Dance Dance Convolution: The Connections of Noh, Kabuki, and Butoh

The first time that I saw kabuki live was at the venerable Kabuki-Za in Tokyo. I was quite excited and eager to absorb everything that I could, though I had no hopes of understanding the highly stylized singing. I looked around and noticed that I was among the youngest attendees and saw no other Caucasian faces in the audience: mostly Japanese tourists and the elderly, some of whom were already nodding off. “How could they,” I thought, “nod off just when the show is about to begin? Isn’t it too exciting?” At that moment, my friend nudged me and said, “It’s okay if you fall asleep here. People would understand.” How rude! I assured her that I was quite awake and would remain so.

And the lights went low. And the chorus began. And the actors began their procession. And…



The lights were on and people were leaving their seats.

“Did I just sleep through the whole thing?” I asked in bewilderment.


“Did I snore?” I asked in quiet horror.



You can probably follow all of that far better than I could follow kabuki that first time…or the second and third times, through which I remained awake because I was sitting in seiza position.

“Even we Japanese people don’t sit that way so long. Don’t your legs hurt?”

“They sure as %#$@ will when the feeling returns to them,” I said from the floor. “But I stayed awake, dammit!”

And then I saw my first noh performance, which was slower and more spare, but somehow made much more sense and captivated me in ways that kabuki had not. Following that experience, I returned to kabuki and noticed and appreciated more about it. I knew that noh was the older of the two and that kabuki had formed somewhat in reaction to noh (a generalization that borders on inaccuracy), but little more than that. It occurred to me then, however, that they completed a triad of Japanese dance forms with butoh. I would not argue that they are more similar than they are different, but they form a compelling trinity and we can see enormous cultural shifts, the history and character of a nation in transition, when we view the three side by side by side.

Butoh is not widely known or appreciated in Japan, so I couldn’t much discuss it with Japanese people (not that they talk much about noh or kabuki, either). Before you assume that this makes butoh a completely fringe art form, ask yourself if can you talk in earnest about jazz with every American or musique concrète with all Français, even though these are musical forms whose influences have penetrated other art. Consider, too, that music disseminates more easily than dance and that Japan is quite cloistered, which makes dissemination of everything more difficult.

This is especially true for subversive forms that buck the authorities, such as butoh does. Wouldn’t you know—kabuki faced similar odds until the 19th century. Kabuki wasn’t iconoclastic; it was just disorderly. Butoh was established with the intention of breaking traditions both native and imported from the west. (Butoh’s transgressive aspects are more thoroughly addressed in another article.) And then there is stately noh, which takes tradition to the point of religiosity. Together they form the complete Japanese dance trifecta. I resort to sorting them in the superego-ego-id trinity out of convenience, but one could probably write a similar article using spirit-soul-body if only the concept of spirit weren’t so problematic.

This article is a jaunt through history that will help others go into their first (or second or third) kabuki and noh performances with a little more awareness than I did…and thereby avoid falling asleep or losing all circulation in their lower half as I did. I’ll say in advance that I lack reverence for any form, particularly kabuki, which I paint as a whorish, early-Hollywood (quite accurately), but those who esteem these forms should realize that I do not discount the importance of any artistic form, even the whorish ones. Some of my best friends are whores. We shouldn’t have to like something simply because it is old and someone else decided that it was important, but knowing the history of things should be exciting in itself. Seeing the performances then becomes history in action, so I can honestly say that I like kabuki, but I’m proof that even the most eager attendees may need pointers to keep their attention when the slow pace and unfamiliar stories and quiet darkness threaten to put them in a coma. All of this will also provide an historical context for butoh, the newcomer, despite the desires of its renegade founders to escape history.

A side note on spelling: Long vowels are an essential distinction in Japanese phonology, but transcribing them into a language as unphonetic as English has led to inconsistency and confusion. Though in Japanese the long O is in most cases spelled as an OU, it is frequently spelled as OH in English. In some cases, it is ignored entirely, as in Toukyou (Tokyo) and Kyouto (Kyoto). In other loan words, such as bokeh in photography, the H only indicates that the preceding vowel is voiced, not long. In some cases where the long vowel is followed by an H, as in Touhoku, a double H would be odd. Words that have been institutionalized, such as Tokyo and butoh, shall be spelled in this article according to the typical Romanized fashion. Words that have not entered regular use in English and are likely unfamiliar to many readers shall be italicized and written according to the clearer conventions for long vowels. Finally, you may have already noticed that I do not capitalize “noh.” This is idiosyncratic, as I find it to be arbitrary that noh is usually capitalized and kabuki and butoh (and jazz and opera and theatre) are not. So lowercase it shall be throughout this article.

All Work and Noh Play

Depending on where you place its actual creation, noh has either the most humble or the most illustrious beginnings of the Japanese dance forms, which is just as well because it was the first. The history of it in Japan certainly began in the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333) as a sort of Vaudeville of the field called dengaku no noh (ritual field-dance performance), which, like a lot of early Japanese culture, was a variation on a Chinese cultural import. It included rustic acrobatics and juggling and the like. By the Muromachi Period (1333 – 1573) the acts had become more defined, with performers reciting poetry and songs while seated, then dancing. This developed into what was called sarugaku no noh. That means “monkey-dance performance.” Feel free to giggle. As you might guess from the name, there was still plenty of clowning in this form, but by 1374 it had acquired some sobriety. It was in this year that father-son team Kanami and Zeami Motokiyo performed their monkey-dance for the shogun Yoshimitsu. The duo mingled the standard noh forms with a then popular and sophisticated dance known as kuse mai. The shogun liked their style, particularly that of the spry young Zeami. (Yea, that means exactly what you think it means.)

In the great and adoring shogun, the father-son duo now had the ultimate patron/sugar daddy. Sarugaku no noh became too much of a mouthful and was shortened to simply noh, and the Motokiyos and other artists and writers established in the next few decades what would become the core repertoire of all noh performances persisting to this day. There was some fluidity in the costumes and masks and positions and roles, but one thing was clear: No girls were allowed. (Sorry, ladies.) Theatrical masks developed from religious forms allowed the all-male performers to perform female roles. The masks were so designed that depending on the tilt of the head, and therefore the angle by which the audience could see the mask, the still expressions could depict different emotions…if you ignore a little thing called depth perception, which, in fact, Japanese visual arts did all the time. They perceived a different kind of depth, if you please.

At this time, noh performances were sponsored exclusively by the ruling powers, to whom the content could be nothing but complimentary, and were not regularly staged for the general public. Noh stayed in the family, so to speak. One of the last great writers of noh plays was Zeami’s son-in-law, Zenchiku, who died in the 15th century. Some writers in the 19th and 20th centuries, including Mishima Yukio, wrote their own plays, but none did in the two centuries following 1647 when the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu declared that no variations were to be made to noh performances. Everything was standardized and recorded. The comical acts and farces (called kyougen) that took place between noh plays were direct scions of the sarugaku style and were not quite as fixed by decree, but over time even they became standardized de facto. The ruling powers could thus enjoy noh as a noble and “perfected” art, one that spoke to their rule as the unchanging peak of civilization.

Yea, right.


No Girls Allowed… Again

Meanwhile, in 17th century Kyoto…

Kabuki—or what would become kabuki—was being founded in a dry riverbed by a shrine dancer named Okuni, who entertained people with her folk dances. She and her troupe attracted the attention of the commoners; the crowds and brawls between the lusty menfolk in turn attracted the attention of the government. Edicts sequestered all kabuki performances to a single part of the city near the pleasure quarters and only in designated theatres built for this purpose. Kabuki was the hot new thing, but it was still just a storefront for the oldest profession.

The word “kabuki” comes from an archaic verb meaning, “slant, bend, unbalance.” This was to imply its novelty, its strangeness, and, of course, its raciness. Acts were loosely organized as burlesque, not as cohesive narratives, and became a showcase for the talents of prostitutes. This eventually gave rise to the modern characters for Kabuki: 歌舞伎, Song Dance Skill. It was also written 歌舞妓, Song Dance…skilled woman. In most compound words, the last character 妓 is associated with prostitutes, though on its own it more specifically refers to courtesans, the renowned geisha 芸者, which could be translated as “art person(s).” If any members of the cloistered and revered geisha society were performing at these theatres, it was probably only the initiates, known as maiko 舞子, “dancing girl(s).” Most performers were common actors, acrobats, and prostitutes, or some combination of the three (as most Hollywood actors are today, one might say).

Kabuki’s august status now would have astonished everyone in Japan in the 1600s. (Then again, this would probably astonish them much less than most things in modern Japan.) After years of civil war and unrest, the country enjoyed an era of relative stability (the Tokugawa Period). The government network was called the bakufu, the “tent government,” for though the capital had been reestablished to create a centralized power structure in Edo (Tokyo), the country remained a loosely connected feudal state. Local landowners and samurai were still the lawgivers and maintained strict class distinctions and standards of taste to preserve at any cost their peace and prosperity. It was in this period—specifically the 17th century—that Japan became closed to the west and eradicated foreign elements. This included the execution of thousands of Christians in the early part of the century, the expulsion of all foreigners, and mandates that would not allow anyone who left Japan to re-enter. In short, it was crystal clear that the shogunate was serious about cultural policing. Confucian notions of fealty and loyalty were propagated and combined with the dour practicality of Buddhism and the nationalistic animism of Shinto. Noh, which encapsulated much of this, was as patrician as it came: a legacy of gods, ghosts, myths, romances, performed at glacial speeds behind stifling costumes and masks. It was sponsored by the aristocracy and thus crafted to their cultivated tastes…and they preferred to keep it that way.

Kabuki could not have been more opposite at the time. These theatre quarters were a proto-Hollywood, driven by money, sex, drugs (booze), and rock-and-roll (burlesque). No one had an interest in elevating the performances to the status of high art or tampering with a lucrative formula. It turns out that they wouldn’t have a choice in the matter, as the government would soon intervene. Continued brawls between men for female attention led the government to ban women from performing kabuki in 1629, a little more than a decade before noh was frozen by edict—presumably to protect it from being corrupted by the scandalous influences of the time. With the women forced into the back rooms (thanks a lot, guys…), young men took their place in the performances, but were subsequently banned for the same reason. (In case you didn’t already know or couldn’t guess, homosexual pederasty was admissible in old Japan much as it had been in ancient Europe. This would not change until the Meiji era when western culture infiltrated and had profound influence in Japanese morality and aesthetics, quite against the wishes of those in power.) The ban on young men was rescinded in 1652, but the ban on females remained.

Kabuki had begun as a proletariat diversion performed predominately by women for men and had unapologetically appealed to the appetites and passions that the ruling aristocracy tried to keep under a lid. (And I hardly need mention that providing women with a platform for expression was subversive in itself.) Kabuki was suddenly performed by men exclusively, mostly adult, and if it was to continue satisfying crowds it needed to evolve quickly.

Ichikawa Danjuro was the most famous innovator in kabuki’s first century. His aragoto (“rough stuff”) style focused on battles and action and became most popular in Edo. The wagoto (“harmonious matters”) style remained more popular in the more sophisticated Kyoto and Osaka houses. Wagoto performances focused on social interactions and often had a traditional dance at their center. Aragoto performances focused on heroism and hinged on a climactic confrontation with an evildoer or monster. In all cases, the narrative of kabuki became more solid as it drew material from noh, kyougen, and kabuki’s biggest competitor at the time, puppet theatre. Some puppet plays were rewritten for the kabuki stage, and new stage tricks were developed to achieve effects such as instant costume changes and levitation. Audiences were coming to see a life-sized puppet theatre. Centuries later, butoh would come about as a very different kind of life-sized puppetry.


No Strings Attached

The origins of butoh almost seem a parody of the origins of kabuki. Japan was in a state of unprecedented uncertainty in the 1960s. Two atomic bombs, the fall of a divine emperor, and a humiliating occupation had left people in a state of shock and anger, bereaved of the national identity on which they had relied to provide their individual identity. On the one hand was a desire to retain what little national identity and pride was left, and this was accomplished by upholding and honoring traditional values. On the other hand was the need to adapt as western values and practices inexorably permeated the economy, education, and politics of the country.

Since the US forced Japan to open trade relations in the 1800s, Japan’s policy had been to acquire western technology rapidly and assimilate select cultural aspects so that it would be strong enough to resist full cultural colonization. Everything foreign had to become Japanese if it was to stick around, especially ideas and aesthetics. The foreigners themselves just had to leave eventually. But suddenly, the foreigners were forcibly occupying their ports, writing their constitution, and restructuring their society. For artists and for the young, no one seemed to have the best interests of the country in mind: not the occupying forces and not the old guard, who were resuming control with redoubled traditionalism to preserve what remained of the world they had known. Student demonstrations were frequent. Extremists of every stripe appeared. Visual arts, theatre, and music addressed these issues directly and controversially. However, someone felt that there was one form of art that remained oppressively derivative in such a fertile, chaotic climate. That form of art was dance and that someone was Tatsumi Hijikata.

To Hijikata, the underlying problem was not the political uncertainty, or the occupation by foreign forces, or too much tradition. The problem was a fundamental detachment from the body and a reduced consciousness. From this precipitated uncertainty at all levels of society, and the traditions that were meant to provide a common thread were bloodless and ossified, unfit for the living. To renew this consciousness of and through the body, Hijikata sought to create a primal dance style that would aim for parts of the unconscious untethered to social constructs, things too deep and too essential to ever be drawn into that web. It would not favor the long-limbed, weapon-like bodies of ballet and other modern dance forms, but would allow for, if not favor, smaller bodies with a lower center of gravity—Japanese bodies. It would also be uniquely Japanese in sensibility, and yet oppose the group politics for which Asia is still know today. It also wouldn’t be derivative of kabuki or noh.

What butoh choreography exists is not strict and does not adhere to a precise vocabulary of movement. Seemingly autonomic spasms and contortion are common. Costumes and sets are often minimal and may be designed to impede movement. Athleticism is not requisite. Gorgeousness is eschewed.

These qualities are helpful in identifying butoh by its surface, but to say that it stops here leaves it a shallow, feeble counter-culture. It is much more, but it is still easier to list things that it is not. Butoh is not moral like noh or immoral like kabuki (was perceived). Butoh is amoral, but not without principle. There is no hero, no villain; there is rarely narrative at all. The tension is in the movement itself, the body itself, for the body is the only true character in butoh, in all its strength and all its frailty. It is a doll with a bodily will, not an intellectual one.

The noh body is a finely pruned bonsai, pristine in its economy of expression, an ideal social and moral construct, all superego. The kabuki body is dramatic and often fierce, controlled by passions and honor, a highly conscious ego. The butoh body is a puppet without strings, unbound to any controlling force but perhaps an id. It is a doll learning to walk on its own, coming into consciousness on its own, and then fading into oblivion again…an ideal protest against a world that seems to predetermine so much for the human individual before it takes its first steps. Hijikata used the puppet analogy himself in describing the loss of egoistic control as he gave up his body to whatever state he was channeling, young or old, human or non-human, violent or passive. One might even say that butoh was an ideal reflection of an occupied nation, for in it the body itself is occupied by foreign elements. To contrast, kabuki emulated puppetry consciously out of a competitive urge, not for transcendence, and it was always occupied by internal elements demanding that the form conform to authoritarian standards.

Because butoh was never meant to work from ideas as much as pure feeling and being and the occasional koan, attempts to codify butoh have been vehemently resisted by its practitioners and masters ab initio. This wasn’t obfuscation for its own sake, but it can appear that way. The same is true of the wabi-sabi aesthetic, which after centuries remains something that even most Japanese people cannot precisely explain, though it is deeply engrained in craft, philosophy, and literature. But one can’t truly compare wabi-sabi and butoh in this way because in the case of wabi-sabi there was a monetary incentive to keep things glib. In its early years, wabi-sabi was a sort of proprietary recipe of aesthetics and philosophy. To this day, it abjures pomp and showiness and emphasizes the ephemerality and equality of all objects and creatures (not unlike butoh), and yet early masters of the tea ceremony and wabi-sabi practice were not above selling at a premium those crafts and artifacts which they deigned to be exemplary expressions of it. This seems contradictory, perhaps even tantamount to simony, but in the end nothing in wabi-sabi proscribes preying on the credulity of wealthy philistines. I daresay that some art dealers today are successful today by the same lack of proscriptions in their trade.

Butoh will never be part of a large, hotly traded market. It is not for commercialism or mysticism that butoh eschews a clear definition, but for its rebellious introversion. Despite this, divided schools quickly formed in the butoh community and certain aspects remain hotly contested. I deal more directly with that in another article.

For now, let’s proceed from the basic historical context of noh, kabuki, and butoh and examine the distinct aesthetics of each. Volumes have been written on the first two, and we are not here even to condense them. This is a primer with a single purpose: to find salient aspects of these art forms and show how they overlap and how they diverge even when they appear to be similar.


Page 2: The Aesthetics of Noh, Kabuki, and Butoh >