Just two months after Nakamura Kanzaburo, one more giant of the Kabuki world took his last walk on the hanamichi (花道) the platform that runs through the audience and leads backstage. Ichikawa Danjuro XII (十二代目 市川 團十郎), heir of a 350 years old tradition and head of one of the most important families-guilds of Kabuki, Naritaya, passed yesterday, February 3 on the last day of winter according to the old Japanese calendar, at the age of 66.
The first time I watched Kabuki it was a few days before the historical Kabuki-za theater in Ginza closed for demolition and full reconstruction; in those performances Danjuro played one of the most famous roles his family has contributed to the repertoire, that of Sukeroku (助六) the leading role of the play with the same name and symbol of the “Edokko” (江戸っ子) the townspeople who (like Danjuro himself) were born and raised in old Tokyo and who created a culture as (or even more) important as the one of the samurai and the courtiers of Kyoto.
Since then, I tried to follow him as much as I could and every time I came to realize deeper and deeper his value as an actor and a director. In a theater genre as formalized as Kabuki, it takes true inspiration and talent for one to be able to express oneself and to create something new –and Danjuro managed to do exactly that every time he set foot on the stage without ever doing injustice to what came to him by the eleven generations that preceded him.
In Naritaya’s web site his personal message starts with the phrase “Ii yakusha ni naru” (いい役者になる) that is “I want to be a great actor”. I don’t think I’ll be alone these days in arguing that he indeed managed to become one or in feeling sad because this true symbol of Kabuki didn’t make it to welcome the new Kabuki-za the way he bade farewell to the old one (the reconstructed theater will open this April and, of course, Danjuro’s name was on the program).
Maybe his place will be taken by his natural and artistic heir, his son Ichikawa Ebizo XI (十一代目市川海老蔵) also a very talented actor (albeit of somewhat still undeveloped character) who like Danjuro has been living inside Kabuki since he was six. Even though I am studying a centuries old tradition myself, it is almost impossible to contemplate how much the burden 35 years-old Ebizo was already shouldering has multiplied since last night, neither how much it will keep on multiplying each time someone from the audience cries out “Naritaya!” as is customary in crucial moments of any Kabuki play. Because with each such “kakegoe” (掛け声) he will certainly remember how big his father was and how much work he still needs to do until he deservingly earns the name “Danjuro XIII”. Have a good trip –the both of you.