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National Identity in Postmodern Japanese Dance

National Identity in Postmodern Japanese Dance

U of Tokyo's Tadashi Uchino discusses the birth of Butoh dance and the performance of "children's" bodies in postmodern Japanese dance.

By Vincent Lim
Staff Writer

A new kind of dance [emerged] as an expression of body and movement at a time of national flux and chaos.

At a lecture at UCLA, Tadashi Uchino explained how two forms of modern dance developed in response to dramatic changes in Japanese society.

The UCLA Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies and the Center for Performance Studies sponsored the Nov. 5, 2007, talk, which linked together what Uchino calls detarame dances in the 1960s and the decade between 1995 and 2005. Uchino is a professor of Theater and Performance Studies at the University of Tokyo, a contributing editor for TDR: The Drama Review, and a former theater critic for the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun.

"Both of the periods—the 1960s and the decade between 1995 and 2006—can be characterized as nationalistic moments," Uchino said. "A new kind of dance [emerged] as an expression of body and movement at a time of national flux and chaos."

Detarame may be translated to mean "random," "haphazard," "wild," or "irresponsible." Uchino applies the Japanese word to dances that appear "unpredictable" yet are strictly choreographed. In the 1960s, one detarame dance developed into a new genre called Butoh. Uchino said that Butoh became more systematized, or less unpredictable, over time. Later, in the decade between 1995 and 2005, a new detarame dance emerged that associated dancers' bodies and movements with those of children.

Uchino said both dance forms grew out of eras when Japanese people were raising questions about national identity. During the U.S. occupation of the country after World War II, American music, movies, and culture were popular. However, Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of Butoh, rejected popular Western dances to develop a new dance form in 1961 that combined influences from theater, improvisation, and traditional Japanese performing arts. Butoh is known for being highly choreographed with stylized movements and hand gestures. It involves sometimes grotesque imagery and is performed in white-body makeup.

The new "children's" dance of the late 1990s emerged because a sort of crisis of confidence in Japanese society, following the bursting of a economic bubble.

"It is patriotic yet not necessarily too seriously so," Uchino said. "This is obviously a postmodern kind of nationalism. I am tempted to call it a 'sick kind of nationalism,' not in the sense that it is physically harmful, but in the sense that it is psychoanalytic."

In the dance, Japanese performers are associated with children. The still-evolving dance form pays particular attention to the popular image of the shojo, or teenage girl; it deals with Japanese society's struggles to adapt in an era of globalization, Uchino said. In the work "KATHY," for example, young female performers wear blonde wigs and follow the commands of a power known only by that foreign feminine name. Yet there are times when the performers fail to do what Kathy instructs them to do.

During this second phase of detarame dance, cultural producers and performers sought to create a narrative that connected Japan's economic rise with its sudden downfall, Uchino said.

"In these moments, experimenting with forms such as playing with detarame dance are welcomed and encouraged, as experimenting connotes liberation, possibility, and the future," he said.

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies