The Prince of Kabuki Theater a Rising Star Overseas

Pakkun(Patrick Harlan)

Ichikawa Ebizo is a kabuki actor expanding his sphere of success through a distinct style of artistry that combines tradition and innovation. I spoke with him on Zoom.
Ichikawa Ebizo. Photo: Shinsuke Yasui

Ichikawa Ebizo is the 11th-generation kabuki actor to use this name. For those from countries where hereditary systems are uncommon, this may be a little hard to understand.

While the U.K. has Henry VIII—amongst others— in the U.S. we rarely see more than two generations with the same name, though we have plenty of famous "Juniors," such as President Bush and President Trump. It seems that "Jr." is acceptable, Roman numerals are to be avoidable. For example, Marshall Bruce Mathers III strictly avoids using his real name, preferring, for some reason, to be known as Eminem.

What does it mean to inherit the name of your ancestor, unchanged, for generations? I, Pakkun (Patrick Harlan)—the First—mull this question over in my mind as I wait for Ichikawa Ebizo XI to join our Zoom meeting.

Ebizo, when he appears on my screen, is wearing a white T-shirt. At first glance, he looks like an athlete. He has the sort of physicality one can only attain through hard work. When asked, he says that kabuki performances (a classical form of Japanese dance-drama) are, a lot of the time, extremely taxing on the body. Often, he says, his muscles will be so stiff the day after training that he will have a hard time moving at all.

Unlike professional athletes, kabuki actors have no off season. If Ebizo wants to be able to give it his all every single day, he says, he cannot miss any of his training—even if it means only sleeping four hours a night.

Somewhat unexpectedly, COVID‐19 restrictions on performance times meant the actors had to wear many more layers of costumes than they normally would. This is to minimize the time it takes to get changed. "All those layers are so hot and heavy, a normal person would probably pass out," he says. Even Ebizo, who is not a "normal person," has had injuries to his ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) and neck, for which he receives treatment every day.

Ebizo has devoted himself physically to the work of protecting traditional culture, even in the midst of the pandemic, and has added his own original elements to his performances. His distinct style of artistry combines the history that Americans admire with the innovation that they treasure. From the other side of the computer screen, despite his simple white T-shirt, Ebizo gives off an unusual vibe.

Ebizo has had many successful performances overseas as well, in venues such as the renowned Carnegie Hall in New York.

Widely known as the "prince of kabuki theater," he is slated to succeed the stage name of Ichikawa Danjuro, who is currently considered the king of kabuki theater. Even with all of this responsibility, many of his activities still occur outside of the realm of the theater. For example, he has been featured on 60 Minutes, the flagship show of the CBS TV network in the U.S. However, he considers his appearances on TV and in movies to be part and parcel of his Kabuki job. Before kabuki theater became "traditional culture," he says, "kabuki actors were the stars of their generations. I want to become known to people all over Japan and throughout the world as Ichikawa Ebizo, a kabuki actor who is living here and now....That's how kabuki actors are meant to be."

The Possibility of Female Kabuki Actors

But that's not all. Ebizo says he plans to use his succession to the Ichikawa Danjuro name to expand the realm of activity for kabuki theater as a whole. With his succession, he would become the 13th Danjuro. If you consider 12 to be a "full circle," as in the Chinese zodiac, this would be the perfect time for a reset. "I want to surprise the fans, in a good way," he says, with a twinkle in his eye. It seems that his performances as the new Danjuro will be dramatic indeed.

Ebizo also wants to contribute to the stability and survival of Japan and the world as a whole, in order to pass kabuki theater down to later generations. "We'll craft kabuki performances that are mindful of issues like food security and climate change," he promises. Ebizo has set up an NPO that addresses environmental issues.

Ebizo has also made clear his hope for reform when it comes to human ways of thinking, and dreams of a world where love can be shared amongst all. As such, he is sensitive to changes in thinking with regards to gender. According to the traditional rules of kabuki, female roles (onnagata) are played by men, and women are not permitted to step foot on the stage (with the exception of children, whose roles can sometimes be played by girls). Ebizo, however, is considering the possibility of permitting women to become kabuki actors in the future.

Americans, who tend to expect political and social activism from their celebrities, would think highly of these activities by Ebizo if they knew of them.

After all, the words "actor" and "activist" are derived from the same root. There's even a joke in the U.S. that when a director yells "Action!" on a Hollywood film set, the actors start a petition....

Respecting tradition while advancing culture. Connecting the past to the future. Ebizo, who represents these concepts and so much more, is an individual who will garner respect anywhere he goes. What's more, it seems he has passed his awareness down to the next generation.

His son, Horikoshi Kangen, made an appearance on our Zoom call. Kangen, who will be the standard bearer for the future of kabuki theater, is—at eight years old—already aware of the importance of his roots. When I asked who his favorite actor is, he said, "Ichikawa Danjuro I."

Incredible. Here's hoping that Pakkun XIII will say the same thing about me.

Pakkun (Patrick Harlan)

Born on November 14, 1970. From the state of Colorado in the U.S. Moved to Japan after graduating from Harvard University. Formed the comedy duo Pakkun Makkun with Yoshida Makoto in 1997. The duo gained popularity as comedians with their unique brand of Japan-U.S. comedy. Since then, he has appeared extensively on educational and informative TV programs. Has been employed as a lecturer at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, where he teaches courses on communications and international relations, since 2012. He has written many books, including TSUKAMU! WAJUTSU (Kadokawa), a compilation of his lectures from these courses. Pakkun Talent Agency Website
*This article was provided to Newsweek Japan (August 10 & 17, 2021).