Empty Bodies, Dead Bodies, and the “Outside”

Table of Contents

The shared perception of the 20th century is one of nausea. In this essay, the critic Hidenaga Otori considers the issue of existence in postwar Japan through the body of the butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno and the novel Ghosts (Shirei, 1946-95) by Yutaka Haniya.
Ghosts contains a description of a human body floating in a vacuum. Otori observes similarities between this description and the body of Ohno, the butoh dancer. Generally in dance, the impression of beauty is determined by the relationship between gravity and the body, but Ohno’s butoh dancing gives the impression that his body is floating in a gravity-free space. Otori thus describes Ohno’s body, which appears to be lacking a real existence, as a “ghostly body.”
Thereafter, Otori connects Haniya’s concept of the “empty body” to Ohno’s ghostly body. The empty body draws on Haniya’s concept of the “unhappiness of the principle of identity” as its prerequisite. This principle refers to the unhappiness and irritation that come from being unable to specify exactly what one is. In Ghosts, the empty body, which represents “an existence that is continually in a state of nothingness,” is conceived as the ideal means of escaping the unhappiness of the principle of identity. The empty body, in its lack of existence, can be linked to Ohno’s ghostly body. This concept can also be connected to the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, whose works are rooted in questions of existence. In fact, Ohno has also been interested in the nothingness and the agony of the loss of self in Giacometti’s works, and these shared ideas may be observed in both Ohno’s movements and Giacometti’s sculpture.
According to Otori, the butoh of existence that Ohno opened up has been inherited by Ko Murobushi’s “alien body” and updated for the 21st century. The body observed in Murobushi’s butoh, the interior of which seems to burst out from under the skin, can be linked to Ohno’s empty body, which aims to move beyond the unhappiness of the principle of identity. Murobushi’s alien body, which also aims to go beyond the limits of the human body, is a strategy for living in the 21st century offered to humanity through the genre of dance.