Updated: Jun 14, 2021
Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII, Hakuen, is an actor and heir to perhaps the most illustrious family name in Kabuki. Born on 6th December 1977, he began rigorous “ballet and opera” style training with his late father, the revered Ichikawa Danjūrō XII, and made his stage debut alongside him in Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) aged five. My first live Kabuki experience was in July 2018 when I saw Genji Monogatari at the Kabuki-za theatre, which starred Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII (then Ichikawa Ebizō XI) and his son, Kangen Horikoshi, who also made his debut aged five. When Danjūrō-san first stepped on stage I immediately felt the presence of a man who had absolute confidence in his every movement. His gestures, manner and gaze contained the nonchalant air of someone that has worked with all their energy, incessantly and seriously, in order to make the most demanding of physical feats seem effortless. The grace and regal sensibility of Genji’s character seemed to flow through him so naturally that I could easily see why he is known as ‘The Prince of Kabuki’. Off the stage Danjūrō-san has endured some devastating personal events in recent years. The sudden death of his father in 2013 from pneumonia at the age of 66 was a shock to the Kabuki world, and then in 2017 his wife, Mao Kobayashi, a popular television presenter and actress, died after a three-year battle with breast cancer. In November that year the BBC listed Kobayashi as one of the 100 most influential and inspirational women in the world for her blog, Kokoro, meaning ‘Heart’, (a link to her blog is attached at the end of the article) ‘which openly discussed her experience with breast cancer treatments and her daily life with her family.’ (Mizuho Aoki, Ebizō starts English version of late wife Kobayashi’s popular blog, The Japan Times, 1st July 2017).
In May this year Danjūrō-san officially took on the name of his late father during a shūmei (name change ceremony) at the Kabuki-za. To celebrate his final performance as ‘Ebizō’ he played thirteen different roles in an adaptation of Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees), one of the three great masterpieces in the Kabuki repertoire, which involves several complete costume changes – each costume weighing up to ten stone - in less than five seconds. Speaking to The Japan Times prior to the performance Danjūrō-san said, “I don’t think of this as a culmination of my career as Ebizō, [but rather] an indication of what is to come as Danjūrō. In the end, I’m still the same person. It’s only the name that is changing. But I am passionate about putting on a performance that fulfils the same height of expectations you would have for a culminating performance as Ebizō.” (Alyssa I. Smith, What’s in a name? Ask Ichikawa Ebizō, a kabuki scion, The Japan Times, July 11th, 2019). Despite the weighty expectations bestowed on Danjūrō-san as one of Japan’s most famous men, he maintains an elegant, poised, professional demeanour both on and off-stage and seems to relish the intensity of being a superstar actor, director, producer, businessman, and global ambassador for Kabuki, while raising his two children, Kangen, aged 7, and Reika, aged 8, as a single father.
Now aged 42, Danjurō-san is entering the prime of his career as a Kabuki actor and is spearheading a movement to stage the 400-year old artform at the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics next summer. He sees the build-up to the Olympics, a time when the global spotlight will be on Japan’s art and culture, as a golden opportunity to introduce new audiences to the exquisite and venerable beauty of Kabuki but is acutely aware of the complexities of this challenge. ‘“Just because something is part of a nation’s generational cultural heritage”, he says, “doesn’t mean the audience will just watch it, or stay awake during the performance if they go.” The comment has no edge of humour’. (Leo Lewis, Kabuki star Ebizō Ichikawa takes a firm line on tradition, Financial Times, 5th February 2016). Kabuki is long. Historically, performances were whole-day events which began at eleven o’clock in the morning and ran well into the evening. And on my first trip to the Kabuki-za I quickly realised that preparing a Bento box for the intervals is essential for restoring one's depleted energy. During performances ‘the stage line sags at intervals so that its intensity can rise higher and more strikingly’ (Theatre in the East, Faubion Bowers, 1963) and when watching Kabuki live, I have often experienced myself shuttling between the poles of feeling unbearably tired and ecstatically awake. However, this I think adds to its charm. Unlike theatre in the West, Kabuki does not require your attentive concentration. ‘The secret of watching Kabuki is relaxation. The theatre will affect you whether you want it to or not, but your cooperation or anticipation is not necessary to this experience.’ (Theatre in the East, Faubion Bowers, 1963).
In our modern age with its advanced technology and frenetic speed, the experience of watching a highly codified artform that preserves ancient life so thoroughly can also feel disconcerting for the uninitiated spectator. Evolving an artform, especially a traditional artform, is an intricate balancing act and so Danjurō-san has been experimenting with ways of innovating Kabuki in order to broaden its appeal without compromising its unique brilliance and spirit. The production of Genji Monogatari which I saw in 2018 marked the 130th year since the opening of the Kabuki-za theatre and featured operatic counter-tenor singing by Anthony Roth Costanzo in the first act, as well as a Kabuki/Noh theatre collaboration in the second. It also involved a state-of-the-art technological innovation called ‘Immersive Projection’ where sensors were attached to Danjurō-san’s body so that 3D data of his movements could be captured in real time, making it possible to match his body movements with projected images. This effect was enthralling and there was a particularly powerful scene in the final act where Genji walked through an opulent rain-soaked palace garden (from the height of the Heian era) which seemed to envelop the entire auditorium. Arguably, Danjurō-san’s eagerness to modernise and adapt Kabuki has also led to the curation of projects which lack the depth and beauty of its classical counterpart. Last year he starred in a one-night-only ‘Star Wars Kabuki Play’ at the Minami-za in Kyoto which saw samurai swords replaced by lightsabres. This sparked a series of blockbuster anime-style productions including a run of ‘Naruto Kabuki’ starring Nakamura Shido II earlier this year. Although I cannot comment on the success of these productions as I was not there to see them, I do wonder if the sudden rush to reinvent Kabuki for new and foreign audiences will lead to its essence getting lost. On the other hand, Kabuki from its beginning has been accumulative. It emerged as a ‘popular’ form of theatre in the early 17th century and is itself a product of radical reinvention. It synthesised the popular culture of its time and so perhaps Kabuki now is merely reconnecting with its ‘popular’ roots.
Due to their exact preservation of details of the old lifestyle, Kabuki plays may be seen as a ‘living museum’. How to light an andon (paper floor lantern), open a fubako (lacquered letter case), arrange hair with kanzashi (hairpins), handle a scroll – these and countless other techniques live on in Kabuki’s use of stage properties. Kimono fashions, shops and houses, prescribed movements of hands and feet, the ways to bow, the ways to laugh, samurai etiquette, and many other aspects of Japan that existed prior to the arrival of Western culture are all reflected in Kabuki’s mirror.
- Lost Japan, Alex Kerr, 1983
Ippei Noma, the Executive Officer of Japan’s powerhouse Kabuki production company, Shochiku, believes that preservation and innovation in Kabuki should coexist, “I don’t know if you can say Kabuki is stuck in a rut. It’s classical. It’s the same with Beethoven or Bach’s music. You can say it is stuck in a rut, or you can look at it a different way and say it’s important to do classical pieces in a classical way. We felt there was a necessity to create something new while still paying respect to the classics. The classical and the new should always move forward together.” (Andrew Mckirdy, Virtual idols, anime and rock ‘n’ roll spirit: Nakamura Shido II leads Kabuki’s revolution, The Japan Times, February 15th, 2020). All of the ingredients for a golden age in Kabuki are there. In Danjūrō Ichikawa III and the generation of younger stars who grew up alongside him, there is a rich mix of talent - but in its process of distillation will the small flourishing details get swept aside? In such a ritualised art as Kabuki I firmly believe that the nuances and subtleties of the craft greatly add to the pleasure of watching a live performance. There are a myriad of symbols, keren (stage tricks), traditions and details, that I look forward to researching and writing about in my upcoming articles, but for now I would like to focus on one specific part of the body - the eyes.
In the recent CBS documentary, Inside the Japanese Artform of Kabuki, starring Danjūrō-san, his long-time friend and lead musician in Kabuki, Danjūrō Tankeka, says that what distinguishes Danjūrō-san is his aura. “It is something very unique, which you can sense almost coming out of him. It is the power of his eyes and of his gaze.” This intense gaze is known in Kabuki as a ‘mie’ (pronounced mee-eh) and is one of the artform's most fêted conventions. It is a type of kata which are stylised poses or gestures that actors use ‘to capture and accentuate the emotion of a fleeting moment.’ (Alex Kerr, Lost Japan, 1983). The mie is often performed during a climactic scene of a play and it involves an actor dramatically rolling or crossing his eyes and twisting his face in a fierce grimace, often with his arms flung out, whilst suspended in a momentary freeze. This movement pattern is a signature trademark of the Danjūrō ie no gei, or ‘family art’ and is a skill that Danjūrō-san has become especially adept at executing. ‘While most forms of theatre try to preserve a narrative continuity, Kabuki focuses around such crucial instants of stop and start, start and stop.’ (Lost Japan, Alex Kerr, 1983). When I saw Danjūrō-san perform a mie-pose in Genji Monogatari I was in awe. He seemed to ‘demonstrate in a single gesture a whole vocabulary of stage terms – ease, conviction, mastery, focus and meaning in movement.’ (Theatre In The East, Faubion Bowers, 1963). His timing was impeccable and the bold lines of red, black and white paint across his faces compounded the heroic, warrior-like intensity of his character.
“Speaking of kata always reminds me of a famous story in history. There was a Chrysanthemum grower who was famous for the beauty of his garden, and the Emperor hearing of this sent a message that on such and such a day he would go and view the garden of Chrysanthemums. But when he arrived the entire garden had been cut down except for one perfect bloom. That is what kata is. It is the perfect expression of the meaning or the mood of the moment.”
- From the documentary film, Kabuki Techniques, directed by Merrill Brockway and presented by Faubion Bowers in 1969.
The next twelve months will be poignant for Japan as it prepares once again for the Olympic Games. The Prince of Kabuki faces perhaps his most challenging role yet - the role of deciding which elements of Kabuki to weave together and which to strip away. He must carefully tread the tightrope of an art form that extends back to the year 1603, the same year that Shakespeare’s As You Like it was first performed. But not too carefully… For ‘the idea of protecting tradition, he says, is the intellectual equivalent of what he calls 'sloppy accounting.’ (Leo Lewis, Kabuki star Ebizō Ichikawa takes a firm line on tradition, Financial Times, 5th February 2016). Sowing the seeds of preservation and innovation is and will always be a delicate balance act. It is fortunate then that Danjurō-san is exceptionably nimble and quick of foot.