Show marks award of kabuki star’s new name

by Mika Eglinton

Special To The Japan Times

Names matter, and in the realm of Japanese culture almost nowhere more than in kabuki, one of whose top names, Ennosuke IV, has just become artistic director of the Shunju-za theater in Kyoto.

To mark this event, an exhibition titled “Ennosuke e no Kiseki” (“The Trajectory of Ennosuke”) is now on at the Shunju-za, which is part of the Kyoto Arts Theatre in the city’s Sakyo-ku district. And what is the show’s focus if not the actor’s progression from being named Kamejiro II to his current appellation as Ennosuke IV.

It was at the start of this June’s season at the Shimbashi Embujo in Tokyo that the then Kamejiro II (who was born Takahiko Kinoshi in 1975) inherited the prestigious stage name Ichikawa Ennosuke IV from his retired uncle, Ichikawa Ennosuke III (who then became known as Ichikawa Ennoh II).

The latter, now 74, is a famous innovator in kabuki and especially renowned for his keren (stage tricks) and as the man who founded the spectacular Super Kabuki style. In May 2001 he also, while vice president of Kyoto University of Arts and Design, staged “Shunju Sanbaso” to inaugurate the Shunju-za theater — with Kamejiro II in the cast.

Ennosuke III’s motto for the new theater was “experiment and adventure,” and he intended it to be the first real theater in a Japanese university. In the intervening years, the 843-seat venue has staged a wide range of productions, from traditional to cutting-edge multimedia shows.

Similarly, Ennosuke IV is far from being a kabuki traditionalist. Since his stage debut at the age of 4, and his transition to Kamejiro II when he was 8, he has been showing off his versatile acting skills both in and beyond the kabuki world. Although he is a virtuoso in male roles, he was trained as an onnagata (a male actor who plays female roles) and his Princess Taema in “Narukami” at the Shochiku-za in Osaka in January 2000 is the stuff of legend.

Outside Japan, Ennosuke, 38, has toured in Europe with, for example, the kabuki plays “Kasane” at Sadler’s Wells in London in 2006 and “Kanjincho” and “Momijigari” at the Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris in 2007. However, his most acclaimed appearance abroad was perhaps as Maa (Maria) in Yukio Ninagawa’s production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at the Barbican Theatre in London in 2009. This September, too, he played Shylock in Ninagawa’s “The Merchant of Venice” at Saitama Arts Center.

In addition, Ennosuke has appeared in many popular Japanese TV dramas, including as 16th-century warlord Takeda Shingen in 2007′s yearlong NHK weekly drama, “Furin Kazan” (“Windy Forest and Fiery Mountain”). Meanwhile, in August 2002 he started to organize a training and production program at the Shunju-za, titled Kamejiro no Kai, and the annual event continued until 2008, spanning a period of his career that is a highlight of the exhibition, where it is documented in great detail.

Another outstanding feature is a 45-minute documentary film titled “Kabuku,” which focuses on the rehearsal process for the kabuki play “Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura” (“Yoshitsune and the 1,000 Cherry Trees”) and offers fascinating insights into Ennosuke’s character shifts from human to animal, his quick entrances and exits — known as hayagawari — and the intricacies of his stage makeup.

Overall, this very visual presentation of the trajectory of a kabuki actor, depicted through photographs, costumes and film, will likely be of interest to both kabuki novices and aficionados — and will be a fine pre-Christmas present for any arts fans living in or visiting the former Imperial capital.

“Ennosuke e no Kiseki” (“The Trajectory of Ennosuke”) runs till Dec. 23 at the Shunju-za in Kyoto (81-75-791-9122). Tickets ¥500.