A Risky Path for His Art: Kabuki Actor Ichikawa Ebizō XI

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In 2020 the kabuki star Ichikawa Ebizō was meant to take the celebrated stage name Danjūrō, becoming the thirteenth of his family to bear it. When COVID-19 threw those plans into disarray, he was forced to think about the best way to keep kabuki vital into the future. An interview with the actor on his art.

Ichikawa Ebizō XI

Born in 1977 as the eldest son of kabuki performer Ichikawa Danjūrō XII. Made his stage debut in 1983, at age five, and took the Ebizō name in 2004. Has led the arrangement of numerous tours to share Japan’s traditional arts with younger generations, including shows in Singapore, his 2016 Grand Japan Theater, with performances in the United Arab Emirates and New York’s Carnegie Hall, and the 2020 Koten e no Izanai (An Invitation to the Classics) in Japan. Won the 2014 Japan Academy Film Prize for best lead actor for his role in Rikyū ni tazuneyo (Ask This of Rikyū).

“I’ve never felt even the slightest desire to be a trailblazer in my field.” So says Ebizō, the kabuki star who now heads the storied Ichikawa family—and whose popularity on the stage and willingness to take his art in new directions has marked him as a pioneer in the eyes of many.

Ichikawa Ebizō XI has unquestionably been pressed into the role of a pioneer, however, by a crisis threatening the future of kabuki. As he admits, “There’s a nonzero chance that kabuki could founder if things continue as they are. When Tokyo’s Kabukiza theater was relaunched in its brand-new building in 2013, people were convinced that the art was secure—that it would be just fine for hundreds of years to come in this new home. But all it took was this one coronavirus pandemic to push the kabuki world right to the edge. It feels like we’re riding on the Titanic here. It’s hard to think of a more irresponsible term to bandy about than ‘just fine’ with respect to our art today.”

A Renaming Put on Hold

The year 2020 was meant to be a milestone in Ebizō’s career. He had planned to take the stage name Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII in May, and three months of special performances at the Kabukiza were scheduled to celebrate his succession to the name carried also by his father, Danjūrō XII (1946–2013). The entire kabuki world was ready to share in this celebratory mood, and the theater’s managers were looking forward eagerly to the throngs of fans certain to come to view the shows.

As COVID-19 began to spread in Japan in late February, though, the performances were removed from the schedule; Ebizō’s formal succession to the Danjūrō title was also put on hold, and has yet to be rescheduled.

“In May, I was supposed to be busy with those performances to mark my new name—working myself to the bone, shedding ‘tears of blood,’ as we say, on the stage, day in and day out.” Instead, he found himself spending an unexpectedly luxurious amount of time at home with his two children. “Without the pandemic, I never would have had all that time with them. Indeed, I found myself thinking that this would be a nice way to spend the rest of the year.” It was not in his nature to remain quiet for long, though, and as COVID-19 forced the cancellation of events across the sports and entertainment worlds, he found himself putting together plans for a tour bringing live kabuki performances to fans all around Japan.

Keeping the Stage Lights On

Despite the cancellation of his early summer performances, Ebizō continued to enjoy a full work schedule and healthy income thanks to his film, television, and commercial appearances. There are few figures in the world of kabuki who can rely on external revenue streams like this, though. “I got on the phone to every one of my deshi—my understudies, the young people working in the Ichikawa family—and asked them how they were holding out. Some of them told me they were just holding on thanks to the emergency payments from the government, but others said that things were looking grim—that nobody was there to help them out.” Some of them had turned to making Uber Eats deliveries to stay afloat, he recalls.

Kabuki performances cannot take place with actors alone, notes Ebizō. “You’ve got musicians, lighting technicians, stagehands, prop managers, artists in charge of wigs and costumes. All of them play a part in bringing a kabuki show together. But if there are no shows, they have no income to make their living. I knew if we wanted to keep our stage culture alive we had to find a way for all these people who support the actors to maintain a livable income level.”

A mere desire to keep the stage lights burning would not be enough, of course, to ensure the success of a kabuki tour in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. A tour like this, with a large number of performers and backstage workers in constant, close contact, traveling together around the country, could easily become a superspreader event, Ebizō realized. “One misstep, and we’d end up being blamed for carrying the virus out from Tokyo, with its high infection rate, and spreading it to locations all over Japan.”

Zen-A Corp., the entertainment planning firm responsible for managing the tour and its infection countermeasures, crafted an elaborate approach to preventing COVID-19 infections among both the performers and the audiences, presenting this plan to the local organizers at each proposed stop on the tour. Reticent at first to sign on to this tour idea, the organizers were won over by the earnestness in Ebizō’s approach to pandemic safety, and one by one they agreed to take part.

The result was Koten e no Izanai, “An Invitation to the Classics,” a nationwide tour beginning on September 11, 2020, at Kumamoto Prefecture’s Yachiyoza theater and moving on to appear in 12 locations in all. “We knew that if we were going to do this tour in the middle of a pandemic, we couldn’t let it be the vector for any infections along the way,” says Ebizō. All 70 actors and stage workers underwent multiple PCR tests during the tour, and the focus was squarely on safety before profit, with only half the seats in each theater placed on sale. The tour concluded on October 29 at the civic center in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, with a perfect record of no infections among the troupe and none reported among the audience members, Ebizō states proudly.

Ebizō selected Kotobuki-shiki sanbasō, a celebratory dance performed traditionally to pray for peace in the realm and bountiful harvests, as part of the tour program to signify his wishes for a swift end to the pandemic.
Ebizō selected Kotobuki-shiki sanbasō, a celebratory dance performed traditionally to pray for peace in the realm and bountiful harvests, as part of the tour program to signify his wishes for a swift end to the pandemic.

“It felt like if nobody got a tour started, then the entire Japanese entertainment world—not just kabuki—would lose the ability to put tours on,” says the actor. “My friends in the music industry had seen their own tours cancelled, and they were all sitting around at home with nothing to do. I think that our performances got the ball rolling for them again by providing a precedent they could point to.”

There is no clear path forward for Japan as it seeks to extricate itself from the pandemic, but making steady progress back toward normalcy is all we can do, says Ebizō. “When the virus was first starting to spread, it was this ‘unknown enemy.’ Now, though, it’s clear that it’s all around us, and it could affect anyone. At the same time, relatively speaking, here in Japan we have fewer infections than countries in Europe and North America, and there’s less risk of coming down with a severe COVID-19 case. We’ve got to keep our eye on these positive aspects, too. We can’t freeze in place from fear. We’ve got to find ways to enjoy ourselves, while taking proper precautions against the disease. To continue working, while staying as safe as we can. This has to be our focus as we move forward.”

Art that Brings Performer and Audience Together

Performances began once again last August at Kabukiza, with 50% of seats kept empty to reduce viral transmission risks. Theater operators responded to government requests for safer crowd behavior by banning the vigorous shouts from audience members to encourage their favorite performers, among other measures.

Ebizō recounts that performances during the 2020 tour were marked by shouts of “Naritaya!” (the acting guild founded in the seventeenth century by Ichikawa Danjūrō I) and “Ebizō-san!” As he explains, though, these were not cases of audience members breaking the rules—they were cries from young actors waiting in the wings of the stage, produced on orders from Ebizō himself.

Less than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, he explains, audiences had already been thoroughly trained to sit in silence as they watched a show. “But when they hear someone shout out ‘Naritaya,’ it changes things. The crowd realizes, ‘hey, we’re allowed to get excited about this.’ Their applause after that point is different somehow—it’s more genuine, more alive.” This emotional response in the audience, he goes on, feeds the performers’ passion as well. A stage performance is something created by actors and audience members as they play off of one another, not just by the people on the stage.

The flexibility hinted at in this interaction is a key feature of Japan’s art, says the actor. “The beauty of the Japanese performing arts lies in their imperfections.”

Ebizō continues: “In the classical music of the West, if a performer gets the key slightly off, it’s a serious mistake that mars the performance. Japan’s instruments are different, though. A taiko drum will produce different sounds depending on the temperature or humidity that day. This creates room for a bit of play—for some differences in how a song is performed each time. Shamisen players will play notes slightly out of key on purpose. This is wabi and sabi—the imperfection and transience at the core of Japan’s culture—driving them to craft something that isn’t perfect on purpose. I believe the Japanese people need to understand this part of their culture, to grow within the play it affords them, for Japanese entertainment to really succeed.”

A Mission to Make Waves

What are his views on the future of his own part of that entertainment world? “I think we’re going to see a return to roots in kabuki at some point. A recognition that in its original form, kabuki meant kabuku—an old form of a verb meaning ‘to lean to one side,’ or ‘to depart from the ordinary.’

“Of course, it’s still important to protect and carry forward the good, old things in our culture. But we can’t let people pick up the idea that kabuki is an art form to be locked up in its box, viewed calmly, without making a sound. To get the popular understanding of our art to this place will take us through some rough seas, I think. And it will probably need to be me who brings the wind and waves. This doesn’t mean I’m eager to be the one triggering this storm, but it’s something that has to be done for kabuki’s sake.”

Kabuki needs saving, according to the actor. “I was born the eldest son of the head of the Ichikawa family. I could have enjoyed a stable, secure life by just keeping my head down, playing my roles in harmony with those around me. Indeed, there’s a part of me that wants to be just the same as everyone else. But if kabuki as a whole begins to teeter, who’s going to work to keep it standing? From a position slightly on the outside, if others in the kabuki world start to fall, I can step in to support them. And if I begin to lose my balance, they can be there for me. People have said a lot of things about the way I live my life, but I’m confident that my actions have all been with the future of kabuki in mind.”

Before his father, Ichikawa Danjūrō XII, passed away in 2013 at the age of 66, Ebizō says he taught him “never to be lonely, but always to stand independently apart from others.”

In March 2021, Ebizō will lead a troupe of more than 80 actors and staff on a second Koten e no Izanai tour of 14 venues all around Japan. The path he is choosing continues to offer little in the way of stability, but he is driven to carry kabuki forward no matter how challenging the way may be. And while he is standing independently, he is definitely not alone.

(Originally written in Japanese based on an October 30, 2020, interview. With thanks to President magazine. All photos © Hiramatsu Maho.)

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