Actor by Sharaku
“Kabuki”is above all else an actor’s theater, with the plays serving primarily as vehicles for highlighting the talents of the stars. While many “kabuki”fans undoubtedly have preferences with regard to the plays, most will come to the theater to see their favorite actors regardless of the role or play. Each actor is part of an acting family, and each family has a specific style and approach to each role.

Many kabuki actors come from families with acting traditions that go back six or more generations. Famous kabuki actors rarely rehearse. They know practically the entire 500-play repertoire of kabuki theater by heart because they have trained in classic dance, music, movement and acting since they were youngsters. The most famous of the “kabuki”family lines is that currently headed by Ichikawa Danjuro XII (b. 1946). An actor who inherits the Ichikawa Danjuro name must not only master his predecessors’ approach to a role but also add his own individual nuances. Other important family lines include those headed by Onoe Kikugoro VII (b.1942) and Sakata Tojuro VI (b.1931). [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

In the kabuki world, junior actors usually learn from senior actors regardless of their family affiliations, particularly when they first perform important roles. The “iemoto” (headmaster) system has traditionally been prevalent method of instruction. It is a system that stresses obedience and discipline and is closely associated with the styles, secrets and traditions of the headmasters who run it. There have often been conflicts between the “iemoto” system and individual actors. who have wanted to express themselves in their own way.

These days many Kabuki actors show up play regular roles on television and in films. Most actors have been trained in family run schools, many of which get their names and styles from famous kabuki actors. Children regard their teacher-father as a master and use formal language when communicating to him even at home. Important kabuki schools include Bando Ryu, the Ichikawa Ryu, and Matsumoto Ryu. They are all associated with famous actors of famous acting families.

Kabuki Actors and their Types of Role

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Kabuki evolved into different branches. In the region of Kyoto and Osaka the inspiration for kabuki was provided by the erotic, hedonistic “floating world” or ukioyo of the “pleasure quarters” of the bigger cities. This life style, with its famous prostitutes and kabuki star actors, has been depicted in thousands of the coloured wood block prints of the period. Another, more powerful and flamboyant style evolved in the first half of the 18th century in Edo, which was the seat of the military government. This aragoto style of acting was influenced by bunraku puppetry. Both bunraku and kabuki shared much of the same repertoire, such as the plays by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1724) and many other prolific writers. The types of role and the style of bunraku puppetry influenced many conventions, acting technique, and the facial expression of kabuki. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

In only a very few theatrical traditions have the actors played such a crucial role in creating and formulating the contents of the whole art form as is the case in kabuki. In fact, most of kabuki’s types of role and their respective drama genres were invented by remarkable actors. There are several role categories with their various sub-categories. Some actors may be so versatile that they can perform several role categories. Most often, however, an actor specialises in only one of the categories, as their acting techniques, use of voice etc. require almost life-long training and specialisation. **

Wagoto is a young man about town, usually elegant, even effeminate, and most often in love with a famous courtesan. He may be a hero but he is often also a vain and even slightly comical character. This role category was the creation of the actor Sakata Torujo (1647–1709). Wagoto’s white make-up and costuming were based on the urban fashions of the Edo period. Aragoto (wild warrior style) refers to strong, even aggressive male characters that may be good or evil. With their flashy, exaggerated acting technique, stylised make-up, heavy costuming and often with high shoes they are, both metaphorically and literally, “larger-than-life” characters. This type of role was created by a famous actor from Edo, Ichikawa Danjuro I (1660–1704). The aragoto type of character became extremely popular and the actor lineage, founded by Danjuro I, still continues to maintain the tradition today.

Onnagata, See Below

Besides the three main role categories discussed above, wagoto, aragoto, and onnagata, each with their own sub-categories, there are several minor types of role. Katakiyaku, with its own various sub-categories, refers to villains, sabakiyaku types are good, righteous male characters, jitsugoto refers to characters based on historical personalities, while sanmaime types are comic male characters.

Kabuki Actors Who Play Female Parts

Perhaps the most famous aspect of “kabuki”is its use of “onnagata”, male actors in female roles. The ideal for the “onnagata”is not to imitate women but to symbolically express the essence of the feminine. Attempts to introduce actresses into “kabuki”in the modern era have failed. The “onnagata”are such an integral part of the “kabuki”tradition that their replacement by actresses is extremely unlikely. A central aspect of kabuki”acting is the display of stylized gestures and forms (“kata”). These include dance-like stylized fighting moves (“tate”) and the special movements used during entrances (“tanzen”) and exits (“roppo”) made via the “hanamichi”. Arguably the most important “kata”of “kabuki”is the “mie”(striking an attitude). At the climax of a scene, the actor, after a series of stylized movements, comes to a complete stop, striking a pose characterized by a fixed stare. The more flamboyant “kata”are featured in historical plays but not in domestic plays. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Onnagata, the female impersonator, may be regarded as the epitome of the stylised, caricature-like acting technique of kabuki. The practice of having male actors in female roles has its roots in the early 17th-century wakashu kabuki or “young men’s kabuki”. When female actors were banned from the stage in 1629, young boys replaced them. When boy actors were banned in 1652, adult men also took the female roles. An early important onnagata actor was Yoshizawa Ayame (1673–1729). He was a “transvestite” actor, as he also lived his off-stage life as a woman. Throughout kabuki’s history onnagata actors have been stars who have been particularly admired and have, for example, dictated women’s fashion. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Kabuki Actors’ Techniques and Training

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: The acting technique of kabuki is, to a great extent, based on imitation of the actions and behaviour of the people of Japan’s various historical periods. The life of the courts, samurais, and even ordinary townspeople were restricted and dictated by complex codes of behaviour, all of them reflected on the kabuki stage. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

For example, the spoken language and the body language of men and women differed drastically (as they partly still do in Japan). Exaggeration, as in the art of the caricatures, is the key to kabuki’s mimetic acting technique (furi). Thus, for instance, the undulating onnagata characters with their tiny steps further exaggerate the already idealised conception of femininity of the Edo period. The strong male characters, on the other hand, epitomise the macho masculinity that once dominated the world of the samurais so much. While onnagatas keep their feet closed and walk with small, troublesome steps, the vigorous aragoto male characters walk with powerful steps and sit with their legs wide open. **

The striking characteristic of kabuki acting is its use of highly exaggerated facial expressions. It sharply differs from the expressionless “stone face” acting of the older court-related forms, such as bugaku and noh. In the kyogen farces, evolved directly from folk theater, on the other hand, exaggerated facial expressions formed an important part of the acting technique. All the above-mentioned aspects, the various codes of movement and the expressive facial technique represent kabuki’s mime aspect, furi. Just as important for kabuki acting is the art of dance, which falls into two categories, that of archaic mai (as, for example, in noh) and odori, a more free and rhythmic type of dance. **

The Kabuki student already starts dance training in his childhood. He must familiarise himself with a vast repertoire of dances, particularly if he specialises in the onnagata roles. In most of the noh-derived kabuki plays it is dance that dominates. Even in the plays in which dance does not dominate, the exaggerated acting, with its fixed role categories and their specific techniques, approaches dancing very closely. As kabuki is, to a great extent, a hereditary profession, its training is done within the acting families. The student may have separate classes in dance and in music, but otherwise an older master transmits whole roles and their minute interpretations to younger actors. Only an extremely experienced and venerated actor may dare to make slight changes in the interpretation, which has been maintained and cultivated by a family line that stretches back for generations.

Kabuki Actor Families and “Acting Houses”

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: As in noh, so too in kabuki an actor’s profession is, to a great extent, a hereditary one. It is passed on from father to son or from uncle to nephew. Sometimes, however, if there is no younger generation to continue the line, a talented student can also be “adopted” into the family. This lineage system has created a complicated system of stage names. Particular stage names are reserved for certain families and they are given to the actors, when the time comes, in formal ceremonies, called kojo. For example, the stage name Danjuro belongs solely to the Ichikawa family. It is, without doubt, the most prestigious stage name in the whole kabuki tradition. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Danjuro I (1660–1704) was the creator of the strong aragoto type of role. The present Danjuro of the Ichikawa family got his stage name, Danjuro XII, in a formal kojo ceremony in 1985. Thus an actor may appear on the kabuki stage under different names during different periods of his life. Before he was proclaimed Ichikawa Danjuro XII, the actor was performing under the name Ichikawa Ebizo. **

To make matters even more complicated, the actors also have an “acting house” name, called yago, in addition to their family names and stage names. All kabuki actors belong to one of the many “acting houses”. The “house” is indicated by crests or kinds of “logos”, which serve as emblems in their costuming and props. **

Onnagata roles can be divided into numerous sub-categories, each with their own characteristics. Keisei is a flamboyant courtesan, akahime refers to the daughters of samurai warlords, akuba refers to the evil women of the sewamono plays, baba roles cover various old women, musume refers to the daughters of ordinary farmers or townsmen, etc. **

The “onnagata”often have movements more feminine than those of real women. During performance they walk delicately with their knees pointed inward and stand sideways to take attention away from the broad masculine shoulders. A tengui hand towel is used to enhance female sensuality. During their training they are taught to walk like a woman by having their legs tied together at the knees.

Nakamura Sikan, an onnagata specialist who has played female roles for more than 50 years, said that he was chosen for the roles because he was small and came from a long line of onnagata actors. Explaining his art, g, Nakamura told the Daily Yomiuri, "To be a man, to be able to objectively watch women is one thing, but their's something more to it than that, and this is indescribable. I used to pay careful attention to women’s manners and speech. I would use that knowledge later on stage. But, even with that wealth of knowledge, I'm afraid I don’t understand women any better than any other man."

Famous Kabuki Actors

Kamakura Gongoro in 1895
Famous kabuki actors include Ichikawa Ennosuke, the developer of Super Kabuki and an actor that has done more than 5,000 flying scenes; Nakamura Kichiemon II, who had performed kabuki so long he can't even remember his first performance at the age of four; and Nakamura Sikan, an onnagata specialist who began perform ingat five and was still going strong in his 70s. Al three actors come from famous kabuki families, which have been involved in drama for many generations.

Many famous actors from kabuki families began training at two, cajoled with sweets, and made their debuts when the were four or five and performed into their 70s and 80s.

Kanzaburo Nakamura performed in record 806 kabuki title roles and gave a record 20,150 performance between November 1926 and January 1987. Nakamura Kanzaboro XVII injected English dialogue and local reference into his comic performances. Kanzaboro XVIII used terms like “metrosexual” and expression like “Who writes this crap? in his U.S. performances. The Kanzaburo dynasty dates back to the 18th century. [Source: Guinness Book of Records]

There is an obsession with family lineage. The great kabuki actor the seventh-generation Koshiro Matsumoto performed part of Benka in the play “Kanjunchi” 1,600 times. His grandson ninth-generation Koshiro Matsumoto performed the same part 900 times between age 16 and 64 and has his eye on his grandfather’s record.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reportedly: In 2012, Ichikawa Kamejiro became Ichikawa Ennosuke IV, taking over the name of his uncle, master kabuki actor Ennosuke III. Coincidentally, popular actor Teruyuki Kagawa, the son of Ennosuke III, and Kagawa's eldest son began performing kabuki to honor the family legacy. They took the names Ichikawa Chusha and Ichikawa Danko, respectively. The event has helped attract more young people to kabuki. Bando Tamasaburo, a popular kabuki actor acclaimed for his female roles, was named a living national treasure. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 28, 2012]

Kanzaburo Nakamura, Star of Kabuki in the 1990s and 2000s

Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII, one of kabuki’s best-loved stars, died in Tokyo in December 2012 at the age of 57. He was also a popular actor in film, TV and stage dramas. . Kanzaburo was a name used by his ancestors; he was the 18th actor to go by it. Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Kanzaburo’s career spanned five decades; his first performance was in 1959 at age 3, in the shadow of his father, also a Kabuki actor. Mr. Kanzaburo — like all traditional performers in Japan, he was known by his first name — initially immersed himself in the classics before forging his own path. In 1994, he collaborated with the contemporary theater director Kazuyoshi Kushida to bring Kabuki performances to sites frequented more by Tokyo’s sneaker-wearing hipsters than by the theatergoing elite. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, December 6, 2012]

In one production, he staged a sword fight in a huge pool of water, drenching those in the theater’s front rows; in another, he matched Kabuki with the haunting tunes of the alternative rock musician Ringo Shiina. In 2000, he again teamed with Mr. Kushida to perform Kabuki in a tent on the banks of the Sumida River in Tokyo, a throwback to the art’s origins as street theater. The first performance at the site was “Hokaibo,” a rambunctious sex comedy in which he played a delinquent monk in pursuit of a shopkeeper’s daughter.

In 2004 and again in 2007, Mr. Kanzaburo brought Kabuki to Lincoln Center in New York, impressing audiences with his cross-eyed frozen poses and dash of modern comedy: in one scene, set in a graveyard, he played miniature golf with a human skull. “Who knew that fancy old Kabuki could also be a guilty pleasure?” Charles Isherwood wrote in his review in The New York Times.

Mr. Kanzaburo insisted that his effort to broaden Kabuki’s appeal took the theater back to its rough-and-tumble roots in the 17th century. Originally performed beside the Kamo River in Kyoto, Kabuki won a passionate following for its tales of sensuality and eroticism. But over time the art took a more haughty turn and, in Mr. Kanzaburo’s words, lost the meaning of its name, which can mean extraordinary or shocking. In an interview with The Times in 2007, Mr. Kanzaburo explained the stark differences between Kabuki and Noh, an older, more aristocratic form of Japanese theater. “Noh has a history of patronage by those who hold power,” he said. “But it is the common people who have always supported Kabuki.”

Life and Career of Kanzaburo Nakamura

Kyodo reported: “Kanzaburo, whose real name was Noriaki Namino, was born in Tokyo, the first son of Nakamura Kanzaburo XVII, in 1955. He made his debut in 1959 at the age of 3 as the fifth Nakamura Kankuro and became Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII in 2005 in a name-succession ceremony known as "shumei." [Source: Kyodo, December 6, 2012]

Recognized for his outstanding theatrical skills, Kanzaburo won fame for his performances both as a "tachiyaku" male actor and an "onnagata" female impersonator. As an ambitious actor and director, he undertook various bold initiatives to attract not only conventional fans but also younger audiences to kabuki plays, including staging performances in 1994 at a theater in Tokyo's Shibuya district — an area popular with young people — and founding the Heisei Nakamuraza troupe in 2000.

At Theater Cocoon in Shibuya the dramas were topical and created with a young audience in mind in order to keep kabuki alive as a performing art. They were set to modern music directed by Kazuyoshi Kushida. The Heisei Nakamuraza troupe, a 100-strong all-male company, is noted for productions that respect kabuki's centuries-old heritage yet burst with contemporary energy and humor that are evocative of the early days of kabuki theater in the 17th century. The troupe performed in New York in 2004 and in New York and Washington, D.C., in 2007.

In 2008 Kanzaburo was awarded the Purple Ribbon by Emperor Akihito for contributions to Japanese art. Mr. Kanzaburo had health problems, including hearing loss, that forced him to stop acting at the end of 2010. He made a brief comeback in late 2011, but was hospitalized in June for esophageal cancer. Mr. Kanzaburo is survived by his wife, Yoshie, the daughter of a Kabuki actor, and two sons, Nakamura Kankuro VI and Shichinosuke II, both kabuki actors. His brothers-in-law are Nakamura Fukusuke and Hashinosuke. His elder sister is actress Kuriko Namino.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Kanzaburo devoted himself to training for the art from his early childhood. He was hailed as a vessel of the stylized traditions of Edo kabuki, with its historic roots in Tokyo, and he also mastered the elegance of Kamigata kabuki from the Kyoto-Osaka region. He also established himself as a talented orthodox performer of traditional Japanese dance. He had many highly acclaimed roles, including Hokaibo the apostate priest in "Sumidagawa Gonichi no Omokage" and fishmonger Danshichi Kurobei in "Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami," roles in which he gave unrestrained but apt performances. His dancing, presented in "Kagami-jishi" and other works, was also highly evaluated and won the praise of cognoscenti.

Kanzaburo's cheerful, amiable character was loved by the public. He performed in the 1999 NHK period drama "Genroku Ryoran" in the lead role of Oishi Kuranosuke, leader of the 47 samurai avengers in the popular Chushingura tale, as well as various roles in films and comedies at theaters. He also often appeared in TV talk shows. Known for his clear-cut enunciation and broad circle of friends, Kanzaburo was expected to support the next kabuki generation with his popularity and ability. He was close to such people as actresses Shinobu Otake and Naomi Fujiyama, actor and comedian Beat Takeshi, former baseball player Suguru Egawa and jazz trumpeter Terumasa Hino. His supporters' association is led by former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.

Kanzaburo was known for his strong sense of responsibility toward the performing arts. He performed continuously regardless of whether it was traditional or newly created kabuki, or contemporary drama. He also was active in offering production ideas and was known, as was his father, Nakamura Kanzaburo XVII, for the versatility he displayed when playing a wide variety of roles. "[A member of] Nakamura-ya (Kanzaburo's kabuki family name) is a performer concerned with even the angle of a fan in his hands during his performance. He is a devoted worker and a theorist who calculates in detail how he would be seen by the audience," a source close to the kabuki theater said. He is said to have been taking a tough stance with regard to kabuki performance. He did not hesitate, when Kankuro, who was then Kantaro, was in the midst of a subpar performance, to whisper from behind, "You're awful.”

Kanzaburo always looked for new methods of kabuki performance. He actively worked together with prominent figures in contemporary drama, like Hideki Noda and Kazuyoshi Kushida. He also worked with popular scriptwriter Kankuro Kudo and brought excitement to the audience by making zombies appear in his kabuki performance.

But in late 2010, his life, which seemed to have been running smoothly, took a new turn. He became absent from his stage performances repeatedly after he was diagnosed with sudden deafness. But he came back to work. Kanzaburo also began walking training soon after he underwent an esophagus cancer operation in late July, apparently with a keen desire to appear together with his son when he assumes the name of Kankuro and to join the inaugural performance at the new Kabuki-za. Before the operation, Kanzaburo was able to appear with his son for the name-assuming performance in Tokyo. But he was unable to take the stage in Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto and Hakata.

Mitsugoro X, Head of the Bando School of Kabuki

Bando Mitsugoro X is a popular kabuki actor and headmaster of the Bando school of Japanese traditional dance. Mitsugoro's great-grandfather, Mitsugoro VII (1882-1961), was called the god of dance. Mitsugoro, 56, said that unlike many actors who explored new forms of dance in the rapidly modernizing society during the Meiji era (1868-1912), his great-grandfather made efforts to preserve the family's tradition. [Source: Junichiro Shiozak, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 17, 2012]

"Thanks to his efforts, the Bando school's strong Edo-period flavors have been maintained until today," said Mitsugoro. "Luckily, I clearly remember him. At the time, I was very young and he was very late in his life. He laid his hopes on me, and in his sick bed, he said he wanted to personally instruct me, as he didn't want me to pick up bad habits.”

Although Mitsugoro had no chance to learn from his great-grandfather, he says he always returns to his original objective when he remembers him."He expected much of me as a master dancer, so I can't be lazy in practicing," he said. "I learned from Mitsugoro VII, Mitsugoro VIII, and my father Mitsugoro IX, who was very severe in my training. My mother was also serious about my training. They all infused me with the spirit and techniques of dance. So the teachings of various people are contained in me.”

Among of Mitsugoro’s favorite pieces are Ryusei and Kisen, specialties of his great-grandfather. Ryusei is a comical piece in which Mitsugoro will perform the role of a shooting star crashing in on a rendezvous of Kengyu (Cow Herder Star) and Shokujo (Celestial Weaving Princess). The two stars, called Altair and Vega in English, are characters in a love story that is celebrated by the Tanabata festival each year. Kisen humorously depicts Kisen, a chic priest, falling in love with a teashop waitress who is a caricature of beautiful poetess Ono no Komachi.

Mitsugoro sometimes performs with his son in Ryusei. "I hope my son will imprint my dancing in his memory and develop his skills based on its image," he said. "I was a little over 40 years old when I first felt dancing was fun. It takes a lot of time for us to develop that attitude. I hope he learns from me through physical training." He also said, "As headmaster of the Bando school, I'd say it's not the family but individuals that maintain performing styles and skills.”

Bando Tamasaburo, Star Onnagata

Kabuki actor Bando Tamasaburo says he feels a growing sense of responsibility to pass down the art form to the next generation of performers. "While training young kabuki actors for female roles, I want to uncover hidden kabuki classics and create new art that surpasses [public expectations]. I want to pass down new plays from the present Heisei era to future generations," Tamasaburo, 62, said in a recent interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun. [Source: Junichiro Shiozaki, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 28, 2012]

Junichiro Shiozaki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Designated as a living national treasure for his work as an onnagata (a kabuki actor for female roles) in July 2012, Tamasaburo follows in the footsteps of his predecessors Onoe Baiko VII, Nakamura Utaemon VI, Nakamura Jakuemon IV and Nakamura Shikan VII. In fact, Tamasaburo is the first onnagata living national treasure since Nakamura Jakuemon IV's death in February 2012. "My designation was made in the hope of securing kabuki's legacy for the next generation and helping train young actors, wasn't it? It's an honor, but it doesn't feel real," he said. "My friends and people around me have been excited about it, but that will soon pass. Regardless, I'll try and not let this honor distract me from my goals.”

Tamasaburo was not born to a kabuki family. "I hope my designation will show people that kabuki is not a world solely dominated by the sons of noble kabuki families," he said. "It's an open world where hard work matters more than blood. To expand the number of onnagata, I'll use my title as a living national treasure to do good things. There's lots of things I want to do, such as find promising youth for the stage.”

A Tokyo native, Tamasaburo made his kabuki debut as Bando Kinoji in 1957. Morita Kanya XIV took him under his wing and he became Bando Tamasaburo V in 1964. Having played female roles in kabuki classics, he relishes the challenge of bringing new plays to the art form and has performed on the stage of French choreographer Maurice Bejart. He has also recently garnered acclaim for his performances in Chinese Kunqu operas both in China and Japan.

Tamasaburo spent a lof of 2012 in Kodomura on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture, the base of wadaiko (drum) group Kodo. He became the group's art director in April 2012 and has gone on to produce their nationwide tour, One Earth Tour 2012~Densetsu, which will run until the end of the year. In the national tour, Tamasaburo changed the conventional style of wadaiko ensembles. He also encouraged the group to change their costumes from a short hanten coat and fundoshi loincloths to tank tops and jeans. The change made long-time Kodo fans upset.

Danjuro Family

Danjuro is a stage name taken on by kabuki actors of the Ichikawa family, and is considered the most prestigious of the kabuki stage names. Most members of the family have been blood relatives, although some were adopted.Danjuro I created the traditional style called aragoto, characterized by dashing, vigorous performances, during the Genroku era from the late 17th century to the early 18th century. Danjuro VII chose the 18 kabuki plays that became specialties of the Ichikawa family, including "Kanjincho" (The Subscription Scroll), while Danjuro IX was known as a master performer. Danjuro XII assumed the renowned stage name held by a number of great kabuki actors since the Edo period (1603-1867). [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri, February 05, 2013; Kyodo, February 5, 2013]

Junichiro Shiozaki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “The name Ichikawa Danjuro has a special meaning in the kabuki world. It symbolizes a masculine style of kabuki known as Edo kabuki that developed during the Edo period (1603-1867) in Edo (present day Tokyo). Kabuki actors who assumed the professional stage name over about a 300-year period up until the current Danjuro XII have handed down the tradition from generation to generation. They also expanded the range of their performance styles and polished them into a sophisticated family legacy. [Source: Junichiro Shiozaki, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 12, 2012]

"Aragoto" is a dashing, vigorous performing style that was created by Danjuro I during the Genroku era from the late 17th to early 18th centuries. The style became very popular and has been a signature mark of Danjuro ever since. Danjuro VIII was a popular actor but killed himself at the age of 32 in the late Edo period. Some of the exhibits are being shown to the public for the first time, including a letter describing his family's sadness at the time of his death.

" Danjuro XII told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “I assumed the name [of Danjuro], but I have my own characteristics as an individual. If I stick to the idea that Danjuro should be this and that, I end up constraining myself. I just perform to continue the family into the future while trying to ensure that I won't be regarded as less than my ancestors.”

"Japan began isolating itself [from other countries in the early Edo period]," Danjuro XII said. "Danjuro VII, VIII and IX lived when Japanese culture took on its most distinctive nature in that closed environment. Some of the letters on display remind me of the sophisticated, charming atmosphere of the time [that influenced those three Danjuros]. Living in modern times, I want to take over their spirit.”

Kanjincho is one of 18 kabuki plays chosen as the family's specialties. In 2012, Danjuro XII played the role of Benkei, the right-hand man of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the young fugitive hero of the Genji clan, in the morning show and the role of Togashi, a barrier keeper who stopped Yoshitsune's party during their flight in the afternoon show. Matsumoto Koshiro, also an acclaimed kabuki actor, switches roles with Danjuro in the morning and afternoon performances.

Kanjincho was a creation of Danjuro VII based on a noh play on the same theme."In Kanjincho, unnecessary elements were eliminated to follow the simplicity of noh to enhance its spiritual factors," Danjuro said. "Danjuro IX [who was dubbed the god of stage] performed the role of Benkei, emphasizing his inner struggles. It's a demanding role for an actor.”

Danjuro XII

Recognized for his outstanding theatrical skills, Danjuro XII won fame for his performances as a “tachiyaku” male actor together with “onnagata” female impersonator Bando Tamasaburo. Danjuro also contributed to boosting the popularity of kabuki by giving grand name-succession celebrations, including a series of performances at the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo that ran for three months, an unusually long period for such celebrations. He is also the only kabuki actor to have given shumei performances abroad, staging them in such U.S. cities as New York, Washington and Los Angeles. [Source: Kyodo, February 5, 2013 +++]

“Danjuro, whose real name was Natsuo Horikoshi, was born in Tokyo, the first son of Ichikawa Danjuro XI. He made his debut in 1953 at age 7 as Ichikawa Natsuo and became Ichikawa Shinnosuke VI in 1958. Losing his father at age 19, Danjuro studied under his uncle and kabuki actor Onoe Shoroku II before becoming Ichikawa Ebizo V in 1969. In April 1985 in a name-succession ceremony known as “shumei,” he became Ichikawa Danjuro XII.” +++

“Danjuro XII was popular for his grand and expansive style of acting and successful performance of a number of roles that the line of Danjuro specializes in After being diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia in May 2004, Danjuro temporarily left the stage between 2004 and 2005 to receive treatment. He made a comeback in May 2006. He died of pneumonia at a Tokyo hospital in February 2013 at the age of 66. His son Ichikawa Ebizo is also a kabuki actor. Ebizo described Danjuro as a man “who cared about people around him before caring about himself. He was a person of great love.” +++

Life and Career of Danjuro XII

Ichikawa Danjuro XII symbolized the bold Edo kabuki style. Although he was born to a distinguished kabuki family, he underwent many hardships since his younger days. At 19, when he was called Shinnosuke, his father, Ichikawa Danjuro XI, died. With little time to learn the performing skills of his father, a popular kabuki actor called "Ebi sama," he had to ask other senior kabuki actors for lessons. Danjuro XII boldly performed the cross-eyed nirami glare, a popular expression in kabuki, in the Ichikawa family's wide-eyed style, saying, "Let me show you my nirami," drawing great applause. The Ichikawa family's style of glaring is said to have the power to keep the audience from catching a cold.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 5, 2013 +]

“Danjuro, whose real name was Natsuo Horikoshi, was known for his heroic performing style in "aragoto" kabuki plays featuring exaggerated postures, makeup and costumes. He was especially praised for his performances as Benkei in "Kanjincho" and Sukeroku in "Sukeroku Yukari no Edo Zakura." Born in 1946 as the eldest son of Ichikawa Danjuro XI, Danjuro first appeared on stage at the age of 7 as Ichikawa Natsuo at Tokyo's Kabuki-za theater in 1953. He assumed the stage name Ichikawa Shinnosuke VI in 1958 and the name Ichikawa Ebizo X in 1969 before succeeding in 1985 to the name Ichikawa Danjuro XII, the paramount stage name of the Ichikawa house of kabuki. While giving full play to his skill at acting aragoto roles in a magnificent, powerful manner, Danjuro also devoted himself to restoring ancient kabuki programs and fashioning new styles of performance. +

“He took the name of Ichikawa Ebizo X at 23, shortly after graduating from Nihon University College of Art. Around that time, the kabuki world was facing waning popularity. Even at the Kabuki-za theater in Tokyo, holding performances throughout the year became impossible. Expectations were high for him to win back kabuki's popularity. His performances were harshly criticized, however. Some said he was humble and hard-working but his performances were immature and rigid. Others said he was a late-bloomer. Yet he made steady efforts, and learned to exude a dignity and demonstrate skills that allowed him to live up to his great family name. +

“When he took the name of Ichikawa Danjuro XII in 1985, he performed at Kabuki-za for three months. His efforts contributed to a new wave of kabuki popularity that has continued through to today. He was known as a humble person. When he received the Medal with Purple Ribbon in 2007, he said: "I'm a poor performer. I've been awarded probably because I'm doing my best [to perform] while overcoming my illness." As a member of the government's Council for Cultural Affairs, Danjuro XII also contributed to activities aimed at protecting the beauty of the Japanese language and transmitting the allure of traditional culture. He once said: "My role is to let people learn about Japan's traditions and the culture of the Edo period. I'd like to further develop kabuki, with pride as a Japanese, and show it to the rest of the world." +

“During his performance of Kanjincho at the Paris Opera House, he performed both the roles of Benkei--the right-hand man of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the young fugitive hero of the Genji clan--and that of Togashi, a gatekeeper who stopped Yoshitsune's party during their flight, in alternating performances, receiving thunderous applause for his vigorous performances. On that stage, he spoke in French, saying he was happy to be able to perform at a theater that was built at the time when Danjuro IX was alive. +

“Since his mid-50s, however, the life of Danjuro XII was the scene of a series of struggles with illness. In 2004, he was taken to a hospital in an ambulance on the day when he was to perform to commemorate his eldest son's succession to the Ebizo name. He was diagnosed with leukemia. A regular medical checkup the following year again raised doubts that he had beaten leukemia. When he was discharged from the hospital in 2006, he said, "It is as if I was coming back from the most painful of hells." Two months before Danjuro’s death he developed complications from pneumonia while performing at the Minami-za theater in Osaka. He was hospitalized and his subsequent appearances canceled. +

Deaths Cast Shadow over Kabuki

Junichiro Shiozaki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Officials at Shochiku Co., a production company whose business includes kabuki plays, have expressed concerns about the future popularity of the art form following the recent deaths of famed actors Ichikawa Danjuro XII and Nakamura Kanzaburo. Kanzaburo, who died in December at age 57, was one of the few bankable kabuki actors following the deaths of many renowned performers since the Kabuki-za theater closed in 2010. Other recently deceased kabuki legends are: Nakamura Tomijuro, a living national treasure who died at 81 in January 2011; Person of Cultural Merit and Japan Actors' Association head Nakamura Shikan, who died in October 2011 at 83; and Nakamura Jakuemon, an Order of Culture recipient who died in February 2012 at 91. [Source: Junichiro Shiozaki, Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network, February 6, 2013 \\]

“Many kabuki fans near the Kabuki-za theater in Tokyo's Ginza district expressed their shock over Danjuro XII's death. The newly rebuilt theater is scheduled to reopen in April. "I wonder who will perform at the opening of the new Kabuki-za theater. They [Danjuro XII and Kanzaburo] had such a prominent presence that it will be difficult for younger actors to replace them," a 69-year-old woman from Yamanashi Prefecture said. "If Danjuro XII could have lived five more years, he would have been able to pass the torch to [his son Ichikawa] Ebizo XI." A 49-year-old fan from Tokyo said: "I haven't felt like seeing a kabuki play since Kanzaburo died. I wonder if there's anyone who can replace him." Kanzaburo drew in younger audiences who were believed to have no interest in kabuki. Meanwhile, Danjuro XII helped boost kabuki's image with his high profile and skilled performances. \\

“While Shochiku has not released attendance figures, a source close to the Tokyo-based firm said, "After moving to the Shimbashi Enbujo theater in Higashi-Ginza, Tokyo, because of construction on the new Kabuki-za theater, the company has been facing a tough business environment and even fell into the red in 2012." Kabuki got a boost in popularity following the farewell performances at the old Kabuki-za theater in April 2010 as a number of plays could be performed simultaneously at several theaters in Tokyo. Performances commemorating the successions of well-known actors to their predecessors' names were especially popular. \\

“However, one worrisome trend is that old and new fans of kabuki are veering off in separate directions. While typical kabuki fans are growing older, younger audiences have been attending plays at nontraditional venues, such as the Cocoon Kabuki at Shibuya Bunkamura Theater Cocoon in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. In 2012, performances marking the succession of Nakamura Kankuro VI in February and Ichikawa Ennosuke IV in June and July drew large audiences. However, in other months, it was much harder to pull in crowds.According to kabuki theater officials, the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake dealt a body blow to attendance figures. Since the disaster, the number of people attending evening plays has dramatically declined. Although some theaters reduced the number of plays and introduced earlier shows, it made little difference due to decline in group audiences. \\

Ebizo, Famous Kabuki Actor Injured in Barroom Fight

A great deal of attention was given to the assault of popular kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizo in a -barroom fight at a club in Minato Ward if Tokyo in November 2010. Ebizo was hospitalized for two weeks with a broken cheekbone, broken teeth, bloody eye and other injuries sustained in the fight. Surgery was performed on his cheek bone to make sure it didn’t interfere with breathing in his nasal passages.

In a highly-publicized press conference held after he was released from the hospital Ebizo excused himself indefinitely from all kabuki performances. At the press conference he said, “I have caused many problems and anxiety for many people. I am truly sorry for it and deeply regret creating such a great flutter.” Japan’s main kabuki organizer formally called all of Ebizo’s stage performances. Following the incident commericals featuring the actor by the food company Yamaki and medical supplies producer Ip were pulled off the air.”

Ebizo is famous for the cross-eyed nirami glare that is so popular in kabuki. An injury like the one he suffered could restrict his ability to effectively perform this move. At the press conference he said, “While I still feel numbness in my face, I deeply regret that one factor that led to the incident was my lack of sense of social responsibility and my pechant for regular drinking.” He also admitted to a “lack of decency” and said his “arrogance” was the cause of the whole affair. Ebizo was also criticized for going out drinking the same day he cancelled out of press conference for his schedule new year performance. Ebizo returned to the stage in July, 2011]

Twenty-six-year-old Rion Ito — a half Japan, half African-American bozuzuka motorcycle gang member — was charged with assault. Prosecutors sought a two year prison sentence for Ito on assault charges based on allegations that he slapped Ebizo in the head and face and kicked him in the abdomen. By that time Ebizo said he didn’t want Ito to be tried, insisting he had settled his differences with the man. In February 2011, Ito pleaded guilty to charges of assaulting and injuring Ebizo. The media sometimes referred to Ito as a “hafu,” a somewhat derogatory term used to describe people who are half Japanese.

Story Behind Ebizo’s Barroom Fight

In early morning hours after the incident Ebizo — known in some circles as the Kabuki Prince — returned home and his wife — a former TV announcer Mao Kobayashi on “News Zero” “called for an ambulance at 7:20am, saying “My husband has come home injured, According to insiders this was a big mistake. She should have called people in the kabuki community who could have arranged for help for the actor without drawing publicity. Ebizo and Kobayashi were just married the previous July. Their glamorous wedding was televised and recieved a great amount of media attention. She was preganant at the time of the fight.

A the bar where the fight took place Ebizo apparently got into conversation with a group that included Ito and man described the former leader of a bozuzuka motorcycle gang, and then began drinking with them. He has told the police that he was struck without warning when he was trying to assist a drunken friend. Blood from several individuals was found at the scene of the fight. Anonymous witnesses said Ebizo’s behavior when drunk could be quite bad and said he had been barred from other bars in the past.

Ito was quoted as saying “It’s true I punched him...I got angry. I was the only one who punched him. But it wasn’t me who picked a fight.” Ebizo said the man picked a fight with him and punched him suddenly while was taking care of someone go had passed out while drinking. Some witnessed at the bar said Ebizo became aggressive. Ito said he was tying to defend a friend — a former leader of a bike gang — who was head-butted by Ebizo. The former bike gang leader told police Ebizo had been aggressive when trying to assist him but had not actually physically attacked him. There were some reports that ex-gang leader claimed he had received injuries requiring 10 days of treatment, including a bloodied nose.

Ebizo’s Injuries

Makiko Tatebayashi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Ebizo suffered a fractured bone in his face — a part of the body important in his line of work — that required surgery. ..Ebizo's father, kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro, told reporters his son had a depressed fracture on the left side of his nose, a bruise on his left eyelid and several broken teeth. The surgery was performed on the left maxillary sinus, the location of the depressed fracture.” [Source: Makiko Tatebayashi Yomiuri Shimbun, December 6, 2010]

“According to Prof. Yasushi Sugawara of Jichi Medical University, a specialist in facial restorative surgery, the maxillary sinus is only slightly bigger than a 500 yen coin, and is surrounded by one of the thinnest bones in the face. If one of the thicker facial bones such as those of the cheeks or around the eyes had been damaged, a massive operation would have been necessary, involving restructuring the fractured bones and stabilizing them with tiny titanium plates.”

“However, fractures of the maxillary sinuses do not require such complicated procedures. In fact, surgery on this area is common for sinus problems. In Ebizo's case, blood was drained from the sinus through an incision in his mouth. Bone fractures in this area sometimes are treated by raising the sunken bone with a special tool.” "Bones [above the maxillary sinuses] fit together and heal naturally. In most cases, there's no noticeable deformation," Sugawara said.

“Prof. Kiyonori Harii, a plastic surgeon at Kyorin University, said lingering effects from Ebizo's injuries, such as facial palsy, are rare with such facial fractures.” "If the bones around the eyes are broken, it could obstruct the movement of the eyeball, making it difficult to do the 'nirami.' But that would be highly unlikely in a case like Ebizo's," Harii said. However, Sugawara warned that "lumps from bruises could stick around, which could affect his acting career." It usually takes about two weeks for internal bleeding around eyes to dissipate, and about a month for facial swelling to go down. Scars on the face could take as long as six months to heal.

Ebizo After His Bar room Bust-Up

Ebizo returned to the stage in Tokyo in July 2011 after a hiatus of several months. . Ebizo along with his father, Ichikawa Danjuro, appeared in one of a series of kabuki shows, making a comeback in front of a sellout crowd after his last previous performance in Kyoto in late September 2010.

In August 2012, Junichiro Shiozaki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Ebizo has devoted himself to performing kabuki, overcoming a suspension from work resulting from being involved in a bar brawl two years ago. "Before, I was too avid for making something new," he said. "Honestly, I performed with a sense of resistance at that time. I'd have begun to dislike kabuki if I had continued driving straight ahead as I was doing at that time. Now, on the contrary, there are many existing plays I want to perform," he said with a smile. "[As an actor], anything can stimulate my growth. How to grapple with kabuki for the rest of my life is important for me.” [Source: Junichiro Shiozaki, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 10, 2012]

In March 2013, Ichikawa Ebizo performed the lead roles at the March Hanagata Kabuki show being held at Le Theater Ginza, featuring various appealing elements of the traditional theater style. Ebizo said the event is meant to cheer up fans of the art and to pay tribute to his father, Ichikawa Danjuro.

Ebizo is the successor to the prestigious Ichikawa Danjuro family."Even though I'm a member of the family, it's quite out of the question if my stage performance is poor," he said. "So, performing well is my priority. I should establish myself as an actor in one generation.” The Danjuro family is known for 18 kabuki plays chosen by Danjuro VII as the family's specialties. "I have to succeed to the family legacy and hand it down to the next generation," he said. "Being born to the family, I have responsibilities and restrictions. Even though I live in modern times, I should remain aware of them.”

Ebizo Plays 10 Different Roles in a Single Play

Junichiro Shiozaki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Popular kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizo is performing 10 different characters of various social status--from daimyo to courtesan--in Date no Juyaku (The 10 roles of Sendaihagi), a play that contains exciting midair stunts and grand scene changes. Ebizo stars for the second time in the play, which is at Shimbashi Enbujo theater in Higashi-Ginza, Tokyo. His first performance of the play was in January 2010. [Source: Junichiro Shiozaki, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 10, 2012]

The play was created by playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV in the late Edo period (1603-1867). It was premiered by Ichikawa Danjuro VII, one of Ebizo's ancestors. It was not staged again until 1979, when Ichikawa Ennosuke III (currently Ichikawa En-o II) revived the play to perform the leading role. The play was a kind of rewritten version of Sendaihagi, one of the most famous kabuki plays, which depicts a plot to take over the wealthy Date clan in Sendai. Date no Juyaku is designed so that one actor can perform all the key roles. Ebizo learned from En-o II how to perform in a leading role in Yoshitsune Senbonzakura, a popular kabuki classic.

Ebizo said before the opening day of the play, "I'm closely connected to the play as it was first staged by my ancestor." He also said that he had been much moved as he learned a lot from En-o in performing the play. "I'll be on stage doing my best," he said. About performing the 10 roles, he said: "In TV dramas and films, actors are required to perform realistically. So we need to perform each role distinctly, as though we have multiple personalities. But in kabuki, there are kinds of drawers that contain the rules for each type of role, such as a feudal lord and a courtesan. "If we've performed each role [following the rules], we can then perform all 10 roles. If we get too caught up in the roles and perform them realistically, it's rather unsophisticated. It's cool to perform according to the rules in the drawers.”

Regarding fast changes of the roles, he said: "When we change our outfits [to switch roles], we can change our characters in less than a second. It's routine in our world." "The play [Date no Juyaku] has a steady classical foundation, so I'll perform it by observing its classical style," he said. The play is part of the Hachigatsu Hanagata Kabuki (August kabuki program).

Image Sources: 1) Artelino Yoshitaki Utawgawa 2) 12) 13) Japan Arts Council, 3) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 4) 6) Library of Congress 5) Samurai Archives, 7) 8) 9) 10) 14) illustrations JNTO, 11) National Museum in Tokyo

Text Sources: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2014

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