Torso as Text/Butoh Bodypainting

Struck first by the rigidity of Japanese torsos. Does this rigidity facilitate living on tatami or does living on tatami facilitate a rigid torso? The rigidity of the torso is a physical manifestation of a super super-ego, a constantly self-monitoring social consciousness: “shikkari shite-iru.”

Because the Japanese torso tends to be somewhat longer than western ones (particularly mine; I am so short-waisted that dress straps invariably require shortening, and I have become somewhat reconciled to, even glad of, the revelation of bosom that readymade clothing affords on my particular corporeal geometry), it is the focus of Japanese fashion both traditional and contemporary. No sooner have I written this than I realize it is not true: what to make of the Heian multi-sleeve? But what I mean to highlight is the flawless overlap of kimono wrapping, the straight up-and-down consistency created by the thick obi, and more than anything, the amazing fetishization of the t-shirt.

T-shirts, so far as I know, are an American creation, but the Japanese, in a display of their oft-noted appropriate-and-refine behavior, really have taken them to a whole new level. Nearly every torso is a text – in English. The texts are often lettristic, non-linear, complex, garbled; some look like early works of Steve McCaffery or read like John Wieners poems. It’s a kind of heaven for people like me to see these texts everywhere. I wish that someone would just give me a grant to go off and study this stuff: I could call it “Language, Torsos, and Un-significance: Reading the Surface English of Japan.”


Wouldn’t that make an amazing book? Wouldn’t you want that on your coffee table? Come on!

For all I’ve said about rigidity of torsos, you wouldn’t know it from watching the dancers there. I didn’t see any belly dancers there, sadly, but not long ago at a huge recital of Yousry Sharif’s students I saw several Japanese dancers who had studied with him, and they danced like fire and water, not rigidly at all. And on this trip to Tokyo I was lucky enough to see a performance by my all time favorite butoh troupe, Dairkudakan, whom I must have mentioned before on this blog. This performance was danced by the all-male sub-troupe, Kochuten, and it was just as amazing as their wonderful performance in NYC last fall. I was so happy to see them twice in one year!

In any case, their torsos weren’t in the slightest bit rigid (do I need to say that?). Perhaps the butoh dancer is in some ways antithetical to everything that is conservatively Japanese, the suited salaryman who looks as if he is sitting on the train wrapped in bandages to prevent movement. Butoh turns everything inside out and pulls out all the stops.

In this performance they did something that I think of as being very sixties, but maybe better executed: at one point two kuroko stagehands brought out a tray of paints, and three of the dancers proceeded to paint a principal dancer.

There’s something very singular about this dancer, Takuya Muramatu [sic?]. He seemed in both of the shows I saw to be put in positions of extreme physical challenge involving staying quite still in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time – in this show he had to negotiate the orange monkey bars that made up the center of the set while balancing a large wooden crate. This dancer also always seems to be singled out by the group for some kind of combined worship and humiliation. I should note that this is a very common dynamic in Dairakudakan’s butoh, and I think it has everything to do with their response to living in hierarchy. From what I can gather, though, hierarchy is as much in place in the world of butoh as in any other Japanese social organization. The novices must surely have to go through incredibly strict training and inculcation to be able to learn to dance the way they do. Paradoxically, their expression is very much about explosively rejecting hierarchy, and this tension clearly comes into play in the dances.

Muramatu is sort of odd-looking, which is good, because he can do grotesque very well, and some of the younger dancers are a little bit too pretty (not that I’m complaining). In both shows I saw, he was at some point completely denuded by the other dancers.

So in this dance, the kuroko brought out the paints, and the other dancers started applying it, layer by layer. This was incredible. They started by writing kanji on him. From what I could gather this referenced the old Japanese story Earless Hoichi (mimi-nashi Hoichi), who, haunted by ghosts (demons?), was written all over his body by monks in order to protect him, but they forgot to paint his ears, which were thus cut off by the ghosts.

The kanji were quickly covered over by layers and layers of strokes an colors. They seemed very strategic about the way they applied the colors. First red and black, then more primary colors, then the colors started to blend, then on top of it all bits of gold metallic, which made the dancer glisten in the stagelights. They made a particular point of edging down his loincloth (is that what you call the little white cup things that male butoh dancers wear?) with their paintbrushes and painting his penis first steely blue and then gold. Weird!

He looked totally abject and beautiful, slimy with sploshes of paint, drooling, body twisting and displayed.

Another theme of this dance: a wicked and manipulative “Lolita” on the monkey bars in a peach colored frock and bloomers. “She” became more gothic as the performance progressed, growing hair like a sticky black spider web on one side of her bald head. She teased the oji-san (middle-aged guy) and seemed to be in control of all events.

Butoh continues to make other art forms seem to me relatively uninteresting. All the same, I am now preparing to paint a coral reef on the built-in laundry hamper in the bathroom. Yesterday I spent $73 on paints, brushes and palettes at Pearl Paint. I suppose it would be more interesting to paint a human being, I mean paint ON a human being, but that isn’t really an option at the moment.

One thought on “Torso as Text/Butoh Bodypainting

  1. Nada,Most recent T-shirt sighting: “Feeling good. Everybody’s shouting black music”Except me. Apparently. Oh, wait, there I go.

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