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Ankoku butoh is an original Japanese dance form that emerged in the mid to late 1950s in Tokyo. Co-founded by Hijikata Tatsumi (1928–1986) and Ohno Kazuo (1906–2010), it was an artistic response to social conditions as the nation of Japan underwent radical shifts in Imperial Japan’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific war (1931–1945), defeat and US-led Occupation of Japan (1945–1952) and the US-Japan alliance formation within the cold war division system.
In this paper I explore how the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 and the hibakusha (people exposed to the atomic blast 被爆者 and radiological effects 被曝者) it produced can be seen reflected, in both a conscious and subconscious manner, in the artistic works and approach of ankoku butoh.
The impact of this historical event was not limited to the concentrated devastation wrought by the atomic bombs. Rather, the fusing of the atomic bombs and human hibakusha was symptomatic of broader changes that were underway during Occupation. Not only were the lives of living organisms permanently altered due to direct exposure to this force, entire societies were impacted both before and after Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the military, industrial and epistemological systems required to devise, construct and use it.
One way of conceiving of this apparatus is as a modality or way of seeing, which for purposes of brevity and utility I call the ‘atomic gaze’. Of the many and multifaceted, realist and abstracted, grounded and surrogate artistic renderings of this event, in the poetic phrases and movements of ankoku butoh of the late 1950s and early 1960s I explore how Hijikata and Ohno responded to the atomic gaze as a driver underlying the Occupation. I also identify how this response as it developed over time can be regarded as a creative and prototypical form of resistance to the force of this atomic gaze.
I develop this approach in three sections: the atomic gaze as shifting the common understanding of ‘human’ within a legacy of colonial techné of domination and power; the atomic gaze as introducing new social and political pressures within the overarching US-Japan alliance and post-war division system in Northeast Asia; the development of a subaltern or counter-hegemonic discourse of history and memory as evident in early ankoku butoh which embraced the non-virtuosic, non-human and non-living through collective materiality and undermined the binaries that underpinned the reconfiguration of the modern capitalist state in post-war Japan. This is intended to contribute conceptual ways of approaching social and cultural histories in the post-1945 period and to our understandings of the present.