Bodies of Evidence, Bodies of Struggle

Timothy Iles, Department of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Victoria [About | Email]

Volume 16, Issue 3 (Book review 5 in 2016). First published in ejcjs on 23 December 2016.

Broinowski, Adam (2016), Cultural Responses to Occupation in Japan: The Performing Body During and After The Cold War, London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, ISBN: 978-1-78093-596-6, hard cover, x, 264 pages

Keywords: theatre, performance, embodiment, atomic bombing, Butoh, hibakusha.

The body presents endless opportunities for enquiry, critique, analysis, engagement, exuberance, and discomfort—and these do not even begin to touch on the issues which the body politic itself brings. The body is the source of our most fundamental interactions with the world, others, things, and, as Adam Broinowski argues in his book, Cultural Responses to Occupation in Japan: The Performing Body During and After The Cold War, history, as well. The body-as-body is also the fundamental source of identity and the political implications around that term, through the complexities of self-identification and its resistances to imposition, essentialisation, and coercion. The body is both battleground and weapon; recording device and the substance of memory; mechanism for change but also target for tradition, expectation, exploitation, and commercialisation. In the considerations of geopolitical reality, the body is both chattel and property; vehicle of invasion and also the bearer of the burdens of invasion; site of colonial appropriation but also the avenue of colonisation. The body is that which propels history and that on which history enacts its most devastating acts, both of aggression and progress. The body is also the fundamental component in performance, and it is to the intersection of all of these features of the body that Broinowski turns his attention, to argue that “artistic reflections with particular concern for embodiment can be read as having agency through their interpretations of individual and collective memories in context… [I]f the reconstitution of the social or national body against a vital if illusory threat of the ‘non-human’ is a critical tool in legitimating sovereign power and its control of a population…, then re-thinking dominant narratives from perspectives of the ‘non-human’ and their artistic reflections can provide active and alternative  responses to the colonising discourses of sovereign power” (p. 5).

To demonstrate this, Broinowski analyses the historical processes around the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which created the hibakusha, or survivors. Broinowski characterises the bombing as having “colonised those exposed to its radiation through the near-permanent subatomic occupation of their bodies” (p. 8). Further, the bombings occurred as “pre-meditated, organised violence in a criminogenic space (i.e., a zone where violence is made legal) in which the fundamental principles of the ‘human’ were destabilised” (p. 9). It s in this context of a contestation of the meaning of the ‘human’ that Broinwski examines the reactions, through works of performance, that Japanese artists have demonstrated in opposition to the on-going ideological and cultural occupations of Japan, and in turn Japan’s potential ideological and cultural occupations of international post-war spaces.

Broinowski’s book is theoretically very rich, drawing on western scholars from Plato to Foucault to help contextualise the ways in which performance can enact a historical resistance to colonisation. The text explores a range of performance styles, in both cinema and live theatre, to show how “focusing on the body [is] a way to confront the memories of past war and the actualities of Occupation. Bodily materiality provide[s] an anchor  in existential emptiness, and [can] help many to find solace amid loss by sifting through experiential layers secreted in their own bodies… and from a marginal position, contest and articulate alternatives to the new narrative of history and memory as it harden[s] around them” (p. 12). The primary focus here, however, is theatrical performance, and in particular butoh, which “formulated a practical process of cultivating ‘being-flesh’, to ‘empty’ the body of an occupied or semi-colonised condition” (p. 12). As the phrasing indicates, Broinowski’s work highlights the political nature of performance as a particular form of resistance—to colonisation, especially, but also to dominant narratives of an international history that focus on relations between nations which then inflict themselves upon the bodies of the citizenry of diverse countries. The body is the venue of Broinowski’s argument, and as such, the body receives sustained critical attention, from the immediate post-war period, up to the after-effects of the Tōhoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster of March, 2011, “as a material site of contestation between justice and sovereign power over the formation of post-war memory and subject/nationhood formation” (p. 13). 

The eight chapters in the work, together with the Introduction, guide the reader through an impressive summation of modern Japanese history and its consequences, starting with the US-led Occupation and the “atomic gaze” which hung over hibakusha and non-hibakusha Japanese alike, moving to the functions of cinema during the late 1940s and 1950s as a method for critiquing the war and the post-war reforms which  the Occupation imposed on Japan, and then to the emergence of Hijikata Tatsumi’s (1928-1986) Ankoku Butoh, an “avant-garde artistic movement” (p. 12), which Broinowski describes as “a miscegenated collage of neo-Dada, Surrealist, and rural agrarian heresies [existing] under the prismatic sign of ankoku or ‘darkness’” (p. 72). This movement receives the bulk of Broinowski’s critical analysis, but also of his insightful and remarkably thorough contextualisation within the spheres of performance, both cnematic and theatrical. Butoh is without doubt one of the most significant developments in Japanese performance, representing a near-perfect encapsulation of and response to its historical moment in ways which almost no other world theatrical style has been able to achieve. We may point to Noh as a performance style that has endured for over six hundred years, and has therefore established itself as an essentially Japanese theatrical form, but against this refined performance style which exists for a long-forgotten aristocratic world, butoh stands as a theatre of pain, by and for the miserable of the present. “Rather than an idealised form of indigenous purity,” Broinowski argues, “the awkward eloquence of Hijikata’s butoh invoked ‘blackness,’ which included the contradictions of bodies immersed in a society recovering from destruction while under continuing occupation by and in deep collaboration with a foreign power” (p. 96). Broinowski corrects existing interpretations of butoh by moving beyond their almost romanticising limitations, which, he suggests, have “tended to downplay its socio-political associations while emphasising spirituality” (p. 110-11). The discussion here is both subtle and audaciously well-informed, spanning theories of both western classical and modern performance, as well as traditional Japanese aesthetics and theatre, and while the writing is dense, it remains consistently provocative, confident, and fundamentally humane. A sincere humanism informs Broinowski’s work, which helps this book rise above the narrowness of its subject matter to point to ways in which all human endeavour can serve to reinforce the necessity of a universal respect for life in all its forms. While Broinowski focuses on the human body, his perspective encompasses the ways in which the term ‘human’ can in fact accommodate a truly broad definition—and, in this, his work is somewhat ironic, in that his discussions of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous, animistic spirituality which accepts the presence of divine consciousness (kami, or deities) in all awe-inspiring things, are primarily concerned with its facets of human, communal collectivism, rather than its transcendent features.  

Broinowski moves, in the final chapters, to a discussion of Gekidan Kaitaisha, a troupe which formed in 1985 to advance the potential of butoh “informed by a critique of the mediated body in society as modes of conveying information were expanding on multiple screen platforms” (p. 131), and from there to a discussion of the ways in which butoh has transcended Japan and Japanese performers. His final chapter is a brave and self-conscious analysis of his “own solo performance produced in the context of the War on Terror as poetic witnessing to the injustice of state-corporate violence in the first decade of the twenty-first century” (p. 168). These chapters bring the work to the immediate present and help the reader conceptualise ways in which performance can critique on-going projects of colonialism and colonisation beyond those historical manifestations dependent on overt, military intervention or violence, but instead now utilising techniques of cultural displacement and the dissemination of expectations around, specifically, the body and embodiment as forms of invasion. As Broinowski argues in his conclusion, performance, history, and resistance are each intrinsically necessary—“in the context of socio-political engagements within world-historical change, we can better understand what these particular artistic works do and have done, and why they are crucial in re-making human consciousness in positive ways for future societies” (p. 192).

Each individual aspect of this book is solid and persuasive, but taken as a whole, the project holds true importance. This is an enormously political evaluation of history as a project of occupation, and the body as both the site of that colonial enterprise and the mechanism of its resistance. Focusing on butoh, itself one of the most political forms of contemporary performance, is an effective strategy here, in that this permits Broinowski to make theoretical connections across a wide range of narrative and theatrical categories. The work is valuable to a wide audience, as well, speaking as it does to issues of history, geopolitics, exploitation, theatre, cinema, occupation, and resistance. My only critique of the work is that, for all its density and richness, it remains still only an introduction to the subjects under study here—there remains much more to consider in terms of butoh and performance in general and their relationship to forms of contestation. The work begins with a tantalising evocation of the function of the body in memory, but more could come from this aspect, as well, especially in terms of ephemerality. Broinowski himself is aware of these issues, though, and so I can only look forward with great anticipation to his continuing research in this regard.

About the Author

Timothy Iles teaches at the University of Victoria, Canada, in areas of Japanese film, literature, culture, and language. His research interests are on issues of identity in film, as well as the contextual critiques in which works of art engage.

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