Death (Updated: 05/04/18)

“Butoh is a corpse standing straight up in a desperate bid for life.” – Tatsumi Hijikata

If there is one image that could be associated with butoh outside of the demon or sick body, it would be death, especially for Ankoku Butoh coined by Tatsumi Hijikata (Ankoku meaning dark). Death, to many, is a very dark shadow, but it does not need to be. It can be a means for self-empowerment.

Resonating with one’s own mortality is one of the deepest resonances one can enter into. Do we really have a choice? Ushio Amagatsu once stated, “Butoh belongs both to life and death. It is a realization of the distance between a human being and the unknown. It also represents man’s struggle to overcome the distance between himself and the material world.”¹

Hijikata got much inspiration from the corpse. In Kaze Daruma, he stated, “I would like to make the dead gestures inside my body die one more time and make the dead themselves dead again. I would like to have a person who has already died die over and over inside my body. I may not know death, but it knows me.” He then mentions his sister who is like an ancestor spirit that influences his world: “I often say that I have a sister living inside my body. […] For me to fall is for her to fall. […] A dead person is my butoh teacher.”²

Death also shares qualia with statue and freeze, and one of the four Butoh spices inspired by Rhizome Lee: (1) Shock; (2) Sway; (3) Collapse; (4) Die.

Mono No Aware

“If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty” – Donald Keene³

In Japanese aesthetics, Mono No Aware is the awareness of the transience or impermanence (inevitable death) of things. Aware roughly translates to pathos and Mono to things. It is the property of transience itself that can make something more beautiful.4 Mono No Aware is hence a fitting aesthetic for butoh with its fixation on death (hence life).

Right Now, Are You Ready to Die?

“A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” – Montaigne

The title may provoke fear (e.g. I don’t want to think about that) and/or bitterness (e.g. finally, yes, now I can escape this retched place). On the other hand, there may also be gratitude (e.g. yes, this moment is as good as any other moment to be on my way), a ““Yes, And.”

The former appears to be rooted in the preoccupation with control and the latter with the acceptance or harmony with one’s space-time. In his mention of Mono No Aware, Donald Keene says, “the acceptance and celebration of impermanence goes beyond all morbidity, and enables full enjoyment of life.”³ This is a resonance to be reached by the butoh dancer. Endings do not always need to have negative connotations, though many last moments do seem to carry much suffering.*

The inscription upon Hell’s gate in Dante’s Inferno comes to mind: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Though the immediate interpretation of the sign may denote doom’s inevitability, it might just be the key out of hell. The antidote may be to surrender so that one could finally free oneself from the suffering. Oftentimes it appears that pride in our ability to change what may be unchangeable keeps us in hell.

So if the question of death right now frightens or provokes bitterness, perhaps there are some shadows to face that feed off the ironic limitation of an overabundance of pride (inflated ego) in being the controller. In Dante’s Inferno, the very flapping of the devil’s wings (from the desire to escape) caused the air to cool and keep the ice frozen, which kept him trapped. How long, how many vicious circles must go on till we can fold the cards? Knowing when to retreat is a warrior’s skill in Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the mark of a sage in the Tao Te Ching.

What image, then, bares so much more inevitability than that of death? Might as well embrace and even think often of death, for death may approach at any second.  It can be a serendipitous thing, for death is letting us be, for now.


¹ Amagatsu, Ushio. Sankai Juku interview from program for Kinkan Shonen, 1982.
² Tatsumi, Hijikata. Wild Daruma. Hijikata Tatsumi: The Words of Butoh, translated by Jacqueline S. Ruyak and Kurihara Nanako, The Drama Review, (Spring) 44, 1:62 – 70.
³ Keene, Donald, 1967, Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō, New York: Columbia University Press.
4 Parkes, Graham, “Japanese Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
* Those last moments are one of the things I have personally been exposed to from working with terminally ill patients as an x-ray tech for years. I always come back to thinking about one particular terminally ill patient. She was relatively young (in her 40s) and warmhearted despite all her pain. She would never miss a wave goodbye after every examination, and even did so on her last day alive, which would have likely taken the last dangling string of strength to do. Our dance should be like that last wave goodbye. Despite all her suffering, this woman managed to appear grateful instead of bitter.