Kazuo Ohno 大野一雄 is considered the founder of modern euro-Japanese Butoh 舞踏 artistic expression. Butoh is an art form that many consider to be Japan’s contribution to modern dance. For Kazuo Ohno and his students and those who study him, understand his ‘art’ to be far more than dancing and acting. Kazuo Ohno died on June 1, 2010.
He was born in the northern big island of Japan- Hokkaido, in the city of Hakodate in 1906. His childhood with a Russian-speaking father who was a fisherman, and a mother who was well-known for her expertise as a chef of European cuisine, and his early experiences being an athlete at a Christian college in Japan, also led him to become interested in dance and begin teaching modern dance in Japan. In 1938, he was drafted into the Japanese army when Japan began its intense quest to colonize Asia. Kazuo was an intelligence officer who served in China and New Guinea. He was captured by the Australian military during the war and was in an Australian POW camp for nine years.
Following the war, he immediately began dancing. He met Tatsumi Hijikata and learned Butoh arts and how it is connected to Japan’s postwar resistance to cultural devastation and depression. Hijikata rejected Western dance and anything ‘western’ at the time and with Ohno, developed what is considered to be the beginnings of the modern Butoh expression-forms that we know of today. Butoh arose as a resistance to Westernization in Japan after the war. As few people think about it as they read the word ‘war,’ Japan was devastated after being bombed by the allied forces, mainly the US. Its people were starving and there were no places to live. Trauma walked the streets, some in a daze. Many took up drugs and crime, eating rats to survive. Hundreds of thousands were orphaned children, as their families were melted and/or blown away by the bombs. Japanese people reacted in many ways. The Butoh arts was one which is informed by Japanese traditional arts such as Noh and Kabuki, but focused on ugliness, death, and ambiguity and the trauma that must now work to save oneself. In the 1960s, as Ohno studied with Hijikata, he wanted to develop more o his own style and began creating them, premeiring his first works in the late 70s.
I feel a kinship with Butoh because Butoh artists do not want to make us ‘understand’ as we watch. It begs for feeling and being present, as the some-would-call ‘strange’ and morbid movements and expressions along with the colors and the sets bring up things that most of us do not want to feel, or feel but not in such ways. It is Butoh’s way of making its way into the universe. Kazuo Ohno has said to all us who would listen: “To know the universe, one must examine its garbage or refuse.”
There is an excellent article in the London Times at this link:
A devout Baptist since his christening as a child, his themes of heaven and redemption were always present, yet infused with the cultural aspects of Kabuki, existentialism and European expressionist art philosophies and always through alternating humor and morbidity, looking at trauma and love.
His son Yoshito Ohno, carries his father’s tradition forward. Their wonderful website is worth a visit and honoring:
The photo above is of himself and his wife Etsuko Ohno.
This video is an excerpt from one of his movie DVDs and entitled The Written Face.