Danjuro Ichikawa: Destined to act wild

by Raju Thakrar

When Danjuro Ichikawa stomps around the stage in flamboyant costumes, his face painted in red-and-white makeup and his voice virtually bellowing, it is kabuki in its rawest, most dramatic form. This actor and his ancestors through 11 previous generations have been wreaking havoc in the elegant world of what has been one of Japan’s main traditional theatrical forms for the last 300 years.

In the early years of the Edo Period (1603-1867), kabuki was supposedly created by a shrine maiden in Kyoto named Okuni, who excelled at Buddhist folk dances. Thus the performing art combined art and eye-candy, with women taking most of the roles. That, though, was soon quashed from on high on the grounds it was corrupting public (i.e. male) morals, and it was into this small firmament that Danjuro I stepped with an acting style called aragoto (wild thing) that was unlike anything audiences had seen before.

The complete opposite of the subtler wa (harmony) way of acting then typical in western Japan’s cultural pressure-cooker of Kyoto, Danjuro I drove audiences crazy. The mystique surrounding him was such that even the people of the new political capital of Edo (present-day Tokyo) believed his stare was powerful enough to prevent a person catching a cold for a year.

Since then, in an art form still so averse to females that men take their roles, each generation of actors bearing the Danjuro name has carved a niche for himself in kabuki history — but not always as a result of superior acting skills.

In 1704, his stare notwithstanding, Danjuro I was stabbed to death during a performance by an actor who held a grudge against him. Later, Danjuro IX was a major driving force behind the elevation of kabuki from its low social standing to a high-class status during the Meiji Period (1868-1912). More recently, Danjuro XI was been credited with single-handedly reviving kabuki after World War II through its so-called Ebi-sama craze (Ebizo was his acting name at the time).

Today’s Danjuro XII hit the headlines in a no less dramatic fashion when, as an acclaimed performer in his own right, he was diagnosed with leukemia in May 2004. Despite staging a successful comeback soon after, the illness recurred in even more virulent form in August 2005 and forced him to undergo treatment he later described as “an eternal hell.’

But Danjuro’s love for kabuki and the support of his family were strong enough to pull him back from death’s door and in May 2006, he again triumphantly trod the boards of the art form’s mecca, the Kabuki-za Theater in Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza district. Then, in March 2007, he and his son, 29-year-old Ebizo, performed to rapturous acclaim in the first-ever kabuki performance at the prestigious Opera de Paris.

Natsuo Horikoshi, the current Danjuro XII, was born on Aug. 6, 1946 as the eldest son of Danjuro XI. He made his stage debut at the age of 7. In 1958, he took the stage name of Shinnosuke, and then spent 20 years after his father’s sudden death before assuming the title and responsibility of becoming Danjuro XII at the age of 39.

Now, Danjuro’s family includes his wife Kimiko, his son Ebizo and 28-year-old daughter, Botan, who is a Nihon buyo (traditional Japanese dance) performer. Away from the stage, Danjuro is a man of many hobbies, including painting, golf and watching movies.

Danjuro was in a jovial mood during his recent interview with The Japan Times at his home in Meguro Ward, Tokyo. In his trademark booming voice, he recounted what it was like to have leukemia, how Japanese people don’t know how to think for themselves — and what the future holds for kabuki.

Your father died when you were 19. Who taught you the aragoto roles that he would have had he lived?

At first I was at a bit of loss as to what to do, but luckily my father had taught the roles he played to an actor and relative called Kawarazaki Gonjuro, who passed them on to me. Onoe Shoroku, one of the senior actors of the time, also showed me how to play many roles.

How did you react to the pressure of taking on your father’s mantle?

In 1985, when I was asked to take on my father’s acting name of Danjuro, I was very doubtful if I had it in me to pull it off. The immense pressure that it came with worried me a lot. But ultimately, doubt is just doubt, and it’s something that you can become obsessed with.

One day, for no reason in particular, I suddenly emerged from my tunnel of doubt and was able to see the bright sky in front of me. That’s when I made a firm resolution to take on the name of Danjuro.

No matter how great your ancestors are, if your acting ability is not up to the task, the name will go to ruin. In the end it depends on the actor himself. That’s why when I became Danjuro, I was determined to live up to the name.

The expectations on you were immense. Did you ever think of escaping?

Not once. In fact, I wanted to tackle the expectations head on.

What is the attraction of kabuki for you?

The attraction of kabuki has changed over time. The attraction of today’s kabuki dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1867), which was a time when the country was closed to outside cultural influences. This allowed Japanese culture to “ferment” and create its own uniqueness. Though there are differences between the people of today and those in the Edo Period, there are similarities that kabuki is able to express frankly and in an easy way to understand.

By showing human emotions like happiness, sadness, loneliness and jealousy that form part of the foundations of kabuki on stage, kabuki is able to leave a deep impression on people.

Kabuki can also demonstrate to today’s Japanese where they seem to be going wrong. Take, for example, the issue of freedom. People during the Edo Period experienced many constraints on their freedom, but they bore the responsibility that came with that freedom. There are quite a few plays that demonstrate this kind of freedom, and show various unfair aspects of life back then. People committed hara-kiri (ritual suicide by disembowelment) because they felt a strong sense of responsibility if mistakes were made. The issue of freedom and responsibility was very important to people then.

Freedom is fine, but I get the feeling that many modern-day Japanese have forgotten that freedom comes with responsibility. This concept is found in kabuki, so people who come to watch it will be exposed to the responsibility of freedom as well as freedom’s limits. Think of freedom as a dog that feels free to run around a fenced garden. It feels satisfied because it is not stuck in the house, even though it doesn’t have the freedom to go outside the garden. Freedom exists inside the garden as well as outside. But there is a barrier. Nowadays, there is no such barrier. I think kabuki expresses the freedom that exists within a barrier.

What is the attraction of your family’s style of acting?

I created the acting style known as aragoto, which was said to embody supernatural elements. Its philosophy was based on poetic justice, where the strong help the weak and defeat evil. It is also relatively simple, which is how kabuki started off too. They say that “simple is best,” and in the beginning kabuki was like that, but it became increasingly complicated because it had to make sure it didn’t lose its value.

On the other hand, my family’s acting style has retained the original simplicity, which is its greatest attraction. Even a mobile phone today comes with a thick instruction manual full of complicated terms — when everything could probably be contained on a single piece of paper.

I believe that all kabuki actors are members of one of various “guilds.” You belong to one called Narita-ya, whose name derives from a connection your family has with the Naritasan Shinsho-ji Temple in Narita, Chiba Prefecture. Does this mean that you are religious?

To be honest, I don’t have a very favorable opinion of religions. But I do think some sort of power beyond human knowledge exists. I don’t know if you call this God or not, but either way I feel there is something out there that deserves human beings’ respect. Humans are gravely mistaken if they think they can control everything.

What kind of people become good kabuki actors?

Just because a person is sensitive to things doesn’t mean he has what it takes to become a good actor. Actors have different personalities, from those who are openhearted to the jealous types. I don’t think there is an ideal personality type for a person to be an actor, but when it comes to playing the aragoto style distinctive to my family, tradition states that it has to be played with a child’s mind. In other words, the person has to be of pure mind.

How does your acting style differ from that of your son Ebizo?

The main difference is that I just “do,” while Ebizo and other actors in their 20s and 30s “act,” and are concerned about minute details. For example, I will just extend my hand, but Ebizo is at the stage where he is creating his own acting style, and he might ask why you have to extend your hand. But it is normal for actors in their 20s to question each and every movement. This is an important process, because it forms the basis of an actor’s acting style.

However, ultimately there is more to acting than just this. I’m at a level where being natural is more important. An actor can think that the room he is in is absolute, but in time this changes. The more he looks for an exit, the less likely he is to find one. But one day he will suddenly find himself in another room.

What expectations do you have of Ebizo?

I want him to try to look for his own exit by going through many hardships. At his current level, he probably feels like a dog in a cage that is barking because it wants to get out, which is why it would be useless if he lay down now and gave up.

How are you contributing to ensuring that kabuki exists in the future?

Diversification of culture is extremely important, which is basically why I recently performed in Paris.

Why is diversification important?

In today’s world of globalization, cultures are naturally uniting as one — but they can basically be classified as American, European or Asian. I think all cultures need to be preserved, because if they all become biased toward one culture, that one culture will become too big. Take the dinosaurs who grew bigger to become stronger, and at some point ruled the world. But why did they become extinct? Because their size meant they needed a certain amount of food to sustain themselves. So they easily became extinct when their food disappeared.

Culture is the same: The bigger a certain kind of culture, the more it will eat up other cultures. The bigger a culture becomes, the more susceptible it becomes to self-destruction when the food is taken away. That’s why different cultures have to work hard to survive, to provide diversity in cultures.

I think it is very meaningful for Japanese people to convey the culture created here to the rest of the world — in fact they have a responsibility to do this.

One day, kabuki may become food for another culture, or it may eat up another culture. I want to promote kabuki to the rest of the world, but I also know that the growth of kabuki is destined to come to a halt at some point, so I feel that retaining its current form to a certain extent will benefit the world.

How have audiences abroad reacted to kabuki?

It’s hard to generalize. Audiences react differently in each country, and it also depends on the theater where the performance is being put on. For example, the Theatre National de Chaillot in Paris is very avant-garde and is always trying new things, so most of the audience members wore jeans and were quite boisterous. On the other hand, the Opera Theater in Paris, where I performed this April, has a more dignified, traditional atmosphere, so almost everybody came in formal wear and clapped in a polite manner.

What did you learn by performing in France?

I discovered that Europeans are proud of their culture, and I realized we Japanese should be proud of our kabuki culture.

Do you think that Japanese people are not so proud of their own culture?

Generally speaking, yes. After World War II, Japanese people rejected their culture too much, and that trend has continued for the last 60 years. So many aspects of Japanese culture are on the decline, and one day they will disappear. That’s why I would like people to take another look at their culture. Nowadays, one drawback that Japanese people have is that they automatically think that anything is good if it is favorably received abroad. Instead of making their own judgments, they just go along with the judgments of people overseas.

Why do you feel that?

It’s a complicated issue, but I think there are two main reasons.

The first is that, during the Meiji Era, Japan was desperate to Westernize itself. Then, after the militarist period and the end of World War II, people felt they had taken a wrong course, and so they lost confidence in themselves.

What was your first reaction on learning that you had leukemia?

I was shocked. A month before the outbreak of leukemia, I had a medical checkup and there was nothing wrong with me. Then, during the latter half of April 2004, I noticed bruises all over my body, but I didn’t remember bumping into anything. Then, on the first day of May 2004’s performances, I found it a bit difficult to breathe but was otherwise OK. Then as the days passed, it became increasingly difficult to breathe. After the performances on May 9, I went to see a doctor and had some tests, which was when the doctor told me I had leukemia.

Before I knew what was going on, they had me hooked up to various tubes. At the time, I thought to myself, “Oh, this is what leukemia is like.”

How did you overcome it?

My doctor told me that I had the same variety of leukemia as a famous athlete who died from it, so I thought I might not make it. But I got treatment straight away in the form of anticancer drugs that made me feel nauseous. On July 7, my body went into a state of remission, and my doctor said it would be all right for me to return to the stage, which I did. However, in August 2005 the leukemia recurred — this time much stronger. At first, I took medicine that was like a poison to return my body into a state of remission. They inserted so many anticancer drugs into my body that I was on the verge of death.

You mentioned before that your treatment was like being in an eternal hell.

At first it wasn’t that tough, but suddenly all the symptoms came out at once. I felt dizzy, nauseous and the inside of my mouth hurt. Stomach pains made me want to go to the toilet all the time, and I sometimes lost consciousness. Even the dimmest kind of light scared me. I ended up enduring the pain by staying in a dark room for a whole week. Thankfully, I am cured now and don’t have any of the previous symptoms.

How has your experience with leukemia affected your private life and your acting?

I no longer eat and drink to excess. My recent checkups have produced really good results. In the past, the uric acid level in my blood was really high, but now I am fit and healthy. It’s made me take more care with my health. I don’t know how it has affected my acting, though it is physically tougher for me to act than before. But for some reason I can’t quite fathom, I feel very spiritually fulfilled when I act.

What would be your ideal non-kabuki day?

I’d spend my whole day doing one of my many hobbies. Actually, I am going to teach a course on kabuki at Aoyama University in Tokyo from September, and so these days I have been busy preparing for this. The aim of this course is to allow students to learn enough about kabuki so that they can teach it to others and take pride in it.

Do you have any mottoes you live by?

I have two. One is “onko chishin (by exploring the old one is able to understand the new)” — which my father often used. The other is “sekizen yokei,” which means that if you live a proper lifestyle and work at things bit by bit, good things will happen to you.

Taking responsibility, like I mentioned before, is a part of this.