The Kabukiza in Ginza has been drawing crowds of Kabuki lovers to its special performances in May and June to celebrate the birth of Ichikawa Ebizo XI. The “newborn” is, in fact, 26 years old — the tall, handsome tachiyaku (male lead) Ichikawa Shinnosuke, son of Ichikawa Danjuro XII (who last year starred in NHK’s popular historical drama “Musashi”).
The special programs mark Shinnosuke’s shumei (succession) to the stage name of Ebizo, an auspicious name because ebi (lobster) turns bright red when boiled and this was believed by the samurai classes to be a portent of good luck.
The name is that given to the first Ichikawa Danjuro at birth. It was then used by his successors either before or after assuming the stage name of Ichikawa Danjuro. Shinnosuke’s grandfather, Ichikawa Danjuro XI, was the most famous of all the Ebizos, from 1940 to 1962; his father used the name from 1969 until 1985, when he succeeded to the stage name of Ichikawa Danjuro XII.
Now, the new Ebizo is likewise expected to excel in performing the kabuki numbers held important by the Ichikawa line. This heritage comprises a core repertoire of 18 plays, established by Ichikawa Danjuro VII in 1840 and characterized by the bombastic aragoto acting style originated by the first Ichikawa Danjuro in 1673 when he made his debut in Edo, at age 14.
The aragoto acting tradition, evocative of the thrilling behavior of fierce young warriors, has been handed down the generations, and each Danjuro sought to refine the techniques and maintain the “art of the family.”
The new Ebizo began his shumei performance in May with the one-hour play “Shibaraku,” part of the family repertoire and widely regarded as having been perfected by Danjuro IX in 1895. Ebizo took the role of Kamakura Gongoro, a dashing and defiant protagonist endowed with superhuman powers. Gongoro makes his grand entry over the hanamichi passageway, calling out “shibaraku! (wait a moment!)” as two innocent youngsters are about to be beheaded at the order of a wicked nobleman (who wears the villain’s distinctive white makeup with blue kumadori lines).
Gongoro’s appearance is spectacular. His face is marked with red kumadori lines, expressing wrath, he wears a magnificent headdress and a fantastically exaggerated costume in brown, the color of the Ichikawa family. Wielding a huge sword, the actor storms around the stage, and at the climax he strikes a splendid mie pose with his eyes crossed.
The two-hour-long “Sukeroku,” the last number in the June program, also belongs to the Ichikawa repertoire. Created by Ichikawa Danjuro II in 1713 and combining the Edo aragoto style with some elements of the gentle wagoto acting style of the Kyoto-Osaka region, “Sukeroku” has historically been one of kabuki’s most popular plays — and it’s the highlight of this shumei season.
Sukeroku, who is actually the legendary 12th-century hero Soga no Goro in disguise, makes his grand entry along the hanamichi to the accompaniment of lively Kato-bushi music. He frequents the Yoshi wara pleasure district — and picks a fight with everyone he encounters there — in the hope of finding a sword named Tomokirimaru. He also visits his courtesan-lover Agemaki, who is being courted by Ikyu, a wealthy old man renowned for his magnificent beard. Suspecting Ikyu of having stolen the precious Tomokirimaru, Sukeroku tries to provoke the old man into drawing his sword. On discovering that Ikyu indeed carries the coveted weapon, he wants to attack the old man on the spot, but is stopped by Agemaki with a commanding gesture.
“Sukeroku” is simple in plot but wonderfully enjoyable, peppered with brisk, witty exchanges. Ebizo is in illustrious company here — onstage with him are Bando Tamasaburo performing Agemaki, Ichikawa Sadanji as Ikyu, Nakamura Kankuro as Juro and Nakamura Kichiemon in the role of Ikyu’s yakuzalike follower, Monbei.
Another important number from the Ichikawa repertoire, performed by Ebizo last month, is “Kanjincho (A Scroll of Donors),” a dance-drama created in 1840 by Ichikawa Danjuro VII, modeled on the well-known noh play “Ataka.”
“Kanjincho” tells the story of Benkei’s desperate attempt to pass the barrier at Ataka (in present-day Ishikawa Prefecture) which is guarded by an officer called Togashi. Benkei’s master, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, is disguised as his servant, and Yoshitsune’s retainers all wear the dress of mountain ascetics.
When his shumei performances began last month, Ebizo performed Togashi opposite his 57-year-old father, Danjuro, in the role of Benkei. Danjuro is considered the finest living actor of Benkei, having performed the role more than 600 times, and he was delighted to perform opposite his son — the first time in 150 years that a Danjuro and an Ebizo paired up in “Kanjincho.”
On May 9, however, Danjuro fell ill and was hospitalized; it was later learned that he is suffering from an acute form of leukemia. However, the indomitable actor has vowed to return to the stage as soon as he is able and resume performances of “Kanjincho” with his son.
Indeed, Ebizo’s performances in “Shibaraku,” “Sukeroku” and “Kanjincho” are testimony to the thorough training this talented father has given his promising son. We are sure that the good-looking young Ebizo will continue his family’s outstanding traditions — and perhaps follow his father onto the screen as well as the stage, helping to bring kabuki to a new generation of theatergoers.