For the past few months I've become increasingly interested in butoh (as a quick run through of my review for "Tatsumi Hijikata: Summer's Storm" will reveal). One of the big reasons for this new found interest in this avant-garde and revolutionary dance form has been the work of veteran performer Masaki Iwana, and specifically his 2008 directorial debut "Vermilion Souls". The now 64-year-old dancer and choreographer began his career in butoh in 1975 putting on minimalistic and mesmerizing performances, usually in the nude and in some cases verging on physical stasis. He toured the world as a dancer before settling in southern Normandy in the 80's where he established his own butoh company, La Maison du Butoh Blanc. It was with the help of members of his company that in 2004 Iwana shifted emphasis from the stage to the screen and began translating his vision of characters caught between life and death with "Vermilion Souls".
On the surface the narrative of "Vermilion Souls" is fairly simple if surreal. It's 1952 and a boy (Yuta Takihara) living on the outskirts of Tokyo follows leaflets being dropped by a low flying plane. the trail of leaflets lead him to a tract of restricted land owned by the Imperial family. It's here he discovers a medieval castle (Iwana actually filmed "Vermilion Souls" in a castle in Normandy) whose residents are afflicted by an unnamed disease. There is Hizume (Hiroshi Sawa), a calligrapher who must hold his brush between his teeth because his fingers are fused, Nean (Yuri Nagaoka), a prostitute who bears the scars of a failed double suicide with her lover, Maria (Valentina Miraglia) a mysterious, wheelchair bound woman who possesses the powers of an ancient oracle, and Kakera (Moeno Wakamatsu) a corpse. A former kamikaze pilot, Hinomaru (Mohamed Aroussi), is given the task of guarding this strange group until an appointed day when they will be put out of their diseased misery and be gassed by Imperial authorities. The progression of these characters to that fateful day is presented in a series of dramatic and dance-inspired tableaus, hinting at a greater world outside the castle walls - the emotional horror and terrible privation of Japan in the years immediately following WW2. In many ways Iwana's actors are like ghosts and I often wondered if this young boy had wandered into a haunted castle filled with the restless spirits of those torn from life during air raids, military assaults, and tradition dictated suicides.
I was deeply affected by "Vermilion Souls", if not by the loose narrative that Iwana and his players put together, than by the strange beauty of the film itself (the black-and-white cinematography by Pascale Marin is stunning) and the risks that Iwana takes with his actors. In amongst the several dance pieces both Miraglia, Aroussi, and Sawa participate in some brief but very graphic sexual scenes. On my first viewing of "Vermilion Souls" these scenes left me fairly shocked, but as I began to read up on the butoh dance movement, its founders Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata, and its genesis in the early 1960's, a time of enormous social and political upheaval, Iwana's choices became clearer to me. Butoh, an art form that has never been fully embraced by the majority of Japanese, acted like a grotesque and beautiful mirror to the troubled post-war years of its origin. Viewing other films of Hijikata, Ohno, as well as their students Yoko Ashikawa, Akaji Maro, etc., I was fascinated and dare I say a little bit frightened, but frightened in an exhilarated, giddy kind of way.
While it's true that the vast majority of butoh performances don't include live sex I have to applaud Iwana for provoking a reaction out of his audience. In my subsequent reading on butoh much of the material is zen-like at best, or dangerously new-agey at its worst. Regardless of which of these poles the authors gravitated toward I found people's interpretation of butoh and its philosophy of the body and how it relates to disease, sex and death to be polite, pretentious and fairly pastel. Thus far I've rarely encountered an author who has presented butoh as the revolutionary, provocative and confrontational art form that it started out as. We need to be reminded that Hijikata and Ohno's son Yoshito strangled a live chicken on stage in the first historically recognized butoh performance, 1959's "Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours)", and in 1968's "Hijikata Tatsumi and the Japanese: Rebellion of the Body" Hijikata performed with an engorged golden phallus strapped to his waist. Butoh is an art form that forces us to see life in all its wonder and ugliness and Iwana captures that feeling perfectly. If someone is offended that he's used fellatio and Sawa inserting his hand up to the wrist into Miraglia then all the better.
There is no doubt that "Vermilion Souls" is an art film with a capital "A", a criticism that I've heard leveled at it several times, but frankly I couldn't see the revolutionary core philosophy of butoh presented in any other way. A polite dance film simply would have not grabbed an audience and shaken them up like the early "happenings" of Hijikata and Ohno once did. So, if you're not afraid to be confronted, to be confounded and inspired, and possibly offended then you should definitely give "Vermilion Souls" a try. If you like your film experiences to be nothing more than entertainment then you'd best look elsewhere.