in a pickle
Kabuki theatre in Japan
In a pickle
Two acting greats die, throwing their great tradition into question
The death of Danjuro Ichikawa XII this month robs kabuki of its most revered figure. Danjuro was as recognisable to generations of Japanese as Laurence Olivier was to British audiences. With Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII, who died in December, Danjuro shepherded kabuki through a period of modern revival that saw the form on television and in foreign theatres.
Shouldering the kabuki tradition is as much a burden as an honour, however. The great kabuki actors inherit their title, and if one of them has no suitable heir, he adopts one. Danjuro was descended from a family that pioneered kabuki’s larger-than-life style 300 years ago. He endured a gruelling, even violent, apprenticeship under his father. “What I hated most,” he later said, “was when my father threw things at me.”
Performing requires concentration and great physical strength. Stomping around the stage swinging a sword in costumes that weighed 60kg (130lb), Danjuro came off every night sweating and exhausted. A climax of his performances was a cross-eyed nirami (glare), said to drive off evil, that he had to project right to the back of the theatre.
Kabuki fans are convinced the intensity of acting and carrying around centuries of tradition shortens the lives of the greatest performers. Kanzaburo, who first performed at just three, was 57 when he died of complications from cancer. (Danjuro died from pneumonia, aged 66.) Kanzaburo’s sons, Kankuro VI and Shichinosuke II, inherit the custodianship of a lineage that stretches back 18 generations.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, some buckle under the weight of these great acting clans. In 2010 Danjuro’s son, Ebizo Ichikawa XI, was beaten up in a Tokyo nightclub brawl. The incident led to his suspension from kabuki and the blackening of the family name. For weeks afterwards, Ebizo had to endure the sort of media circus that accompanies Hollywood scandals, and repeated questions about whether his nirami would survive the assault. His career has yet to recover completely.
Kabuki means to act eccentrically or erratically. Some—though by no means all—consider the form to be light relief compared with Japan’s more austere noh tradition. It was once far less respectable than now, beginning as all-female casts before moving to the capital’s brothel district. The first in the Danjuro line was murdered by a rival on stage, in 1704. Now, its rebellious, earthy origins have long been pickled in artistic tradition, as Donald Richie, a scholar of Japanese culture, has put it. Only the Kabukiza’s reopening will tell if the new generation can preserve this tradition, while modernising it enough to entice younger audiences back.