Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Akaji Maro, dancer

Akaji Maro is a Butoh dancer and the leader of the Dai Rakuda Kan (Great Camel Battleship) dance troupe. He is also a well-known movie actor in Japan. Internationally, he has appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies. I met him on the 15th of November, 2001 after a Butoh performance. We talked, with the assistance of an interpreter, for around an hour at a coffee shop in Kichijoji, Tokyo. When involved in these kind of interviews, you have two feedback loops to keep an eye on, the actual interviewee and how he responds to questions, but also the translator and how comfortable he looks. Sometimes you notice that the translator is (a) clearly out of his depth, (b) bluffing it, or (c) asking his own questions instead of yours.

CBL: Ok, it’s my first time to see Butoh, and I had a mixture of feelings, sometimes like ‘disgusting’ and sometimes I thought it’s funny, and, also, like, a little bit scary, and it’s also about the people – their individuality is pushed down and they become kind of general human… And also I got the feeling, eh, like, kind of sexual feeling, because, y’know, people are showing themselves very much, very naked, and very weak. So, when you’re performing, do you have this sexual feeling? I mean, you want people to accept you completely in your weakness, your naked soul?

AM: The expression is… That the sexual point, I explain, in many react… I don’t understand exactly your expression ‘sex.’

CBL: What I mean is, uh, the dancers, I mean, generally, the dancers are showing themselves very naked and very weak, and, um, yeh, they’re showing their weakness. They don’t hide anything. This is a kind of sexuality, I think.

AM: It’s a difficult question.

CBL: The difficult first question!

AM: It’s especially very natural – there’s nothing intellectual about this expression. My impression of body – the body has many meanings…

CBL: Uhu.

AM: There is the inspiration of the body. You can see very human themes, and this movement, maybe it gives the expression of sexuality and very… Basically to the expression I can give many, many meanings and impressions. It exists as it is. It depends on the observer.

CBL: Yeh. Probably I have a more Western viewpoint in this respect, em, Western countries, eh, they tend to have a Christian tradition, so attitudes to the body are very different. Also, like in Japan, you have the tradition of ‘sento’ [public bath houses] and ‘onsen’ [natural hot springs] and things like this, so maybe Japanese people are less conscious of this kind of feeling than Western people.

AM: Colin-san is very strict, aren’t you?

CBL: No, no!

AM: You are not a Mormon or Taliban, are you?

CBL: Taliban, yeh. Scotland, my home country, before, is like Taliban. Also they had two sides. One side was very strict and the other side was very wild and, uh… There used to be lots of witchcraft and hysteria, and this kind of thing as well. And, y’know, that’s why the story of Jekyll and Hyde is from Scotland.

AM: Japanese has many things. It’s not as few as two sides, three sides, or four sides. We can’t decide [garbled], and the point is it’s very obscure. And Japanese exist in the world of the obscure.

CBL: They don’t like to state their opinion too clearly but, eh, I think that, for us, Butoh looks like very strong opinion, very strong statement.

AM: This program that I’m dancing now is for young men. Their expression is very pure. [garbled] good side and roles maybe [garbled] for women. I rehearsed many parts, many pace. By the way, what is the purpose of tonight’s interview?

CBL: This will be for an article in the Tokyo Journal.

AM: Do you want general or specific answers?

CBL: I want general and also specific, because sometimes when you talk about general, you need specific examples to illustrate, of course, with reference to tonight’s show, as well. Because, maybe, when people see the show, they maybe enjoy it, or it maybe has some effect on them, but they don’t maybe understand why, so it’s also, uh, so the article is an attempt to understand the appeal of Butoh.

AM: It’s very difficult to explain about Butoh. The purpose of the article – is it for the people who don’t know Butoh or they know something about Butoh?

CBL: I hope both, because the general readers… Some know Butoh and some don’t. Before, the magazine had articles about Butoh, but usually the article about Butoh is a bit historical or descriptive.

AM: The history of Butoh is forty years. People, especially Western people, come to see Butoh, rather more… I hope that people will come to see Butoh without a, how do you say, pretext.

CBL: Preconceptions.

AM: Many foreign people come to see Kabuki [another form of Japanese dancing]. They already have some conception about image, and they already have the Japanese image. But for Butoh, it’s not necessary to know anything to see it.

CBL: So, it can appeal to anybody of any background. In, in the show, eh, tonight, I noticed some very easy-to-recognize elements, for example the mobile phone on the foot, yeh? So, anybody can see this, and it’s very obvious.

AM: You said a detail!

CBL: And also with the, um, it looked like the tea ceremony. Those are everyday items or gestures of behaviour, and the Butoh show seemed to be placing those everyday gestures in a new light because maybe people take… They do them without thinking. It’s very common, so it’s taken for granted. So, it’s like a kind of alienation effect, like, for example, in theatre, Bertolt Brecht was very interested in ‘alienation effect,’ to take something which people don’t think about but which is very common and to put it in a new context. Suddenly people see it – it’s fresh – like for the first time. So, is one purpose of Butoh to make people look at ordinary everyday things in a fresh new way?

AM: There are many sorts of expression. Maybe I take some religious ceremony. They say that it’s a secret ceremony, but maybe it’s possible to explain about some ceremony with a religious idea.

CBL: So it’s a like a ritual, like a religious ritual, like a rock concert is a kind of ritual or…? So, it’s a kind of tribal thing, like ancient people lived in tribes and in tribal behaviour ritual was very important and, of course, included, dancing and things like that?

AM: My expression of Butoh is a gallery of diary actions – daily activities. The start of my idea, started from gathering daily activities. In the diary actions we can find some events or accidents in everyday life. We can find these from events and accidents, and ee can see them on television in our everyday life.

CBL: So, when I hear this, it sounds like Butoh has a very community feeling, therapeutic feeling, and very normal feeling, em, but most people’s image of Butoh is something which tries to shock and disturb, so it sounds like a kind of different idea here.

AM: In daily life, maybe if someone loves cooking, he cuts his finger. This event of cutting the finger is the first door of Butoh. It is one of the entrance doors. He cuts the finger and then put the bandage on, and then he returns to normal activities.

CBL: So, it’s a kind of knowledge that is infused with the pain of experience?

AM: For Butoh, the first door is cutting the finger. This moment is stopped. Time is stopped in this event, and in this moment I enter in the black world. How do you say in French – the morbid?

CBL: Morbid, yeh.

AM: I can explain many examples. When I read some books, for example… If we find some character is wrong – ah! Then we can be surprised at this moment. And this moment of surprise, this surprising moment is also one door we can enter into this black world. We can take some action. It will depend on some objects. If a person takes some stone, activity is limited by the stone. The development of civilization becomes different from stone to typewriter. Human activity and movement everyday depends on…

CBL: So, is it, like, limited by the objects?

AM: Yes, and we see this throughout human history. In developing these movements, the humans forgot some movements that existed.

CBL: So the movement becomes, ah, functional, and the, em, movement which is not functional is discarded.

AM: Your expression of functional movement and also non-functional movement need each other.

CBL: Sometimes my leg is shaking, like this – ‘bimbo yusuri’ [Japanese expression = ‘poor people’s shake’].

AM: That is a functional movement, and it is not the same field. That is an unconscious movement. But at some moment, this unconscious movement appears in the normal action. Some of these unconscious movements appear in the cracks of the world. The cracks of the world evolve from some event – if someone cuts his finger or some event…

CBL: So, is the problem because humans evolved to live in a much more savage, wild world, and, of course, now, by some, some strange accident, we developed this, y’know, very complex society with technology and everything? We didn’t evolve for this world, and so there is a gap between what we are and our environment, and so, is Butoh, uh, in a way dealing with this tension between what we evolved as and what we’re living as?

AM: That event, and some events coming [garbled] in this event, in this moment humans can find the abnormal movement. This movement has been forgotten for a long time. But in this moment, it depends on some event, like cutting your finger or some event you can see from TV. In this single moment, the door opens and I connect to, to do some expression. This expression is not the normal expression, the functional expression. It’s a non-functional, unconscious expression.

CBL: Like an unconscious, instinctive, very natural…

AM: There are several Butoh existing in Japan. That is Butoh of Maro. If you contact other people, they may say another thing.

CBL: So, there’s a lot of possibilities there.

AM: If I say clearly, the expression of Butoh is a gathering of moments of events to express unconscious movement. Unconscious movement is forgotten movement.

CBL: Now, also a lot of people see Butoh as a kind or reaction by Japanese culture to defend itself against foreign influences and, em, at the same time, when I see Butoh, it seems to be, like, very, eh, as you say, um, an attempt to express subconscious, so therefore it’s very universal, so I’m interested in, is Butoh a very Japanese culture? Is it a very universal culture? And how does it relate to Japanese culture?

AM: Butoh – it’s a kind of Japanese product, but this product can find in the World, for example the yamaimo is a Japanese potato. But this potato can be found in the world. The first form of Butoh… Classic ballet is formed like this [physically demonstrates] but Butoh is formed like – how do you say, Japanese say the claws of a crab.

CBL: Bow-legged…like a bow.

AM: This form is the traditional form of the Japanese peasant, but now the Japanese peasant is not this form because, y’know, life has changed. It’s the first point. The peasant does not exist only in Japan but also exists in the World – in France also, in America also. The Japanese peasant’s form is similar to English very old man. If we think about this movement, Butoh is not only Japanese [garbled]. In classical ballet God exists in the universe. But for me the god exists here [gestures to his bow-legged pose].

CBL: Yeh.

AM: [garbled] in these places many actions will be born.

CBL: This is the very attractive point of Butoh.

AM: This is like Galileo.

CBL: Galileo? In what way is it like Galileo?

AM: The expression, my theory is change from, how do you say, the globe is moving…

CBL: Flat Earth to round Earth. Sun going round… Okay. It’s like a major shift in focus. Yeh.

AM: If we can say that Butoh is the round moving, the round moving is not a Japanese idea. It’s an international idea. God exists in the celestial world but now the god exists between the legs.

CBL: Aha, the bow-legged… That’s where god exists.

AM: It’s different from the European idea because in Japan many gods exist.

CBL: Yeh, when we were children, we were always taught posture, how to sit, sit up straight, and, when we walk, how to walk, and, eh, y’know, for example, naturally, I tend to slouch forward. This is my natural posture, but someone doesn’t like that and said, ‘stand up straight,’ so, y’know, Butoh is about image versus nature in this way. So, people have an image of good form or what looks good, and, then, Butoh’s coming along and, and asserting the kind of natural…

AM: I don’t know if it’s natural.

CBL: In my case…

AM: Natural is very difficult to interpret. [garbled] If someone wants to say a posture is good form then it’s good form. Because, for the people in Japan this form is very bad, but in China or Korea this style is very normal. We cannot decide which form is better. The form depends on the climate and the history of the country.

CBL: So, the best posture is the one that people feel comfortable with?

AM: Form is very difficult to continue. If I find this form is very nice, I cannot take it for one hour. I can’t say which form is better and which form is natural. The natural is movement, not to stay in the centre. It is very difficult to keep the same style.

CBL: Yeh. In the theatre I was like that, because the space for the audience is very narrow and a little bit uncomfortable and so I had to keep shifting, and my knees jarred up to other people…

AM: The human is made to be free.

CBL: Is this… About the theatre being very small and a little bit uncomfortable, is this on purpose? Because when it’s a little uncomfortable, you become more conscious of your body, and I think you’re maybe more sympathic with the actors and the dancers.

AM: That’s good, but that’s not on purpose. It’s simply one of those things that can’t be helped.

[the audio record ends abruptly as the MD was full]

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