Come wind, blow, I’ll give you beans.
Come wind, blow!
Come from the corners of the sea and blow!
– Folk song from northern Japan
A hunchbacked, elderly villager, clad in a flowered farmer’s smock, casts a quizzical look at us as she rides by on her mobility scooter. Her frail twisted body is a ghostly reminder of the old ways of wet rice farming and the heavy toll they took. She’s justified in wondering why anyone in their right mind would want to engage in such backbreaking labours in this age of machines and supermarkets. In today’s rural Japan the manual transplanting of rice seedlings has long been replaced by mechanised transplanters, so by this time of the year most paddies in the village have long been planted and deserted. From a distance, the terraced succession of perfectly symmetrical, undulating rows of bright green seedlings cuts a quaint but somewhat forlorn landscape under the overcast sky. All is order and loveliness, with no untidy traces of the labours of hunchbacked farmers, no manure, no sweat, no mud.
While we’ve got plenty of sweat and mud at our friends’ paddy field, as the afternoon unfolds an unruly force begins to ruffle this otherwise energetic group of village newcomers. The wind is no longer the dry and shrill Yatsugatake-oroshi, the north-westerly ice-cold gales that blow fiercely from the Sea of Japan, through the southern foot of the Yatsugatake mountain range and across the Kofu Basin in the winter months (our village lies pitifully at the confluence of these wind-ways). Still, it’s a rough, howling south-easterly that sweeps away seedlings, misaligns the bamboo poles we were using to keep the rows in check and drowns the hitherto lively chit-chat. The painstakingly built harmony begins to fray at the seams; a strange fatigue descends.
It’s a rough, howling south-easterly that sweeps away seedlings, misaligns the bamboo poles …. The painstakingly built harmony begins to fray at the seams; a strange fatigue descends.
At the farthest corner of the field, two young children that had spent the morning playing with crabs and tadpoles seem caught up in a trance, up to their knees in mud, barely able to stand. Their little heads are raised, their eyes fixed on the windbreak of red pine forest swaying gently in the distance. They are listening to something.
Could these be the workings of Kaze no Matasaburo, the wind sprite of Japanese folklore? A century ago, Kenji Miyazawa, the brilliant fantasist of children’s literature, reimagined this figure in a tale that unfolded on a mountainside not too far from here. On the first day of elementary school after the summer break, children return eagerly only to find in their classroom a strange new boy. A fierce wind is blowing on that day and some of the children begin to suspect that this outlandishly dressed boy with flaming red hair might be the legendary wind sprite Matasaburo.
Besides the intriguing presence of the wind and its enlivening interactions with the landscape, there is little to no conventional action in this deceptively simple tale. As swiftly as the boy arrives, he is gone; he had only come to the mountainside school to accompany his father, an engineer from the North looking for molybdenum – a metal used in armour plating and heavy artillery during the War – to mine. And yet, through this personification of the wind, Miyazawa conveys much about its ambivalent place in Japan’s inland farming communities. Unlike the far more prized water, whose purifying qualities, usefulness, paths and directions are clearly established and easily harnessed, the wind is seen as an unreliable, unsettling messenger from distant lands: here today, gone tomorrow. It’s an invisible menace that needs to be tamed and slashed, lest it slashes us; in some windswept areas of the country, particularly on dangerous mountain passes, people used to erect a sickle-blade in order to create a magic barrier against the wind.
There are, however, traces of something far more ancient and pre-agrarian in Miyazawa’s multilayered story. Perhaps something mythically rooted in the forest-based Jomon culture of his native Tohoku? In this ‘forest mind’, the wind was seen as a far less hostile force, sharing water’s purifying and landscape-enlivening powers. Coming from a land beyond, the wind that gusts through the story of Matasaburo magically touches and transfigures the landscape of everyday life, heightening the aural sensibility of its young dwellers and vividly connecting the currents of breath that blow outside with the ones that blow inside their bodies.
I sense these mythopoetic wind currents also, passing through the bodies of the children at the edge of our friends’ rice paddy. But I sense something else moving and morphing here, too. An at-once familiar and strange-making, ancient and modern Japanese dance anchored in mud and atmospheric change, in the transpersonal sufferings of the body experienced and shaped as a force of nature – an embodiment of Earth’s collective history.
I sense butoh, the ever-morphing improvisatory art founded by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno over 40 years ago.
The threads linking butoh with the wind were first woven during a collaboration between dancer-choreographer Hijikata and photographer Eikoh Hosoe in the late 1960s. The photobook project was named Kamaitachi, after the weasel-like demon from Japanese folklore. The kamaitachi is known to ride unseen on fierce mountain winds and to inflict cuts on the legs of walkers with its sickle-shaped claws. For the photobook, Hosoe captured explosive moments of an ongoing improvisatory performance by Hijikata as he morphed into kamaitachi at multiple locations in his native farming village in Akita, northern Japan. Hijikata’s kamaitachi pulled pranks on the villagers, drank, laughed and sulked with them, rolled in mud and ran amok across rice paddies like the wind, often in front of a captive audience of children.
Hijikata’s kamaitachi pulled pranks on the villagers, drank, laughed and sulked with them, rolled in mud and ran amok across rice paddies like the wind, often in front of a captive audience of children.
After decades of relentlessly visceral experimentation, in the winter of 1985, just one year before his death, Hijikata articulated the agrarian roots of his ankoku butoh – the dance of utter darkness – in a memorable talk titled ‘Kaze Daruma’ (Wind Daruma). He conjured disturbing memories of seeing three-year-old children tied to posts and left alone in their farmhouses – ‘their bodies were not their own. . . . What I learned from those toddlers has greatly influenced my body’ – and of babies placed in izume, baskets woven of rice straw and designed to keep the rice warm while their parents laboured in the paddies all day, ‘at a labour that is beyond overwork. They labour bent over and that’s why they can’t look back.’
The children, tied down and unable to move ‘bawled endlessly’; ‘in the damp open sky a gluttonous wind swallows the children’s screams.’ Unable to make themselves heard, they learn how to swallow their own tears – ‘they are plucking the darkness and eating it.’ At dusk, the children are removed from their baskets. Because their legs are numb from having been folded up all day, they can’t stand up nor stretch them. It’s from this wet darkness that is eaten, Hijikata reminds us, and from these vulnerable bent bodies that find no strength to stand upright, that butoh originates.
At our friends’ paddy field, the south-easterly wind has given way to a soft breeze and to a lighter mood among the amateur transplanters, as the day’s task is completed in the late afternoon. It’s as if the declining fortunes of rice farming have been reversed through sheer effort and community feeling. The two young children are lifted from the mud and their legs gently scrubbed by the mothers. A couple of crabs are placed inside two small plastic cages on top of a layer of mud and then put away on the pickup bed of a kei truck, together with the children.
As I drive uphill towards the far end of the village where I live, this temporary sense of order dissolves. Here, the landscape is reverting to its ancient Jomon shape: rice fields left idle for decades to become irreversibly porous; unkempt private forests no longer serving their windbreak purpose, so that the gales blow unimpeded throughout the year, inviting surrender to the inevitable encounter.
In this primal landscape, I’m slowly learning to give a moving, earthbound shape to such encounters. I’ve found it in another forgotten layer of the dance of utter darkness: butoh-fu is the name Hijikata gave to the intensely kinaesthetic poetic word-images he collected to guide and inspire dance movement. The images range from prehistoric cave paintings to 20th-century street graffiti, painting, sculpture, architecture, natural science and literature, assembled as analogue collages in scrapbooks that Hijikata annotated by hand with poetic lines and phrases. Butoh-fu are notations, not meant to be simply mimed or mirrored but left to the dancers to recreate their own movement climates in response to the moods and conditions of their own places.
I leave these notations as an invitation to future practices that may honour the ever-shifting land, the weather – and their joint histories:
Smoke moves up from your feet, flowing upward like incense.
You wave your arms in boneless slow motion; your hands are water, your fingers soft feathers.
Your skull is a field of long grasses swaying in the wind.
Your trunk is a bamboo stalk, bending yet not breaking, rooted yet pliable.
There is a cloud of rain moving above you. You move away from the cloud, get down on your knees, down into the mud.
You move with the wind, south-east to north-west, but it’s your eyes, not your feet, that do the walking.
You walk towards the eye of the storm, piercing time, slashing and being slashed by the wind – provoking the landscape, kamaitachi.
IMAGE: Blown Away by Rainey Strauss Acrylic on Yupo paper
My practice responds to the unfolding absences of the climate crisis. As part of the ‘Old Growth Project’ series, this painting explores the redwoods filtered through the lens of 3D scans captured while hiking in Northern California. The final composition expresses distortion and fragmentation, mirroring the human disconnect from the more-than-human world while still remaining vibrant and beautiful. The image reads monumental at a distance and mycelial up close.
I am interested in how we perceive and build relationships with specific places. My work simultaneously expresses the aliveness of the world while navigating collapse and destruction. My hope is that this project invites inquiry; what stories does the land tell, how do we grow reciprocity, and how might we live on a changing planet?
Rainey Strauss’ art practice turns away from human exceptionalism to co-create with the more-than-human world. She is interested in questions related to entanglement, non-human subjecthood, attention as care, and shifting the trajectory of the climate crisis. She lives on the land of the Coast Miwok in present-day Marin County in Northern California.