Michael Sakamoto – Resolving the Unresolvable

In Dialogue with Michael Sakamoto

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Michael Sakamoto’s Performance Blind Spot, Chamber Dance, photographer: Martin Cohen

Michael Sakamoto is an interdisciplinary artist and scholar active in dance, theatre, performance, photography, and media. His solo, ensemble, and visual works have been presented in 15 countries throughout Asia, Europe and North America. Art Spiel had a conversation with him on the alienation of the body; the gender roles and queerness in Butoh, as well the deterritorialization and exotification of non-Western art.

Tansy Xiao: From my understanding, Butoh attempts to create an alienation from the body, a departure from the body. Is there a sense of anonymity in Butoh expressions, or does it emphasize individual experiences?

Michael Sakamoto: That’s a great question and something that Butoh artists, critics, and scholars think about all the time. My opinion overlaps both sides of the question. Usually when you read about Butoh, when scholars talk about it, and even how some artists talk about it, yes, the alienation of the self and the body, creating anonymity. I think a lot of that dialogue is rooted in the original period of Butoh in the Sixties. There was this sense of the body contradicting itself because of an identity crisis in Japan. In Japanese society and contemporary Japanese culture at the time, because of the war, the postwar occupation by America and the West, and big social and cultural shifts out of that, people were trying to figure it out, like “what is Japanese” at that point. I think the evisceration of self and the blankness of that–not neutrality, but blankness–was an artistic device to play with in the body, because they were trying to recreate themselves. I don’t know if they were thinking of themselves as a blank slate, but they were definitely getting away from having an identity imposed on them.

Some people go further and talk about that aesthetic and visual approach tying into traditional Japanese arts. The stereotypical example is Kabuki, especially Kabuki white makeup, and recreating your persona by putting on a different persona, a different mask of the character or narrative. For some artists, that may have something to do with it, but it depends. Different artists use different characters, personae, narratives, or references to traditional culture and ideas or in characters, while other artists are more contemporary, much more modern, and sometimes very abstract.

I also think because of the technique, because it comes out of subjectivity and personal narrative, personal experience being huge factors in postwar Japanese culture and arts, and Hijikata, who created Butoh, being very much a part of that. Him creating Butoh, the vocabulary, the movement, the body images, all this grotesquerie and darkness was very much out of his own psychic experience and that of a lot of the artists in that period. And that’s very personal. He felt very rejected by the dance world in terms of his body, his image, his identity. And so he flipped that on its head and said, okay, I’m going to take all that that’s rejected and wrong and make that right, make that the thing itself, make that the art form, or base my art form on that experience. So I think it’s both sides.

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Michael Sakamoto and Rennie Harris in Flash, photographer: JaNelle Traylor

Tansy Xiao: You think Butoh is actually trying to achieve a sense of neutrality? Or can a body be apolitical?

Michael Sakamoto: No, a body can’t be neutral or apolitical. I don’t know if Hijikata would agree, but maybe. He was extremely political, and very explicitly in his early period, in the late fifties to the late sixties, the first decade that came to be known as his Butoh practice. He was very much in the avant-garde arts movement that was rejecting capitalism, American culture, and the American-ness of modern Japanese culture, which was rapidly Westernizing in terms of the look and feel, the sound, the arts and culture and everyday life, the way you dressed, what you bought, how you decorated your home, how you did business, all of that.

think he was trying to recreate pre-modern bodies that he understood were impossible to be neutral. And that’s why, for example, out of that period starting from the mid to late Sixties and then toward the end of his life in the Eighties, he created something based on his childhood memories and the northern, rural, almost farmer-like body, or poor body. And that was really where his classic Butoh vocabulary came from. He created hundreds and hundreds of image-words to evoke that body in his dancers, and that body was anything but neutral. It’s very dark, very complicated, very layered, every image word. Every butoh-fu (butoh word) makes a statement. Having said that, I don’t think he was as explicitly political, as far as I understand, in his later years. But a scholar more expert in his history would know better than me.

Tansy Xiao: There is a lot of crossdressing in Butoh. Does that embody the gender fluidity, the duality of human nature, or since Butoh expresses individual suffering, is the representation of female characters a sign of the cultural oppression of women in the original environment where the dance form emerged from?

Michael Sakamoto: All good questions. I think there are numerous factors. One is history. And I’m still talking about Hijikata largely because I’m hearing you speak to the core practice. And I think we always have to go back to him, though it’s grown in so many different directions now. But there’s still some kernel there, right? So you have an art form that’s created at a time in an East Asian country where it’s still a very traditional patriarchal ethos. It’s not just the traditional hierarchy of master-student relationship in East Asia. It’s also gendered, of course, so there’s an implication, whether any practitioner admitted it then or not, that women were inferior in terms of their ability to take on a practice, or at least some doubt as to their eligibility or the propriety of doing experimental dance. What it would mean for a woman to decide, 60 years ago, for example, that she was going to dedicate her life to an avant-garde art practice.

Hijikata worked with women from the late sixties onward, though, and they became his primary students for a while. One in particular, Ashikawa Yoko, became his lead dancer and rehearsal director. She became acknowledged by everyone in the Butoh community from the seventies up until today as probably the best or most realized Butoh artist ever. It’s not simply her aesthetic, but also her intensity and ability to transform her whole image. You actually feel like she’s this other thing on stage. Her level of commitment in body and soul, head to toe. I think the only person who matched her was probably Hijikata himself. He knew it too, because he gave her so much responsibility. We find that very inspiring in the Butoh community, and however much we may argue with each other about “this is the right Butoh”, “no, mine is the right Butoh”, etc., the one thing everybody agrees on is that Ashikawa is the one.

I say all that to your question, because how ironic that this East Asian art practice created by a bunch of old boys and which still to this day is a largely a hetero-patriarchal culture that has yet to be unpacked. When I speak to Japanese female practitioners, they’re not comfortable with having the gender conversation. Whereas when I speak to Western practitioners, they’re very happy to discuss it. Not that they agree that there’s so much male oppression, though. As some of them say, this practice allows them to transform into any identity they please, so it actually frees up their gender portrayal; I could be feminine or masculine, or more importantly, just something else. Some kind of animal or creature, or mythological, abstract, or elemental thing that may or may not be gendered, or I can queer it any way I want to. They find the Butoh palette very empowering in that way. So it’s really complicated. I think it comes down to which artist and which form or style of Butoh. It may not be my place to do so, but I do feel bad sometimes for the older generation females, who are very well loved and respected. And I think because of these patriarchy issues that they are sympathized with, in a way nurtured as much as possible by our community. I respect them more than anybody else in the Butoh world.

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Yoko Ashikawa at her performance, 1972, photographer: Eikoh Hosoe

Tansy Xiao: It’s interesting that prior to the Tokyo Butoh Festival of February 1985, relatively few Japanese audience had seen Butoh. Artists had to gain international attention in order to be recognized domestically. From what I understand, the grotesque nature of Butoh is often fetishized, just like a lot of other elements in traditional Asian cultures. Is this a form of self-colonialism?

Michael Sakamoto: I think it’s a symbiotic relationship, so there’s different factors. One, the term Butoh. “Buyō” is the traditional and more conventional word to refer to dance. Butoh also can be translated as dance, but also as stomp or step. It has an earthier connotation and feeling, and a bit of foreignness. If you go back to the early 20th century in the Modernist era, the twenties and thirties, when a lot of Western modern arts and culture were coming into Japan, Butoh was used as a shorthand to reference Western social dance, because that’s what got popular.

In other words, it’s also a class thing. Buyō also has a connotation of traditional or “high art”. So “Nihon Buyō” (Japanese dance) specifically refers to traditional, classical folk dance. That’s a very codified and fairly rigid traditional art form with a hierarchical master-student relationship. I think Hijikata and the other early Butoh artists used the word butoh as a very conscious statement to say: no, this is the real body, these are real people living real lives, having real experiences which are not pretty. They’re actually very dark and ugly. Butoh is how we know it now. But originally, it’s “Ankoku Butoh”, which is dance of darkness. And not just darkness, but pitch black. The kind of darkness or blackness that’s pure. There’s nothing, no definition. It’s completely the unknown, or the hidden. You have to just give yourself to that mystery of not knowing what’s there. So that’s why I think that word was chosen.

Imagine something completely accessible or every day or real, yet completely unknown. That’s the cliff, the precipice that I think Hijikata and his colleagues were looking for in terms of the energy of “I don’t know what I’m doing, and here I go”, and creating an art form out of that. It must have been such an exciting time. Because there’s a symbiotic thing. Butoh was also a rejection of Western dance in the fifties and sixties. I always tell people that Butoh is the exact opposite body from ballet. Ballet is very vertical, upright, symmetrical, ordered and rigid. It’s considered the supreme Western dance form. Butoh is the opposite. It’s low center of gravity. Not just grounded, but practically on or even in the ground, in the earth. That’s the aesthetic. And assymetrical. If you see a straight line in Butoh, you will lose half of your traditional butoh audience. (Laughs.) They’ll think it’s boring. What you will gain, of course, Sankai Juku is the perfect example: a lot of Western fans because they value that aesthetic, and that’s the game that Sankai Juku has been playing for 40 years. To their credit, they’ve mastered it.

Butoh artists traditionally play with time. It’s not just slowing time down. I always have to tell my students that Butoh is not slow motion; it’s really time. It’s just a different measure of time. If you see a sloth crawling across the road and crawling up a tree, we think they look really slow. But to the sloth, they may be running. Or for a glacier or iceberg, you can’t see it moving. But for a glacier, for the mind of those molecules, it may be dashing across the ocean. Maybe it’s a millennium dash instead of the 10 second dash. I think we have to always understand that. Butoh is always this play between opposites, the East/West cultural tropes that are embedded in-between; the Japanese body versus the Western or American body. These are things that Butoh artists play with. It is definitely a Japanese practice and comes from a very specific historical, cultural and artistic context in Japan. However, that context is playing a lot with Western images, cultural themes, and tropes as well. So Butoh is also always already hybrid.

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From MuNK Series, Michael Sakamoto in Paris, 2018, courtesy of the artist

Tansy Xiao: So it’s a form that first existed as resistance against Western culture, but then was ironically embraced by it.

Michael Sakamoto: That’s complicated too. That’s the typical exotification form of racism, right? Butoh was first successful in the West in France specifically. In Paris, in the middle to late seventies. They thought that it was the new weird, dark, crazy, totally modern dance from Japan. But it was a specific avant-garde French audience in Paris, which is like every metropolis, like it would be London or Berlin or New York or Tokyo or now Beijing or Bangkok. That audience will not only accept but desire a cross-cultural mix. They ate it up, but it’s exotified. For over 40 years, Butoh has been very successful in France, and a lot of Butoh artists have actually moved there from Japan and established companies practicing and teaching. In Germany as well. Although I think in Germany it’s for slightly different reasons. I’m not the expert to speak on this. But I asked a couple of Japanese scholars in Tokyo, why is Butoh so popular in Germany? “Because Japanese and Germans both love pain”. I laughed, but I kind of understand. There’s a juxtaposition of rebellion and rigidity, like order and chaos that you get in the arts and in the cultural sector. I spent a lot of time in Germany in the early nineties, and I felt that I could understand how they would understand the hardness and the harshness of Butoh.

So again, how this art form has developed since Japan, since Hijikata. A lot of Butoh in Japan still looks kind of old. I have had that conversation with Japanese artists who are trying to do something new, and a lot of them are creating new forms. They are some of the best artists in the world in Butoh. But in Japan the discussions are still on what is Butoh? what is the right Butoh? what is the true Butoh? That’s not been resolved, and frankly, I don’t think it should be. Otherwise it will stop moving, it will stop developing.

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Sakamoto at Hanazono Jinja, courtesy of the artist

Tansy Xiao: Would you say that Butoh as an art form has developed beyond its post-war PTSD context? What is the unresolvable that contemporary butoh dancers are trying to resolve?

Michael Sakamoto: I’m not always sure what many contemporary Butoh artists are trying to resolve. How much of that is left over from the big, immediate postwar period, that cultural ferment? It was a very particular time. From my scholarly perspective, what came out of that period were three elements. One is subjectivity, which we’ve discussed. Another is the focus on the body, the carnal body, the fleshy body that is opposed to the social body or the body politics or the imperial body, which is more prewar traditional culture focused on the social hierarchy. But that real body, right after the war, when everything was just gone to shit. It’s like, all I have is me. All I have is myself, my body. I’m going to focus on that because I can’t know anything else. No wonder they got into the flesh, the “other” that was, in fact, themselves. There’s a sense of contradiction that comes out of that and the desire for, like you said, resolution.

Third factor is home, how you define home, or how you define the self. Some people were, okay, I’m focusing on Japan. I don’t know what it is anymore, but I’m going to hold on to it. I’m just going to hold on to whatever my mind says Japan is, and that’ll be home. Or it could be a recreated sense of what home is. It could be home in the body. The new culture could be home, if you are feeling rootless. Them saying, I’m not an old Japanese, I’m a new Japanese, but there’s no definition to what a new Japanese is. But whatever it is, I’m just going to live there, and I’ll figure it out every day, and maybe that’s home.

But I think the impetus for that feeling came out of that traditional East Asian culture. So how that manifests now to your question about contemporary artists, I think it depends. For me as a fourth generation Japanese American, I’m much more American than Japanese, obviously. I’m just Japanese influenced. Not contemporary Japan so much as some idea of what old traditional Japan’s like. I don’t know Japan really, as I’ve never lived there. I don’t speak the language fluently. I read a little bit when I was young, but I’ve lost that ability.

For me, then, the answer to Butoh now is not so much the Japanese body as the body anywhere. How do you resolve the crisis that is rooted in where you come from as an individual? I’m from Los Angeles, so for me, how I grew up there in terms of the cultural influences, class, race, gender, and history, and especially that weird, multicultural, layered thing of Asian and Latino and Black and White. Those are all very inspiring, juicy elements that I play with. If you look at my creative works, you’ll see you can trace how all that’s a part of me.

Whereas someone who comes from the American Midwest, who’s White and didn’t grow up with Japanese or Asian culture. They just love what they see, the feeling in their body when they move. They’re coming from a more removed, raw, but also very foreign approach and perspective. And I respect any of those folks who do their homework to find out the real roots. It’s hard to do that homework, because there’s not as much information out there as there could be in English. But I think the personal narrative that they’re trying to resolve is much different than what Japanese artists are dealing with: their own background, their own stories, their own understanding of their lineage, from the sixties till now. That’s much more of a specific culture and identity.

What I don’t like is when Butoh gets abstracted, when it becomes this kind of pure idea or mythology or stereotype of what it is, this idea of the pure body. I can’t stand that. There are a lot of Butoh artists out there who, whether they admit it or not, that’s actually their approach, and it drives me crazy. I’m really trying to focus on my own work and on the work of other artists that I support. I pay attention to some people who are really going through their real experience and making it very concrete. I don’t care if that’s from Japan or Bulgaria. I just want it to be real, in all its simultaneous tension, contradiction, and passion. That’s Butoh too.

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From MuNK Series, Snow Fence, courtesy of the artist

Tansy Xiao is an independent curator, artist, writer and poetry translator who focuses on the multicultural and cross-disciplinary practice of art and literature in a global context. Having lived and traveled in more than fifty countries and received her art education in hundreds of museums worldwide, Xiao founded Raincoat Society in the hope of giving the artists with multiple cultural backgrounds a voice outside the mainstream art market.