Yumi Umiumare


Yumi Umiumare as ‘cross-cultural’ rebel in ‘DasSHOKU Hora!!’

Japanese-born performer Yumi Umiumare’s playful investigations of cross-cultural femininity strategically utilise in-between subjectivities to fracture cultured and gendered truths. In 1995 Umiumare devised a performance in Melbourne named Tokyo DasShoku girl.

DasShoku is taken from the Japanese term DasShoku suru, meaning to bleach, to strip off colour. The show was the beginning of a unique performance project: to explore the notion of bleaching cultural identity, which Umiumare explains as stripping away clichéd Western perceptions of Japanese culture, in particular those Umiumare herself had become aware of in dominant Australian ideology since her arrival here in 1991. This paper will examine the third play in the DasShoku series, DasSHOKU Hora!!, seen at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, 2005. The addition of Hora, the Japanese term for ‘Look out!’, and its connections to the Western term and genre of Horror, indicate Umiumare’s elevated use of shock as strategy to shake the cultural assumptions of her audiences. Renown for her highly disciplined background in the form of Butoh, recent performances by Umiumare hybridise the ‘dance of darkness’ with that of black humour in the form of cabaret. Umiumare employs in-between art forms to comment on her own experience as an interstitial subject of nationalities in an Australian context. The hybrid, monstrous identities of these performances mobilise a searing cultural commentary on Japanese constructions of the feminine, and Australian fetishisations of the exotic Japanese female.Image

Umiumare’s unique blending of Butoh and cabaret began with Tokyo DasSHOKU girl, in which she opened up dance, theatre and music to such popular and disparate forms as karaoke, cabaret, Butoh and Ricky Martin’s Livin’ La Vida Loca. DasSHOKU Hora!! constitutes contemporary cabaret performance by simulating the spatial arrangement of intimacy and the raised stage, playing on the differentiation between performer and role, producing gaudy entertainment style theatre, and using satire and shock to mock existing values in their audience. While some critics have described the hybrid form of Butoh Cabaret as “a fierce clash of styles” (Lambert, 2005:23), others praise the way in which Butoh brings out “the darker side of cabaret” (Roberts, 2005:15). Bailey suggests that what is powerful about this combination is the way upon first glance the forms of Butoh and cabaret appear to be polarized; “the former a mode of ritual and refusal, the latter of audience engagement and excess” (Bailey, 2006:7). However as Bailey puts it, their fusion “draws its power from the dissonance of our expectations” (2006:7). To extend on these insightful observations, is to recognize the way the very strength of Butoh Cabaret is the way in which it mobilizes a type of productive confusion for its spectators, while simultaneously modifying either form through their hybridization. The dark extremes of Butoh inject (or bring to the surface an already existing) sense of unease in Cabaret, and the playfulness of Cabaret breaks down the impenetrable intensity of Butoh.

Umiumare’s reasons for melding the forms are complex and stem from the meaning of cultural confusion to her as an artist and a Japanese woman living in the West. She comments that while the agonized beauty of the dance of darkness was what attracted her to Butoh, as a performer she desires lightness, and one of the most significant lessons she has learnt upon moving to Melbourne is how to relate to her audience through comedy. While Butoh appeals to her for its ephemeral, transformable nature, Cabaret’s clear politics allow for the strategy of parody and an accessible meaning to be communicated through her work (Interview, 2006:4). While elements of shock and comedy may connote light-hearted entertainment, they are set askew through the presence of raw Butoh physicality and emotion in the DasSHOKU series. Umiumare refers to ‘cross-culturalism’ as non-hierarchical cultural exchange but also as the intention ‘to cross’: to upset or wrong culture (Interview, 2006:9). The way Umiumare crosses culture challenges the ‘smooth and seamless’ relationship between cultures as signified by the term interculturalism, allowing for an investigation of negotiation and the power relations imbedded in that process (Fensham, 1999:8).

The confounding of our expectations regarding the styles in which she works parallels another level of confusion for Umiumare’s audience, that of cultural assumption. While melding of Butoh and Cabaret indicates a collapsing of the polarisation between Eastern physical performance form and European political concert, the collapsing of polarized identity types forms the content of Umiumare’s DasSHOKU series. Umiumare comments,

{quotes}“I was quite confused about my own identity when I migrated to Australia in 1991. I didn’t feel like I belonged in Japan or Australia. I really wanted to make something about my experience and tell people about my cultural confusion through dance” (in French, 2005:26).{/quotes}

On DasSHOKU Hora!! she suggests, “It’s a sad story, and confusing, but culture is confusing” (in Roberts, 2005:15), referring to the perplexing experience of feeling Westernised by living in Australia and thus not Japanese in either Australia or Japan, complicated further by the converse feelings of being ostracized and the victim of marginalisation as Japanese in Australia and as Australian in Japan (Interview, 2006:in Archdall, 2001:7). Umiumare comments that this dual existence means she is always in a state of the in-between, but her perseverance as an artist in Australian culture has meant the sense of her identity in crisis has shifted significantly. Following the creation of Tokyo DasSHOKU Girl in 1999, she formed the opinion that “This is my state, this confused state is mine and that’s quite powerful” (Interview, 2006:6). This empowered sense of confused cultural identity as positive has translated into Umiumare’s dramaturgy.

DasSHOKU Hora!! follows the metamorphosis of Umiumare as central figure through, as John Bailey puts it, “a garish array of forms”, each drawing from a stock of Japanese stereotypes from both mythology and reality (2006:7). The core theme of DasSHOKU Hora!! was the transmutation of the female’s face, whereby the personae of a Yamamba, Ganguro gal, Muijina, Hello Kitty and Schoolgirl morphed from one to the next. This focus on a face becoming- Other heightens the way in which the performance interrogates identity, by physically mutating that which remains a constant marker of the true or authentic self; the face. Meanwhile, Ben Rogan and Matt Crosby fluctuate as personae, including corporate moguls, mad scientists, Australian blokes and Japanese salary men who interact and eroticise these female characters.

Umiumare’s aim to productively confuse her audience’s preconceptions requires that the predominantly ‘Australian’ nature of these preconceptions be taken into account. The two male off-siders in DasSHOKU Hora!! enact a performative critique of Western, Australian exoticisations of the ‘Eastern’ female. In the opening scene of DasSHOKU Hora!!, the scientist and the businessman are born from Umiumare as Yamamba, a mythological Japanese ancient mountain hag. They first appear as twin Neanderthals in long wigs and furry white nappies, and gradually dress in white lab coat and business suit thrown to them by their cackling mother. Their trajectory throughout the performance can be conceptualised according to Freudian theory as a continual search for a mother-identity to fill the void upon seperation from the monstrous mother. As the two newly evolved Neanderthals tell the tale of Yamamba’s journey down into the Tokyo metropolis to find her prey, they appear excited and in awe of the female they describe, their eyes wide and drool wetting their chins. They smile with pleasure at description of Umiumare’s Ganguro, a contemporary subcultural female identity in Japan, as “shiny, tanned, brown and long”, and speak the words of the Yamamba enticing the Ganguro, “come, little girl” with erotic meaning. When the Yamamba transforms into the Ganguro she has consumed, the scientist asks, “Where’s mummy?” and cries out like a baby, interchanging sexuality with maternity that implies deliberately Oedipal connotations. In this sense, Rogan and Crosby represent a colonialist, patriarchal desire to ‘know’ the ethnic, female personae throughout the performance, whose status as inscrutable ‘Other’ to them invites eroticisation, fetishisation and fascination. The decision to cast them as a scientist and a businessman plays on notions of a masculinist science of femininity such as that of psychoanalysis, and a globalised marketing of femininity such as that of Sanrio’s kawaii empire (Belson & Bremner, 2004; Kinsella, 1995).

In his analysis of popular cultural exchange between Japan and the West, Tony Mitchell suggests an imaginary two-way mirror exists in which the two reflect each other in constructions of mutual fascination and fanaticism (2000:187). The inclusion of Australian bodies in DasSHOKU Hora!! deliberately jars this Orientalist gaze by inviting the Australian audience to also view ‘itself’ in relation to naturalised cultural binaries of Self and Other. Enabled by the in-between form of Butoh-cabaret, DasSHOKU Hora!!’s radically playful approach to performance encourages a specifically Australian audience to question its stereotypical assumptions regarding the ‘Othering’ of Japanese identity. This constitutes a strongly effective mode of revealing the enculturation of bodies into oppressive categories of difference, a revelation that continues to require immediate attention in an Australian political context.



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Newspaper articles

Bailey, J (2006) The monstrous feminine, Japanese style in RealTime, February – March, no 71

French, A (2005) Parting the see of Japan in MX, 3 November

Glickman, S (2005) DasSHOKU HORA!! in the Herald-Sun, 8 November

Lambert, C (2005) Hello Kitty with Claws in the Sunday Herald-Sun, 30 October

Nunn, L (2004) Razor sharp and on the edge in The Advertiser, 15 November

Roberts, J (2005) Which way reality from here? In The Age, 1 November

Umiumare, Y (2001) in Archdall, S (2001) Cultural cringe as Yumi aims to shock in the Adelaide Advertiser, 5 May

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