Kabuki in London

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Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanses theatre that's performed solely by men and allows little scope for contemporary interpretation. Time Out meets Japan's leading kabuki star prior to his arrival in London for a show at Sadler's Wells.

  • It’s a strange experience, interviewing a megastar of whom you’ve never heard. From the painstaking negotiations required to steal half an hour in his company, to the beady behaviour of his entourage in the corporate interview room, you’d think Ichikawa Ebizo XI was Tom Cruise. And in Japan, well, he sort of is. Cruise may recently have dabbled in samurai, but Ebizo has been swirling swords in kabuki theatre since he was five years old. Aged 28, he’s now the hottest property in this venerable Japanese artform, as well as a major TV and film star in his home country.

    Londoners can see what the fuss is about later this month, when Ebizo makes his UK debut with two productions. I saw the first, ‘Kasane’, at a spring kabuki festival in the provincial Japanese town of Kotohira – think Chichester with lanterns. Originally part of a longer play, which rejoiced in the name ‘The Surplice-Hung Pine and the True Blade of Narita’, ‘Kasane’ features Ebizo in the role (originally played by his ancestor Ichikawa Danjuro VII) of the handsome but dastardly Yoemon. The Ichikawa family, the most famed of many kabuki dynasties, specialise in macho parts – although in London, Ebizo will also perform the onnagata (male playing female) role of the wisteria maiden in the dance piece, ‘Fuji Musume’.

    Kabuki can be hard for Western audiences to penetrate. The performances are a highly stylised fusion of music (the clack of wooden clappers and the twang of the shamisen) and obscure vocal and physical mannerism. I’ve seen it described as opera meets panto meets silent movies, an illustration which captures something of kabuki’s poetry and visual splendour, alongside the fact that one minute it’s austere and formalised and the next, ribald and rude.

    Watching ‘Kasane’, it’s instantly apparent why Ebizo has made a splash. His movements are as meticulous, and minute, as Chaplin’s, he’s gorgeous, and, even (or especially) when he’s painted tip to toe in ghostly white make-up, his eyes are incredibly expressive. In this particular doomed romance, Ebizo enacts the moment when Yoemon realises he has not only killed his lover’s father, but that he once slept with her mother – which might make his lover his daughter! Cue all manner of eye-rolling and curiously strangulated howls. But it’s not just a piece of exotica. The melodramatic finale, when the murdered Kasane’s spirit rises to reel in the escaping Yoemon, and Ebizo staggers helplessly backwards towards his fate, is enthralling.

    Ebizo plays questions about his success with a straight bat: ‘I don’t feel like I’ve achieved so much,’ he says, through an interpreter. ‘I still feel like a beginner. I need to study more and learn more. The senior actors I work with have better ways to communicate with the audience than I do.’ The modesty, genuine or otherwise, is to be expected in a country as deferential as Japan, and a culture as hierarchical as kabuki. Ebizo continues a thirteen-generation line of Ichikawa actors, starting with the legendary Danjuro I (1660-1704). Ebizo is a stage name, denoting his status, which he inherited in 2004; he used to be called Shinnosuke, and, when his father relinquishes the title, he will one day be Danjuro.

    As with all kabuki actors, Ebizo has no say in this process. No one chooses a career in kabuki; they’re born to it. Outsiders need not apply – least of all women. That said, the artform was created by a woman, Izumo no Okuni, in 1603, and was initially exclusively female. But this was too saucy for the ruling Tokugawa shogunate, which outlawed female participation in 1629. With rare exceptions, the interdict still applies. So this isn’t a medium that offers much room for manoeuvre.

    Has that ever felt frustrating? ‘Of course, I have had periods of revolt,’ says Ebizo. ‘When I was a boy, I wanted to be a pirate. But on the other hand, it is an honour to follow in the pattern of my ancestors.’ And to follow the pattern pretty closely, too. New plays are infrequent; the
    repertoire is almost entirely classical. There’s little opportunity for younger practitioners to put their personal stamp on a role. Tradition dictates everything, from miniature movements to the slightest vocal inflection. ‘ I am not,’ says Ebizo, ‘allowed to reinvent any of those patterns.’

    Small wonder that he has sought a more flexible type of fulfilment elsewhere: in the hit historical drama ‘Musashi’ on Japanese TV, in the film ‘Sea With No Exit’, about a baseball pitcher turned kamikaze pilot, on TV commercials, and in a (recently ended) Posh and Becks-style tabloid relationship with actress Yonekura Ryoko. There’s much talk in Tokyo of a ‘kabuki boom’, whereby Ebizo’s celebrity will woo younger audiences to the ancient artform. It needs them: the crowds at Kotohira made Chichester Festival look like the Ministry of Sound.

    According to Ebizo, ‘the number of young people in Japan who come to kabuki performances is increasing every year.’ My own unscientific poll suggested otherwise: certainly Ebizo is popular, one Japanese friend told me, ‘but you can like David Beckham without liking football.’ Does it matter? Well, it’s a thrilling artform that could be more exciting still, were it not so in thrall to tradition. Maybe Ebizo is the man to loosen things up – he does, after all, show signs of a less rigid approach to kabuki custom. What, for example, would he do were his son one day to foreswear the family craft? ‘Well,’ says the superstar, thinking as liberally as he can, ‘I’d adopt.’

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