When it comes to kabuki, there are few names as recognizable as Ichikawa Ebizo. A member of the illustrious Ichikawa kabuki family, Ebizo has been a mainstay of Japanese traditional theater since his stage debut in “The Tale of Genji” in 1983 at the age of 5. Since then, he has performed at home and abroad, and has starred in TV programs and films.

In January, the actor announced that he will assume a new stage name, Ichikawa Danjuro XIII, Hakuen, in May 2020. Before the name succession, however, Ebizo has taken on the challenge of playing 13 different roles in an adaptation of “Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees” (“Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura”) for most of July at the famed Kabuki-za theater in Tokyo.

At a press conference ahead of this month’s performances, the 41-year-old actor, whose real name is Takatoshi Horikoshi, was as confident and charismatic as expected of a celebrity who has been a fixture in Japanese media for years.

Ebizo spoke enthusiastically about his many roles in “Yotshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees,” and about performing matinee shows alongside his 6-year-old son, Kangen Horikoshi, in “The Medicine Peddler” (“Uiro Uri”).

The significance of playing 13 roles in one of the most famous and popular kabuki plays before becoming the 13th Danjuro is not lost on the actor, although he is somewhat nonchalant about it.

“I knew that if I was going to challenge myself, I would like to play all the roles in ‘Senbon Zakura.’ I started planning this performance at least five years ago,” says Ebizo. “It’s not that I put any particular emphasis on the number 13, but it did make more sense to play 13 roles, than say 12, which my father (Ichikawa Danjuro XII) might have done. I did think there must be some luck in that.”

Performing more than a dozen roles in a single play is an impressive feat that showcases Ebizo’s skill and maturity as an accomplished kabuki actor, but he says audiences should not view his performance as the pinnacle of his acting career under the Ebizo name.

You name it: Ichikawa Ebizo will soon become Ichikawa Danjuro XIII, a name passed on by his father. | © SHOCHIKU
You name it: Ichikawa Ebizo will soon become Ichikawa Danjuro XIII, a name passed on by his father. | © SHOCHIKU

“I don’t think of this as a culmination of my career as Ebizo,” he says. “It is more of an indication of what is to come as Danjuro. 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 fulfills the same height of expectations you would have for a culminating performance as Ebizo.”

“Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees” was first performed as a kabuki play in 1748 and is regarded as one of the three most famous kabuki plays. The story takes place in the aftermath of the war between the Genji and Heike clans in the 12th century. The main character is Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a military commander for the Genji clan who must avoid capture by his older half-brother while pursuing three warlords of the Heike clan, leaving behind his lover and setting out on a series of adventures that include mishaps involving a drum and a magical fox. According to Ebizo, the overarching theme of the play is death.

“It’s a play about why people die, why they kill each other and why siblings fight against each other,” he says. “Through different conflicts, people are mortally wounded. Many of the characters meet their deaths, whether it’s by drowning or seppuku or in other ways. But through death, there is purification. What the play addresses is that, beyond the human experience, there is the soul of the animal that is pure, beautiful and innocent. There is something humans can learn from that.”

Aside from the weighty subject matter, the most exhausting part of the play for Ebizo is the grueling task of going through countless quick changes. One of kabuki’s most unique aspects is the elaborate make-up, costumes and wigs the characters wear. Ebizo admits that playing 13 characters leaves him with very little time to rest between scenes and refers to needing to transform from the bloodied Tomomori to the next character as an example.

“Tomomori ends the scene as a bloody mess and all the script says is, ‘Change quickly and get back on stage quickly,'” he says before joking that maybe he’ll try making the audience wait for him to reappear. On a more serious note, he says, “I’m going to try not to fall over from exhaustion.”

The July performances also include plays that will mark other career milestones, such as “The Dropped Coat” (“Suo Otoshi”), in which he will be the youngest actor ever to perform the lead role of Taro Kaja. But the most memorable of the matinee shows may be “The Medicine Peddler,” which will have Ebizo performing with his son.

As is customary in kabuki tradition, Ebizo’s son is following in his footsteps, going as far as to take on the role of Kikanbo, a young medicine peddler, which Ebizo performed alongside his father when he was 7-years-old. The role is notable for including a lengthy speech with hayakuchi kotoba (tongue twisters) explaining the origins and efficacy of the medicine on sale.

The role has a lot of personal significance to Ebizo as it reminds him of the time he spent with his parents. Ebizo’s father was the one who adapted the speech into tongue twisters — “A mark of his great skill,” he says — and taught it to Ebizo, who would then practice it everywhere.

“The speech is not a length that’s easy for a child to memorize,” says Ebizo. “I remember holding my mother’s hand on the way to elementary school, it must have taken 10 minutes to walk from the house to the bus stop, and I would practice on the way there and practice on the way back, making it a part of my daily life.” Ebizo says his son practices his lines for Kikanbo in a similar manner.

As a member of an old and prestigious kabuki family, it is important for Ebizo to pass on the traditions of his family to the following generations. While he prepares to succeed his father with a highly regarded name, Ebizo’s son is doing the same, assuming Ebizo’s former stage name to become Ichikawa Shinnosuke VIII next year, making his official debut as a kabuki actor.

The role of Kikanbo signifies a part of that family legacy as well as an act of love.

“Just as my father taught the role to me, I wanted to pass on this role to my son,” Ebizo says. “I also wanted him perform it at the age of 6 because I want him to surpass me. When I asked him how he felt, my son said, ‘I want to do it before you did, Dad.’ He has that desire as well. For him, the role shows love for his grandfather, too. So, the role is very sentimental.”

The program runs through July 28 at Kabuki-za in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. Matinees begin at 11 a.m., evening shows begin at 4:30 p.m. There will be no matinee performance on July 11 and no evening performances on July 10, 17 and 24. For more information, visit www.kabukiweb.net/theatres/kabukiza/performance/july_4.html.

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