After several days of severe hair fall out during the end of my first chemotherapy cycle, accompanied by my two very close friends, dancer Tess de Quincey and photographer Michele Mossop, I underwent a danpatsu-shiki. Tess ceremonially cut and shaved my hair. Michele documented the process. We ate together afterwards.
Upon retirement of sumo wrestlers, samurai becoming a ronin, commencing Buddhist priesthood, entering middle school, becoming a member of a sporting team, military service and much more, danpatsu-shiki, or the hair cutting ceremony, carries a special significance in Japan as a rite of passage. In the present day, YouTube is full of videos of pimply teenagers shaving each other’s hair before joining a club, drunk salary men shaving their boss’s hair for his retirement, and teenage idol holding a danpatsu-shiki with a trendy hair dresser to declare to their fans they are now to become an adult artist.
Here in Australia, there had been couple of danpatsu-shikis I have personally attended. During the farewell party for Japan Foundation, Sydney’s then director Koji Okamoto, his deputy Masaki Baba invited his boss’s 70 or so surprised party guests at their former gallery in North Sydney to take turns ceremonially cutting and shaving his hair inch by inch. When Japanese butoh group Byakko-Sha performed at Melbourne’s Spoleto Festival in the late 80’s, they began their show every evening at the Playhouse in Melbourne Arts Centre with a haircutting ceremony of an Australian volunteer on stage.
Despite having shaved my head for looks, fashion and attitude in my mid 30’s, this time I didn’t want to lose my hair. It annoyed me every time someone said I could try shaving my hair instead of losing it. If you think a shaved head is going to look cool, why don’t you try? I’ve been there, done that, and I remembered the extreme reactions it produced. I didn’t like it.
Loved by heterosexual women who on some level saw it as liberation from the heterosexual male ideal of woman with long hair; hated by people who avoided eye contact because they thought I was a skin head or Neo Nazi; and marginalised by people who averted their eyes because they thought I had cancer and they either felt sorry for me or were confronted by the potential of a life threatening illness.
Until I was in the position myself, I didn’t know, and I would have probably said similar things to anyone else facing losing hair with chemotherapy. But I now know that it angered me every time someone said to me that my hair would grow back. I knew it was said in a supportive spirit, but it didn’t acknowledge the fact that I was grieving. Instead, it belittled my grief, and suggested I was fussing over nothing.
… and if you are one of the many other close friends, who told me my shaven head I looked wise, peaceful and serene like that of a Buddhist nun, I thank you for the compliment, but I must say… I don’t want to become a nun. I want to be hot red blooded and with passionate uncontrollable indecent desires!
As it is, it took me nearly 5 weeks to make this post, because it troubled me to look at Michele’s photographs and video rushes. My apologies to Michele – her images are beautiful; and my apologies to Tess – her artistic direction and treatment of my hair was exquisite and gentle; yet I couldn’t bear seeing myself going through this ceremony. To me seeing the images felt brutal and harsh. So I asked my collaborator for this project I Just Can’t Say That Word, Vic McEwan if he would like to do something with the video footage, but he said he found it too confronting to make something out of it without us both spending substantial time together.
Do you remember when you were in Canberra in February, when we discussed the process of metamorphosis on our verandah whilst the three of us had dinner? Could you not think of your current state as a metamorphosis? It maybe at a time similar to when the butterfly is born out of a chrysalis or a snake repeatedly shedding its skin to grow; it must be worrisome to see your body undergoing change, but there is another stage to come. You will be able to withstand these difficulties and grow even further. – Keiko
I still dislike the way I look. I wear various wigs (courtesy of De Quincey Co, Liz Stokes and Ken Cleveland) in public instead of showing off my brave new shaven head. I am still coming to terms with the meaning of the rite of shaving of my hair and the passage of this stage in my life. I also know that a rite of passage in some cultures can be scary, even violent.
All I can say for now is that something has definitely changed since the danpatsu-shiki. For a start, I’m not afraid of writing the truth… even if it isn’t all positive and upbeat… which means I am stronger.
Watch this space.