It is difficult to imagine kabuki theater without its family traditions, the long lines of fathers and sons who have provided its leading actors for centuries and still dominate the stage today.
But what happens when one of those threads is cut, when one generation fails to pass its skills to the next?
In June, the well-known television and film actor Teruyuki Kagawa attempts to join the frayed ends of one such family line when he makes his kabuki debut at the advanced age of 46 at the Tokyo Shimbashi Enbujo Theater in Higashi-Ginza, Tokyo.
Kagawa is the son of veteran kabuki actor Ichikawa Ennosuke, 72, the creator of the Super Kabuki series, but lost contact with the kabuki world when his parents divorced. Instead, he pursued a successful career as a mainstream actor, with credits including the movies “Tokyo Sonata” and “Mt. Tsurugidake.”
Now, he is determined to reclaim his birthright. “I don’t care if I make a fool of myself and people laugh at me. I am supported by this sense of mission inside me, and I am just going to go through with the challenge,” he said
The story behind Kagawa’s return to the kabuki world is itself bound up with family and, specifically, his wish to hand on the Ichikawa tradition to his 8-year-old son, Masaaki, who made his debut with his father on June 5. The father performs under the stage name Ichikawa Chusha, while the son takes the name Ichikawa Danko.
“If my father were well, I would have just asked him to take in Masaaki. But (Ennosuke) is struggling with illness. I know that for me to start lessons at this age just won’t cut it. Who am I kidding? But I decided to enter the world of kabuki with my son so that I can serve as his shield,” he said.
While acutely conscious of his lack of kabuki skills, Kagawa feels his past experience as an actor may not be completely useless in his new profession.
“I wonder if I was subconsciously honing my acting skills, heading toward kabuki. When I think of my parents’ divorce, my early life as an actor, and the fact that this year marks the 50th anniversary since the death of the first Ichikawa Enou, it feels as if this were all a grand scheme for fathers and sons to be reunited.”
When he first became an actor, Kagawa said he was riled when people called him Ennosuke’s son, regarding the connection as meaningless, but now the link seems more obvious.
“I am the scion, whether I like it or not,” he said. “When my father applied stage makeup on my face for the first time, I thought, ‘Hey, you are 40 years too late.’ But when my father says, ‘Give your life to every moment’ during practice, I know what he is talking about. That is what I learned through my experience in film. I truly feel that I have lived my life bound by the same words--but in a different place.
“I am saying no to film offers. The more I concentrate on kabuki the more painfully aware I become of the weight of the family name. After I complete the ‘name succession’ performances, I’ll know what I have to do.”
Last fall, when he first announced his decision to enter the kabuki world, he seemed tense. But, as Kagawa prepared at the end of May for the curtain to come up on his second acting career, he seemed more relaxed.
“Who knows, maybe the time will come when I look back and decide that this was a mistake. But, now, I am ready to keep the promise I made at birth. My life was meant for this--to carry on the family legacy,” he said.
Meanwhile, Masaaki was taking it all in his stride, announcing before a proud father: “I’ve memorized all my lines already!”
There are reminders of the family back story throughout the June Kabuki program at the Tokyo Shimbashi Enbujo Theater. The two Ichikawas play in the evening the Kabuki spectacular “Yamato Takeru.” Kagawa plays the emperor, father of the second-century warrior hero Yamato Takeru, who conquered the southern islands and one of his father’s successful parts.
The play itself is layered with family themes. Takeru is a hero tormented by family relationships.
Kagawa said: “My father shows different faces on stage and in reality. Now, I can understand that we had to live our daily lives at different angles. These days, I am beginning to feel my father’s blood. It’s there, flowing into my daily life.”
Masaaki plays the role of Takeru’s young son. New words have been added to his part referring to the succession of the blood line.
“My father was impressed that (the new lines) opened up new approaches to Takeru. I am confident that my son will grow through this role,” Kagawa said.
In the matinee, Kagawa takes on the lead in “Ogusu no Chobei,” a story about a villain who becomes popular after striking an enemy with a spear. It was a role that his great-grandfather brought to the stage for the first time.
The June Kabuki performances run from June 5 through June 29. The matinee and “Yamato Takeru” performances feature a “kojo” in which top kabuki actors congratulate the new actors on their succession to their stage names.
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