KABUKI ABC (47) / Sukeroku: Ebizo says he now has the confidence to play the ‘most handsome man in Edo’

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterA must-see this month at Kabukiza theater in the Ginza district of Tokyo is “Sukeroku Yukari no Edo Zakura” (Sukeroku, the Hero of Edo), a spectacular play featuring the adventures of the title character who is depicted as the most handsome dandy in Edo.

This play is being staged for the first time in four years and is one of the most popular pieces among the “Kabuki Juhachiban,” a selection of 18 kabuki pieces established as the Ichikawa Danjuro family’s specialties during the Edo period (1603-1867). The ongoing performance, which runs through March 27, is starring Ichikawa Ebizo, the son of the late Ichikawa Danjuro XII and the current head of the family that has its own prestigious legacy.

“Sukeroku” is a very special piece in the kabuki repertoire, said Ebizo, 39, who has played the role many times since his first turn at 22. When the run ends this month, his number of performances as Sukeroku is expected to reach 200.

“When I first played the role, I was so nervous that I almost trembled,” Ebizo said. “I felt indescribably lonely at that time. I became aware I had to bear the pressure as a member of the Ichikawa Danjuro family.”

However, the actor is now full of confidence.

“Today, I don’t feel that way any more because I’ve become more daring,” he said. “I even feel, other than me, who else can play the role?”

As these comments suggest, Ebizo’s public image as having a brave personality almost matches Sukeroku’s.

When I watched “Sukeroku” on its opening day March 3, I was totally fascinated by Ebizo’s presence and appeal as a great star. Seeing is believing, so I recommend attending the play. Allow me to give some pointers to enjoy it more.

Sukeroku is a dandy immensely popular among courtesans in the Yoshiwara red-light district of Edo. He is looking for a precious sword named Tomokirimaru and finally takes it back from Hige no Ikyu, a bearded old man and his rival (played by Ichikawa Sadanji).

The story is in fact absurd, so I recommend not thinking too hard about it. Just enjoy watching a dazzling array of actors and their costumes and the festive atmosphere as one does when visiting, say, Disneyland.

After the curtain opens, Sukeroku does not appear on stage for more than 30 minutes. Instead, courtesans, including Sukeroku’s lover Agemaki (played by Nakamura Jakuemon), are featured in beautiful costumes like a fashion show.

Then Sukeroku enters at last on the hanamichi raised platform stretching out into the audience. His outfit is very impressive — a black kimono over a red undergarment with a purple headband and yellow tabi split-toe socks. He holds a traditional paper umbrella.

The hero does not reach the main stage any time soon, but makes a series of movements on the hanamichi, such as deeply bowing to the audience and rotating the umbrella. Each of these movements is said to have its own meaning.

Other characters enter after Sukeroku, some played by such popular actors as Onoe Kikugoro, to liven up the atmosphere. One to keep an eye out for is a client of the red-light district played by Bando Kamesaburo. Any actor playing this role has the freedom to ad-lib to entertain the audience. When I watched this play, Kamesaburo took out a modern-day gadget from his kimono to invite laughs from the audience.

“Sukeroku” is so grand and sophisticated, it is unarguably the quintessence of the Edo kabuki that puts great emphasis on heroic, lively elements. I did not feel any boredom at all throughout the play, even though it lasted two hours.

Single-act tickets for this play are sold for ¥2,000, so I recommend taking advantage of this opportunity to visit Kabukiza.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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