TBS’s Dec. 4 edition of “Newscaster” aired a long report on the run-in that kabuki star Ichikawa Ebizo had with a man at a Tokyo bar in the wee hours of Nov. 25, a dustup that resulted in Ebizo’s hospitalization with a fractured cheekbone and broken teeth. Elaborating on the principle of “it takes one to know one,” the show’s announcer, Shinichiro Azumi, asked his co-host, comedian Beat Takeshi, for a personal take on the incident. In 1994, Takeshi was involved in a scooter accident that does not resemble the Ebizo incident in the slightest except that he also was drunk and did serious injury to his face.

Takeshi wriggled out of offering an opinion by quoting someone else’s: Tomio Umemiya, a stage actor who performs a kabuki-like entertainment called taishu engeki (theater for the masses). Umemiya griped that Ebizo would eventually return to his hallowed position because he is the heir to the Ichikawa dynasty. “If I had done something like that,” Takeshi quoted Umemiya as saying, “I’d be finished in show business.”

Considering that Umemiya has over the last decade successfully changed from a stage performer to a wisecracking TV personality, there isn’t enough of a similarity between the two men’s careers to make the analogy meaningful, but the sour grapes oozing from the comment say enough; and because Takeshi related this sentiment it would seem he shares it. Both men built their careers from nothing, and they may resent the dispensation that allows Ebizo and his kabuki ilk, who are born to the life, to get away with such public mischief.

Ebizo is not Tiger Woods. His excessive drinking and heedless womanizing was known, if not widely reported, well before he recently married announcer Mao Kobayashi, whose seijun (pure) image seems so calculated as to be almost a caricature. In contrast to the sexy starlets and models Ebizo “dated” in the past, Kobayashi is the epitome of the self-effacing female enabler, and to many the ideal mate for a kabuki star. It was said that Shochiku Entertainment, which oversees the rien (kabuki world), encouraged the match, perhaps thinking Kobayashi would put the brakes on Ebizo’s recklessness. However, others weren’t so sure. Kobayashi makes as much if not more money than Ebizo (a factor that reportedly impressed Shochiku, since the Ichikawa family is said to be deep in debt) and though she cut back on her work after the wedding, she hasn’t quit completely.

Those insiders’ worst fears were realized on the morning of Nov. 25, when Ebizo came stumbling home, drunk and bloodied. It may not have been the first time the actor had ended a bender that way, but it was the first time he’d done it with a wife waiting up for him. Kobayashi called the police. According to a member of Ebizo’s official fan club quoted in the women’s weekly Shukan Josei, a “real kabuki wife” would never have done such a thing. Kobayashi should have called Ebizo’s father first. Once the police were involved, the incident became a public matter.

And once it became a public matter, the media had license to pursue the story, and its collective version is different from the one put forth by the Ichikawa camp, which insists that Ebizo was a victim, that he was “taking care of a drunken acquaintance” in the bar when he was attacked by the acquaintance’s friend.

According to the media version, on the night of Nov. 24, Ebizo went out drinking with some kabuki associates after cancelling a scheduled press conference due to back pain. Later, he ended up at a members-only bar plastered and in the company of a small party later identified as members of a Roppongi-based bosozoku (motorcycle gang) with ties to organized crime. Witnesses say Ebizo acted pugnaciously while he was in the bar and tried to force the leader of the group, who was even more inebriated than he was, to keep drinking. Later, the man’s subordinate took offense to Ebizo’s treatment of the leader and beat him up.

Witnesses also said Ebizo made some sort of “settlement” with the group to atone for his behavior before leaving the bar. If that’s true, then Kobayashi’s neglect of protocol was significant, because once the police became involved the option of paying the bosozoku group for their silence was gone, and with the deal broken the group talked to the press. Though there’s a warrant out for the subordinate’s arrest, it comes down to Ebizo’s word against his.

Ebizo stuck to his story at his press conference last Tuesday, where, except for a bloodshot eye, he didn’t look particularly damaged. The press were suspicious. Former Aera magazine editor Kiyoshi Isshiki commented afterward on TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station” that it didn’t make sense for Ebizo to act so remorseful or for Shochiku to suspend his activities “if he’s really the victim.” It was obvious from the questions, couched in ludicrously polite diction, that the reporters were familiar with similar drunken incidents in Ebizo’s past even if they never had reported them. Until now, the 33-year-old star has been characterized as simply a “playboy.” In addition to being the heir to a dynasty, Ebizo is a television star, so it has been in the media’s interest to play down his less savory antics. It’s this hands-off attitude that seems to irk Takeshi, who, despite the overblown coverage, can’t even make fun of Ebizo, at least not on TV.

Ebizo is protected by his “aura”: He is the only person who can take over the hallowed Danjuro name from his father, who is 12th in succession. Though outsiders can enter kabuki they can never ascend to the summit, regardless of their talent. Only members of a handful of kabuki families can do that, either by blood or through adoption. Aficionados claim that Ebizo is one of the greats, so everyone should cut him some slack. His offensive behavior is the price you pay for enduring art, and if the bad publicity eventually draws more people to his performances, well, that’s just the way these things work.

Phillip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com

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