Old Gods in a Post-Atomic Age

drawing of butoh dancer

A century ago, the Japanese writer Akutagawa Ryuunosuke wrote a story called Smile of the Gods, about a seventeenth-century Portuguese Jesuit priest who goes crazy after he unsuccessfully converts the pagan Japanese. During the Jesuit priest' mental collapse he is visited by a Japanese apparition that explains how all philosophical and artistic systems imported from other parts of the world (Buddhism, Confucianism, Chinese poetry, etc.) have all been “remade” over the course of time by Japan’s “old gods.” The story suggest that anything imported to Japan will transform from its original state and be refined into a Japanese variant.

Throughout the twentieth century art critics had difficulty defining and discussing modern and postmodern Japanese art. This is because the west defines "modern" and "postmodern" differently than how the Japanese define it. It has been argued that Japan’s postmodern movement actually began three hundred years ago during the Edo period, a few centuries before it occurred in the rest of the world, and exercised "synthetic eclecticism" since the Asuka period in the 6th century C.E.. It is therefore baffling how many Western critics during the twentieth century wrote off Japan’s arts as insignificant and derivative in comparison to euro-american arts.

Other critics were able to see merits and labeled Japan as a paradigm of transcultural postmodern society. As someone who has traveled to Japan many times I can attest that the profusion of old and new indeed makes it difficult to find a focal point of interpretation. On each successive trip I’ve reconsidered previous impressions and have often contradicted what I thought before. Japan, especially a city like Tokyo, mutes interpretation and leaves one in awe, if not thrilled by the mere experimentation and depth that such a city and culture provides. Donald Richie, the Japanese film historian, once told me that even if I spent my entire lifetime studying Japanese culture I would never get to the bottom of it because it is too complex and beyond anyone’s capacity. He said the first thing to do is learn the language, but that also would take a lifetime.


When they finally emerged from their inner journey their expression was dark. They released taboos—death, madness, and sex—and created a dance form of spellbinding slowness and beauty.

Regardless of who influenced who and how art is transformed or saturated into other cultures, the Japanese have always been brilliant at modifying art and technology introduced by other cultures. This is partly due to Japan’s demand for perfection and standards of high art, and its method of eradicating the original context of the thing imported. Japan isn’t concerned about foreign context because it understands that its strength as a culture is its ability to modify the import to fit its own culture. If the import has no value than it is simply lost. Butoh, the dance movement that emerged in the late 1950s, is a compelling example of how the Japanese created an innovative expression influenced by internal and external forces to the point where it became anti-influenced. It was the one time in Japan’s modern history that artists trusted themselves enough to search deep within their psyches and discover a primal, universal expression. The result was the climax of humanity’s long history of tragedy: utter darkness.

Although many critics have argued that butoh, which emerged after World War II, was a reaction to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, every butoh dancer I have met disagree with this. Most of them are actually repulsed by this analysis. It is easy to make such a direct association because of butoh’s dark imagery and movements that mimic what it would be like to emerge from the ashes of destruction. Yet, nowhere have I ever read Tatsumi Hijikata, Kazuo Ono, or any butoh dancer ever state that the atomic bombings were a direct influence. Even the white paint that often covered the butoh dancer’s body was seen as a symbol of emergence from the devastation of war, but was actually nothing more than Akiko Motofugi’s fear of dancing naked on stage. To help her stage fright she covered her body in white paint. The look caught on and it became standard code for butoh dancers, even until this day.

Many butoh dancers have also told me that Akiko Motofugi, the wife of Tatsumi Hijikata (one of butoh’s founders), was perhaps even more influential than her husband when butoh first emerged. Some say it was actually her who coined the name and created some of the signature movements, but she was never given credit. Some suggested that this was because women artists at that time were not respected. In Japanese society this is true, especially in the 1950s. The success of Yayoi Kusama and Yoko Ono occurred during the same period, but they went to New York. I suspect that Hijikata and Motofugi most likely collaborated closely and developed butoh together. When I met her in 2001 she never mentioned her own significance and I only found out how influential she may have been after she past away in 2004.

Image of butoh dancers Kudo Taketeru and Akiko Motofuji
Kudo Taketeru and Motofuji Akiko, Kamakura 1996. Photo by Kevin Bubriski

Most butoh dancers cite artistic movements and spiritual concerns as influences, especially Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, Japanese Noh and Kabuki, and even Western modern dance. Prior to butoh’s emergence there were many avant-garde movements that occurred before the war and immediately after. Zen’ei bijutsu, a mixture of Futurism, Constructivism, Dada, and Surrealism occurred in the 1920s and 30s and reacted against the conservative yooga, Nihonga, and Teiten (The Imperial Fine Arts Academy), as well as the salons controlled by the Bunten (The Ministry of Education). It also protested society and its systems of nationalism, cultural orthodoxy, conformity, and political oppression. In his 1920 manifesto the Futurist Tai Kanbara stated: “Painters be gone! Art critics be gone! Art is absolutely free." In the early 1950s, just a few years before butoh emerged, the Gutai movement emerged with its manifesto: “Let’s bid farewell to the hoaxes piled up on the altars and in the palaces, the drawing rooms and the antique shops … Lock up these corpses in the graveyard." Closely associated with butoh was the Obsessional Art movement that represented so-called "diseased" art. Artists like Yoyoi Kusama, Tetsumi Kudo and Tomio Miki created art not for art’s sake, but because art was a means of staying sane. They used techniques of repetition and self-negation that produced neurotic results, sometimes even placing the artist in an existential trance. They created optical art that was morbid, but mesmerizing. Obsessional art was cathartic for its practitioneers, but wasn’t powerful enough to keep Kusama out of a psychiatric institution.

All these movements were no doubt influences on art at that time and had a similar spirit that butoh would respond to. But butoh attempted to dispel all influences and eventually trusted itself enough to be anti-influenced. Hijikata and other butoh dancers inserted themselves by delving into their darkest depths and discovered a primal energy and spirit. When they finally emerged from their inner journey their expression was dark. They released taboos—death, madness, and sex—and created a dance form of spellbinding slowness and beauty.

In 1910, the poet and sculptor Kotaro Takamura wrote an essay called The Green Sun which proclaimed: “Perhaps the work I have created may have something ‘Japanese’ about it, for all I know. Or then again, perhaps not. To me, as an artist, it makes no difference at all.” And thus, Hijikata and butoh established a dance movement that looked like pure Japanese expression and was a timely response to its direct experience with mass destruction, but maybe it had nothing to do with that. It’s possible that butoh represented human expression in the world at that moment, a mirror of the psyche’s collected darkness that had existed throughout humanity’s entire history. Akutagawa’s apparition would appear and tell us otherwise: it was Japan’s old gods purifying influences both native and foreign in a post-atomic age. This would certainly explain why I’ve never seen any Westerner dance butoh better than the Japanese.