Body as Bones in a Leather Bag of Water: Exploring Noguchi Taiso

Mari Osanai (unknown photographer)

Mari Osanai (unknown photographer)

There are countless techniques to control the body, to master the body, to shape it to our will in order to find health.  This post is about a type of exercise and opening to a way of being which looks at the body in a different way.  It emphasizes letting go of control, effortlessness, feeling our own body weight, and efficiency of use.  Rather than fixed choreography or a certain form to follow, it emphasizes unique movement to help let go of unnecessary tension.  It is called Noguchi Taiso.

In my own life and process, I desperately needed to discover something beyond and prior to technique. Something not based on talent or genius.  Something like a bottom line practice.  Turning away from skill or control, I sought something innate and ever present.  Going to this very basic state of being, I found that my way of being began to naturally align with greater principles, a more profound truth.  In this way, using the body as a laboratory, I believe that universal truths can be discovered and integrated into our lives.

I am also so interested in people and practices that challenge and disrupt what is generally accepted as truth. So, I enjoy learning about people thinking radically about health, movement, and spirituality.  One such person I have been looking at for a few years is Michizo Noguchi, who created Noguchi Taiso.

Anyone who knows me really well, which is about five people, knows I am a closet butoh dancer.  I have no interest in performing or even any kind of choreography, but deeply admire butoh’s tearing down of established norms of movement and beauty, and discovering movement and dance anew.

Butoh is a uniquely intelligent form of movement, in that it challenges presumed rights and wrongs about movement and the body. Noguchi Taiso is a popular practice among butoh practitioners, and so I stumbled upon it a few years ago, and immediately found something speaking a language I understood.  So, who was Michizo Noguchi?

“Michizo Noguchi (1914-1998) used to be a high school teacher, teaching gymnastics before the second World War. He was desperate in the ashes of defeat, devastated by the aftermath of the war, and nearly committed suicide… But, something happened to him. He discovered the fact that he had his own body with its own weight, a tangible reality, and he was somehow alive. He started exploring thoroughly his tangible body and how to move it, and created a new approach to the body called Noguchi taiso by discarding the idea of anatomical skeletal body. Noguchi taiso, meaning Noguchi’s way of gymnastics or his physical exercises, became gradually known to people through his teaching at polytechnics and others in Tokyo. Especially young actors and dancers got interested in his ideas about the body and his unique physical exercises. In 1970s-1980s, young butoh dancers and students happened to learn Noguchi taiso and started using it for their butoh training. Sankaijuku, lead by Ushio Amagatsu, was one of them. Noguchi later worked for Tokyo Art University as a professor, and his approach became well known among drama directors and other related people who were keen about how to move or use the body effectively.” (1)  Itto Morita

So, Noguchi-san, with his experience in physical education, and his devastation after world war two, needed to find something tangible through which to measure his experience of life.  Although everything around him was literally destroyed, he discovered his physical body still in gravity.  He felt his body weight.  Stripping all ideas he’d learned about anatomy, he created a new approach to the body based on the felt sense of the body itself in direct experience as the source and medium for exploration, as well as the natural world around him.  Instead of looking outside of himself for answers, he inquired within his own tangible experience.

Watching nature, he saw spirals and profound efficiency.  The body is mostly water.  Therefore it should move like water.  Subject to and harmonious with gravity, fluid, relaxed: “the human body is a kind of a water bag in which bones, muscles and viscera are floating”. (1) According to Noguchi Taiso, the use of force or the arbitrary building of muscles in the body is a waste.  Letting go of control, diving into our experience, so that being as natural and relaxed as possible is the technique.  Anything created on top of that natural way of being is an abstraction.

“If you move your body in the most efficient way, half of the all muscles of the body should be relaxed all the time”.  (1)

Noguchi Taiso emphasizes looking to nature directly, rather than through ideas, to learn and open up the body.  So natural, effort-free movement is encouraged, working with gravity and not against it.   Deeply investigating this, the ground can act as a wall to push off of, to sink into, to root the body, something solid to use as a compass and a sounding board for all movement.  So the body is working with existing forces rather than trying to overcome them.

Movement begins in the ground, and the arm is moved by that motion coming from the ground.  This notion of sinking is of course found in many types of martial arts, such as taiji, qi gong, etc.  Also, in exploring how gravity works through the body, one can begin to let go of “compensatory dynamics”(2) in the body, which have developed over time in the body in response to trauma, self esteem, modeling the movement of parents, etc.

Similarly for Ida P. Rolf, whose pioneering work is known as Strucutral Integration, gravity is the real therapist.   “This is the gospel of Rolfing: When the body gets working appropriately, the force of gravity can flow through. Then, spontaneously, the body heals itself.” (3)

Going further, in noguchi taiso, continually studying the felt sense of the body, the kinesthetic sense and how it moves, is a way to study our own process, and also embrace nature itself.  Noguchi-san wonderfully followed this idea of embracing nature to a kind of logical extreme.

The materials that constitute our body are undoubtedly of this Earth and have participated in and experienced the creation process of the Earth. Therefore our body, living here and now, includes the entirety of history of the Earth. What is called “live”, “body” and “mind” is precisely a phase of change and flow of the Earth. There is no absolute standard for all things. Every standard comes into being within ourselves, freshly here and now, each time, relatively through relationships. Becoming aware of these relationships allows you to truly become one with original nature itself and you develop a clearer understanding of how your mind/body operates and a greater appreciation of the involvement of your thought process in all your physical acts.Michizo Noguchi (2)

So, through the body, one can continually become one with our original nature, and embody our involvement in all of reality.

Noguchi-san went on to say that the human body is synonymous with nature and god.  So letting go of control and looking to our bodies for guidance is the same as asking god for guidance.

Noguchi and Hijikata Tatsumi (the founder of butoh) were interested in how language originally came into being. They studied ancient Chinese ideograms and found them undeniably similar to body movements.  Both Hijikata and Noguchi were interested in movement which was pre-verbal body language (4) Neither were interested in just this idea of a “superior brain”  but “thoughts by the flesh”.  Movements in the body emerge and are reacted to instead of thought out, as part of the unseen forces in butoh.

The kanji (Chinese character) that is used in the title of his book, Asking Your Body (2002), represents Noguchi’s essential idea of the human body. The Japanese word for “asking” is “kiku,” but the written letter he applies for this verb is very old, which originally coming from the ancient Chinese inscriptions on animal bones, and is rarely used in modern Japan. According to the note Noguchi gives in choosing this specific ideogram in his title, it originally signifies the action of asking the god, using the sacred treasures and ritual utensils. As for Noguchi, the human body is synonymous with the “nature” and the “god.” He claims that his method is about the conscious self asking his/her body=the nature= the god. Asking your body is asking your god what is best for you. You would receive an answer from your god about the best movement that would be effective and helpful for you. The word “body” could be replaced by “mind” and they are interchangeable (Noguchi 2002, p.7), advocates Noguchi. He emphasizes the harmony of body and mind, and warns the danger of putting strong will, conscious effort and forceful tension in training your muscles. He argues it is the act “against the philosophy of nature” and to “ignore the god of nature,” which is sure to be harmful for human beings who are the part of nature. Body is the great heritage from your ancestors and body is a special work of the god’s creation, in which the god concretely represents miracles of natural order (Noguchi 2002, p. 83).  To believe in the messages your body conveys to you and to find the words that would apply to those messages is Noguchi’s method of gymnastics, which was innovative in the world of the gymnastics back in the 1970s.(5)

Going further into this idea that our bodies are part of this ancient heritage of the earth, a contemporary of Noguchi and Hijikata, Shigeo Miki,  an anatomist greatly influenced by the morphology of Goethe, traced the evolutionary process of humans to plants in a type of “Life memory”. (6) He explains that some of the internal systems of the body behave in a similar way to plants, such as the circulatory, respiratory, or reproductive systems.  Mikami Kayo, a butoh dancer and scholar, explains how Noguchi and Miki’s ideas influenced butoh:

“Miki sees the vestige of an ancient fish on the faces of 36 week-old fetuses and seeks the ‘metamorphosis’ of a ‘life memory’ of 3.8 billion years in this “primordial figure”. This idea becomes grounds for the metamorphosis of 21st century Butoh, through the “release work” of Noguchi Taiso. This work can, by relaxing the boundaries of our physical being, allow us to listen to our visceral internal voice because we have experienced the passing of time known to rocks and plants. It can enable us to become our original fundamental selves through directly reconnecting with the power of the universal rhythms of the meditative womb state”. (4) MIKAMI Kayo

Mikami Kayo

Mikami Kayo

This idea of asking and communicating with God also reflects my experience of being a Zen monk doing zazen meditation and internal energy work.  One gradually develops a wholesale relationship with guidance from the universe or God or nature, rather than needing a system or philosophy or even eventually a teacher.  This experience develops uniquely creative people. One feels continually led by the universe, our very own bodies, in our every day lives.

A quote by founder Michizo Noguchi:

“I define Noguchi Taiso as a creation of one’s new self as nature within us. Noguchi Taiso draws from a natural force that exists in our body and that is expressed through and with the natural materials that our bodies are made of. Taiso = Gymnastics is a way of exploring HUMANITY. My whole being is laboratory (atelier), research material (canvas) and scholar (artist).” (7)

Thank you so much for reading.  I hope you enjoyed this topic as much as my wife and I did.  Please share this if you like.

1: Itto Morita http://www.ne.jp/asahi/butoh/itto/butoh-memorandums.htm

2: https://noduslabs.com/courses/8os-bodymind-operating-system-learning-to-modulate-conflict-dynamics/units/session-2-conflict-modulation-techniques/page/3/?try

3: https://rolfresearchfoundation.org/about/ida-p-rolf-quotations

4: http://www.kyoto-seika.ac.jp/researchlab/wp/wp-content/uploads/kiyo/pdf-data/sa31/mikami.pdf

(5) Noguchi,M (1979). Noguchi Taiso, Omosa ni Kiku. Noguchi physical exercise, ask the gravity.
Hakujusha

(6) http://www.natureinterface.com/e/ni04/P030-033/

(7) https://www.ashevillebutoh.com/2018/02/07/noguchi-taiso-water-body-movement-with-mari-osanai/