writers on dancing


Revenge of the Otaku
Japanese Choreography and Art in New York

Solo/Duo: Showcase for Emerging Japanese Dancer/Choreographers
Japan Society, New York City
May 20, 2005

Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture
Exhibition and Public Art Works curated by Takashi Murakami
Japan Society, New York City
April 8 – July 24, 2005

by Tom Phillips
copyright ©2005 by Tom Phillips

“Otaku” in Japan refers to the subculture of nerds and geeks who, beginning in the 1980s, defied the communal norms and polite conventions of Japanese society, and set out to expose their own monsters and phantasms. Otaku art emerged in comic books, video games, pinball machines and animated films—and now has exploded into painting, sculpture, and dance. This spring the Japan Society has unleashed Otaku in New York, with a major art exhibit, and a showcase of emerging Japanese dancer/choreographers.

Otaku like to work alone, and two of the three works presented Friday were solos by the choreographers. The most striking was an “Anatomical Experiment” by Natsuko Tezuka, an artist who conducts movement workshops for the disabled, and who has appropriated their movements to dramatize her own and her culture’s struggle to live. Dressed as a demure schoolgirl, she begins flat on her back, fighting to control even the tiniest movements. In stages, she struggles to sit, and then to kneel. The piece turns on a bizarre rite of passage, a mock Japanese tea ceremony. A stagehand comes out with a flat tray and a cup of hot tea; with tremendous effort, she seizes it, shaking most of it out of the cup, but managing to bring it to her mouth and drink. Exit stagehand. Then, to a sentimental American ballad, “Love Letters” she forms her mouth into a O of desire, and reaches out, as the song says, “straight from the heart.” Rising to her feet at last to a Sonny Rollins tune, she begins to dance, first with spastic wiggles, then flinging her arms high during a drum solo. The stagehand returns, this time with a glass of beer. Once again she grabs it awkwardly, spills half of it, but brings it to her mouth and drinks. In the split second before the lights go out you can sense a rush of relief, the idea that this girl has risen to where she can “drink the cup,” partake in life.

Images of disability and destruction are staples of Otaku art, which traces its origins to the U.S. atomic bombing that forced Japan’s unconditional surrender in World War Two, and the imposition of an American constitution which outlawed Japanese aggression forever. Aggression, though, is one of those things that will come out one way or another, and it is the essence of Otaku, although often concealed behind the “cuteness” of Japanese mass culture. The art exhibit, at Japan Society and spread out over Manhattan, is called “Little Boy,” the nickname for one of the atom bombs, but also a reference to the infantilism of Japan’s post-war youth culture. The show is full of childish images, sometimes presented straight and sometimes with a wicked twist. A mild but telling example: near the entrance to the Central Park Zoo the Japanese have installed a super-cute, pastel-painted sculpture of a mother and baby elephant. Both are wearing diapers, decorated with cute pictures of more diapers. But somehow the diapers have not done their job of containment; behind the mother elephant, artist Chinatsu Ban has plopped a pile of pastel feces.

Downtown, in the Union Square subway station, computer artist Chiho Aoshima has a multi-panel display titled “Paradise.” This Eden looks like an psychedelic Disney cartoon, with blue skies and lush vegetation, peopled by tiny naked girls with butterfly wings, surrounded by snakes, lizards and insects. In one panel, a tiny girl stands balanced precariously at the tip of a leaf, with a hungry-looking lizard crawling up the leaf toward the defenseless figure. Hello Kitty cannot escape Godzilla! By the way, both of these popular legends are prominently featured in the show, which draws no distinction between commercial and fine art. The art exhibit continues through July 24.

Back to the choreographers: The program began with a solo rant, titled “i.d.”, by choreographer Shigemi Kitamura. She begins with her red-clad butt bouncing in the spotlight, goes through an oral orgy with a can of juice, then a furious dance/exercise routine, and ends running around in circles as the lights go out. Kitamura has power, and there’s no trace of disability in her body. Rather it is her sense of isolation that seems to drive her frenzied movement.

Also on the bill was a duo by a man and woman who seemed to be satirizing middle-class Japanese domestic life. They barely glance at each other as they go through an elaborate set of motions, including lots of bowing and moving furniture around the stage. The funniest part is a slapstick series of ceremonial gestures and pratfalls, to the music of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. Ballet-trained Misako Terada is a riveting dancer, flexible and graceful but able to suddenly flop out of control and crash face-first onto the floor, the gesture with which she begins and ends this low-key farce. She also has a great expression of isolated exasperation, contrasting with the stone-faced stoicism of her partner, Osamu Jareo.

The last piece on the program was cancelled because of an injury to dancer/choreographer Yukiko Amano. In true Otaku style, she sent a cute letter by video from Tokyo, with many apologies (“I can’t performance”) in pastel pen, and a childish drawing of herself with an injured knee. “So sorry!” was once a stereotyped Japanese expression of politeness. Now, it comes to us with an edge of irony that makes it ah, so much more interesting.

First: (l-r) Osamu Jareo and Misako Terada in Japan Society's SOLO/DUO. Photo by Osamu Awane
Second: Shigemi Kitamura in Japan Society's SOLO/DUO. Photo by Kayo Nishizono
Third:  Yukiko Amano in Japan Society's SOLO/DUO. Photo by Noriko Masuda

Volume 3, No. 20
May 23, 2005

copyright ©2005 Tom Phillips



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last updated on May 23, 2005