristine Nilsen Oma, as well as hosting the Asia Contemporary Dance Festival. Set in a shopping centre-cum-theme park, DanceBox is a model of metropolitan Japanese cool, with a tasteful bar at the front and a New York loft-style concrete space upstairs which houses local and international jazz and noise art. I saw US processed guitar guru Elliott Sharp improvising with a number of Kansai jazz musicians, including Yoshikazu Isaki, who stood up and grooved while he was drumming, nodding his head knowingly as if responding to some inner voice.

Other Japan

During Japan’s ‘bubble economy’ boom of the 1980s, Westerners speculated that Osaka represented the future of the world, and parts of Blade Runner were filmed there. Today however, Japan’s cities are visibly marked by the more banal failures of contemporary global capitalism rather than epitomising some kind of utopian (or Gothically dystopian) future. Around the corner from DanceBox one finds the spreading ghettoes of shacks and makeshift tents which crowd the quieter corners of many Japanese public spaces, like parks, riverbanks and railway lines. Here poor rural migrants, unable to find employment upon arrival, settle in the cities, creatively erecting dwellings sewn together from blue plastic sheeting, timber, umbrellas, old electrical equipment and other discarded items. While the polarisation of class and social space within Japan has its own particular national character, this proximity of impoverished homelessness to urban renewal is the same the world over.

For a nation known for its permeable architectural styles (thin screens which slide so as to open the interior to the exterior), there can be a strange sense of separation in which the almost hermetic interiors of both Japan’s tiny subterranean contemporary venues and its larger, monumental state institutions (such as the aptly named Bunka Arts Centre, Shinjuku), contrast with the vivacious social life of the streets and parks. In Hiroshima, I saw an amateur jazz ensemble lug mini-amplifiers and a full drum kit to the riverbank to rehearse in the languid, humid breeze.

Adam Broinowski

It was therefore a pleasant change to find within the work of Australian expatriate and Gekidan Kaitaisha member Adam Broinowski an element of street life. Vivisection Vision concluded with the near-naked, sweat-drenched Broinowski bashing on a tin can with a hammer, recalling those homeless who survive by recycling metal, as well as the street-front workshops of urban Japan. Following Gekidan Kaitaisha’s prevailing aesthetic, Broinowski crafted his solo from a dense weft of such socio-political resonances. In one particularly striking phrase, the artist stretched from his teeth a white plastic bag of water, which shuddered and crawled like an animal, a sequence he justified by noting that his own, equally out-of-place body is nothing more than a white bag of fluid. In the end though, Broinowski’s performance was the most profoundly spiritual piece I saw in Japan. The self flagellation, the striking of blows, the open-eyed collapses and the near orgiastic, back-arched poses, most resembling an ecstatic, almost religious transcendence made manifest both through, and in spite of, the focused performing body.

Street art

Perhaps therefore my dim, ghostly and indiscriminate recollections of Japan are best encapsulated in my encounter with a topless street performer beside Tokyo’s Shinjuku station. Dressed in shredded black pants and a g-string, with red and black makeup similar to that of a Kabuki demon, he leapt, rolled, thrust and jived like a man possessed, while behind him another man clattered a large cubic tin, a near-dead wok and a crushed aluminium tray. This was real guerilla noise art, much more striking than the somewhat pointless recreation of John Cage’s works which I attended at the Kyoto University of Art and Design’s Sangan Space. There are obvious flaws in the Kill Bill-model of Japanese cultural identity, in which Japan is seen as a hyper-fluid admixture of paradoxically contrasting cultural elements: samurai/punk, temple/city, geisha/genki, Zen restraint/manga excess. This way of viewing Japan nevertheless allows one to deconstruct and fragment many essentialist cliches about its national culture. Whatever spirit possessed this public performance artist, it was neither that of an ancient, inscrutable Japan, nor of the hyper-modern, coolly cynical poppy amalgam one finds in the cinema of Quentin Tarantino or Beat Takeshi. Japan is all of these things, and more—or less.

Hanaarashi, Hakoonna, director/performer Chikako Bando; Art Complex 1928, Kyoto, July 22-25; Ca.Ballet, choreographer Shigemi Kitamura; Art Theatre dB, Osaka, July 2-4; Makiko Kamata, part of Dance Independent, Art Theatre dB, Osaka, July 20-21; Elliott Sharp, Yoshikazu Isaki, Keizo Nobori, Yashuhiru Usui; The Bridge, DanceBox, Osaka, July 4; Adam Broinowski, Vivisection Vision; Gekidan Kaitaisha Canvas Studio, Tokyo, July 16-18

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 4-5

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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