Ebizo rethinks kabuki’s strategy

One of kabuki's most famous names comes up with a plan to reach out overseas

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

In the glitzy and gossipy world of Japanese celebrity, hardly a week goes by without revelations being made about — or made by — Ichikawa Ebizo XI.

For years, the charismatic young star of the kabuki world has never long been out of the media spotlight: a series of short-lived romances with big-name actresses; his 2010 marriage to newscaster Mao Kobayashi; a late-night bar fight the same year with Roppongi hoodlums (which left him with severe injuries to the head and face); the passing of his father, kabuki maestro Ichikawa Danjuro XII, in February of this year; and a month later the much-awaited birth of a baby boy, who, like Ebizo himself, is destined to join the 300-year-plus lineage of the prestigious Narita-ya kabuki performers’ guild.

Last week, the 35-year-old actor walked into a Tokyo hotel for an interview with The Japan Times — the day after he had wrapped up a consecutive 25-day run of shows performed twice daily to packed audiences at the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo. Predictably, he was tense and energetic, still likely experiencing the rush of adrenaline from a grueling, high-pressure stint at kabuki’s so-called mecca. He also exuded an air of brashness, a trait that has contributed to him being such a fixture in the media.

“I wouldn’t describe it as something that’s interesting,” he snaps after I start the interview off by asking him to explain how interesting his “Koten-eno Izanai” (“Invitation to Classics”) will be. “It’s a form of culture, it’s the classics.”

The program planned by Ebizo will tour 13 cities nationwide starting in Osaka on Saturday. He will be performing solo in the production — independent from his engagements with Shochiku, the organization that manages Japan’s professional kabuki actors and their performances at major theaters across the country.

“Basically the songs (I’ll dance to) are like the pop music of the Edo Period (1603-1867),” he says. “The Kiyomoto School of kabuki music features high-pitched sounds, and is played in a pretentious manner. Whether that’s interesting or not, I don’t know.”

He then softens a bit, explaining the program’s attractions, and why he sees it as an important “experiment” and part of his ambition to eventually expand the traditional performing art’s audience overseas.

One of the two dance performances featured in “Invitation to Classics” is “Yasuna,” which is named after Abe Yasuna, a famous male character who appears in folklore from the Edo Period. Yasuna’s lover is killed in front of him over a petty crime.

“It’s the dance of a man severely traumatized by his lover’s death,” he says. “He wanders the fields in an extremely heartbroken state. You know how some people (nowadays) wander aimlessly after losing a love, right? Yasuna’s pain is 500 times stronger than that of those people, as he sees his lover killed right before his eyes. Some people go mad just as spring starts. Yasuna’s mind is 300 times crazier than that.”

“Yasuna” was first staged in 1818, but it was later revived by Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838-1903), one of the most popular and revered kabuki actors from the Meiji Era (1868-1912). For his own performance, Ebizo consulted with his stage director to tweak the story a little. This version features a pair of butterflies that amplify Yasuna’s agony by stirring feelings of jealousy in the character.

“I want people to feel the fuzzy feeling of the show, which goes nowhere but has a (distinctive) mood to it,” he says. “It’s one of the most difficult kabuki dances to put on.”

The second show to be featured is called “Omatsuri.” It includes a cheerful dance themed on post-festival ambience.

“I come out as a female geisha first, then suddenly morph into a man, which signals the start of the dance,” the actor says.

At each performance venue, Ebizo will also deliver a casual talk about kabuki to bring the art closer to people who have never seen it before.

“I had mistakenly thought for a long time that people in the countryside have opportunities to go to regional kabuki theaters, like the ones in Nagoya, Fukuoka and Kyoto. In reality, many people can’t,” he says. For the “Invitation to Classics” series, Ebizo will tour midsize cities in rural Japan, including stops in Niigata, Tokushima, Gunma and Kochi prefectures. “It’s important for us to make the effort to reach out to those people ourselves, getting as close to where they live as we can.”

To an extent, though, Ebizo is driven by a certain sense of crisis over the future of his art — a feeling shared by other kabuki performers in his generation. The core audiences at most shows these days are women over 50, though the newly rebuilt Kabukiza, which opened in April, has succeeded in expanding the fan base to a broader range of people.

“Japan’s population is graying, but the kabuki audience is graying at an even faster pace,” he says. “So it’s of paramount importance to attract and keep the next generation of viewers. It’s a painstaking effort, but we need to start now, before it’s too late.”

Ebizo says he’s also eager to promote kabuki in other countries — stressing that the old performance-art form could be very much a part of the “Cool Japan” movement. In fact, he has performed several times in Europe before, receiving rave reviews from audiences there. In 2007, he was awarded an Order of Arts and Letters by the French government after a performance in Paris.

When asked whether the response from his previous performances overseas has given him any food for thought, Ebizo’s answer couldn’t have been more outside-the-box.

“It sounds horrible, but I think reaction from overseas is like masturbation, it’s not enduring,” he says, referring to the momentary sense of satisfaction of pleasing a crowd abroad, but then returning home with everything the same. “What’s really important is to create works that people outside Japan enjoy so much that they will want to come to Japan to watch more kabuki — and to create a system that enables that.”

Ebizo goes on to say that he’s banking on marketing kabuki overseas through non-verbal, dance-only performances at first, and that this month’s “Invitation to Classics” tour could be a stepping stone to doing that. In other words, if people in Japan who have never seen kabuki before cotton on to the dance-only shows, it might follow that people in other countries could appreciate kabuki purely through its visual aesthetic, and not rely on the characters to speak lines.

“The buyō (dance) elements of kabuki would be key,” he says. “If foreign audiences enjoy kabuki dancing and feel like watching more, we would test new waters and show them (a full-fledged) kabuki performance.”

Ebizo is an avid user of social media networks, which includes a personal blog that aims to highlight his “soft” side. The high-profile site is updated numerous times throughout the day and includes photos of his meals (often boiled eggs) and shots of his 2-year-old daughter, Reika. His Facebook account, on the other hand, provides glimpses of him as a serious kabuki actor. The pictures show him in training and applying his own stage makeup. The Facebook page also features English translations of his posts. Does Ebizo adopt different personas according to the online platform he’s using at the time? “No, they are all me. I have a side of me who likes to joke around and a side of me who is really serious.”

Toward the end of the interview, he sounds more serious than ever, saying he feels responsible not just for the survival of kabuki, but for the survival of all traditional arts and forms of craftsmanship, many of which are on the verge of extinction.

Nishijin-ori (a type of decoratively weaved kimono produced in the Nishijin district of Kyoto) is in little demand these days,” he says. “In the last 20 years, the demand for kimono has fallen by 80 percent. People who wear kimono are those who learn the tea ceremony, go see kabuki, and maybe some (well-to-do) madams. Kimono have become so expensive, too. If kabuki becomes more popular, for example, more demand will be created and craftsmen would have no choice but to keep working, which would mean that (young) people can step up to preserve the tradition. What we need to do is create an environment to give these craftsmen jobs, not to give them money.”

And like many artists, Ebizo stresses how the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be a major opportunity to bring more attention to his art.

“I’ll go and perform overseas (again), definitely,” he says, with a grin, and a characteristic upward shift of his eyes. “The Olympics gives us a goal to work toward. It’s a great opportunity. I look forward to learning a lot by bringing kabuki to the world stage.”

Ichikawa Ebizo XI’s “Invitation to Classics” tour starts Oct. 5 in Osaka, heads to Tokyo on Oct. 7 and finishes up in Yamaga, Kumamoto Prefecture, on Oct. 27. For more information, visit jtim.es/pkKS2 or www.facebook.com/EbizoIchikawaXI.

  • varhegy

    Ebizo’s comment in the interview about Westerners’ appreciation of Kabuki as being like ‘masturbation’ goes too far. There are many Westerners I know who love and look forward to the Kabuki tours to Europe with great expectation, even to the extent that on one occasion a group of fans gathered for a private pre-performance reception attended by the main Kabuki actors and who amazed when they were greeted with Kakegoe shouts of their Yago

  • Mark

    Foreign audiences will enjoy the dance pieces, but history has shown that they also very much appreciate the dramas. First of all, I am very grateful to Ebizo for dedicating himself to the spread of Kabuki’s popularity overseas. It’s not a light undertaking. But he also should not be afraid to challenge foreign audiences with complex Kabuki dramas. The theater-going public in America, at least, is fairly sophisticated. Most are used to experiencing and enjoying a wide range of genres hailing from all over the world. So Ebizo should not underestimate overseas audiences. “Full,” authentic Kabuki performances performed in the U.S. since the 1960s have enjoyed immense popularity and critical acclaim. Ebizo may want to study these overseas tours and speak to veteran Kabuki actors who have gone on them, especially the most recent, popular ones mounted by the late, great Kanzaburo with his Heisei Nakamura-za, as reported for example in the New York Times:
    http://nyti.ms/16xFWcT

    http://nyti.ms/17ga7Sm

    http://bit.ly/19kDw1v