The Loss Of Two Kabuki Greats

In a space of less than two months, the kabuki world has lost its two greatest stars.

Following the death of Nakamura Kanzaburo at the age of 57 in early December, Ichikawa Danjuro died Feb. 3 at a hospital in Tokyo aged 66.

Though Kanzaburo was arguably the most popular kabuki actor in Japan in recent years, credited with reviving interest in the traditional theater form, Danjuro during his lifetime was considered the undisputed master of the form by reason of his very name.

The Ichikawa clan is generally thought to be the central pillar of kabuki, and Danjuro was its head, the 12th actor in the history of the art to assume its most hallowed title, which he did in 1985, the first actor to be called Danjuro in 20 years.

Danjuro had been battling leukemia for the better part of the last decade and, though the illness abated four years ago allowing him to return to the stage on an almost regular basis, the battle weakened his immune system and he succumbed to complications related to pneumonia.

He received a bone marrow transplant in 2008. For the past several years he seemed to have regained his former glory, but fell ill during a performance in Kyoto last December. His eldest son and heir, Ebizo, revealed to the press that Danjuro’s last few days “were tough.”

Danjuro, real name Natsuo Horikoshi, was mainly famous for playing masculine characters, in particular warriors, a common heroic type in plays about Japan’s feudal era. His signature “aragoto” (stylized roughness) gesture was a kind of superhuman stare, which was said to “scare away the devil himself.”

He headed the first kabuki troupe to ever perform at the Paris Opera House in 2007, and while not as popular or diverse as Kanzaburo, who often acted in modern theater works and TV dramas, he was instrumental in promoting kabuki outside of Japan.

He was also supportive of theatrical company Shochiku’s controversial decision to tear down the old Kabuki-za theater in Tokyo and replace it with a new version.

“A good carafe deserves good sake,” he once said of the move. However, he did not live long enough to perform in the new venue, which opens this spring.