KABUKI ABC (53) / Ichikawa Danjuro VII: The triumphs and hardships of an actor with a strange destiny

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer The Ichikawa Danjuro family, whose members have inherited the aragoto style of kabuki, featuring daring and powerful performances, for generations has been representing Edo kabuki through the ages.

Of 12 successors to the name of Ichikawa Danjuro, the seventh (1791-1859) is known for his great achievement of selecting 18 favorite plays as the Kabuki Juhachiban (18 Best Kabuki Plays), including “Kanjincho,” “Sukeroku” and “Shibaraku.” This article will explore the strange fate of the seventh, and some facts that a historian has recently brought to light about his travels.

The seventh holder of the name was a grandson of the fifth and an adopted son of the sixth. He ascended to the name Ichikawa Danjuro at age 10 (by Japanese counting). He was good at performing the family art of aragoto, and is said to have been so free-spirited and rebellious that he would not hesitate to engage in arguments with his superiors.

In keeping with such a character, he was expelled from Edo in 1842 at age 52 on the allegation that he had performed a play in a showy costume, thus violating the government’s sumptuary laws.

Among actors in Edo kabuki circles during the Edo period (1603-1867), the seventh was the only actor who was expelled from Edo as punishment.

It is said that the government punished the performer, considered a symbol of Edo kabuki, as an example to others, in order to have ordinary people thoroughly conform to the sumptuary laws. Nearly eight years later, he still could not perform in Edo, but he appeared in regional cities such as Osaka, Nagoya and Gifu using various professional names.

Ryo Kimura, an appointed associate professor at Gifu Women’s University, specializes in early modern Japanese history and Edo cultural history, and wrote books about the seventh and eighth holders of the Ichikawa Danjuro name. He has been closely studying a large number of letters that were left in a storehouse of the wealthy Date family of Shizuoka, who were in close contact with the seventh during his expulsion.

“Two new letters sent from Ichikawa Danjuro VII during his expulsion were recently found in a storehouse of the Date family,” Kimura said. In both letters, he wrote about problems during his travels.

Even for an actor who was a big star at that time, it was apparently difficult to find an inn or family to provide accommodation for a criminal who was punished by the government. The letters said he had spent a night on an anchored boat, with his knees covered in mud and spider webs falling on his face. In the letters, he acknowledged his infirmities, saying, “I had chattering teeth while my body was trembling.”

“It is hard to imagine such facts from the strong image of him as being bold and generous. Given that he frankly told of the fact that he had experienced great hardships during his travels, he apparently placed complete trust in the Date family,” Kimura said.

However, from a different point of view, it can be said that he had various experiences during his travels and used them to improve his performances at a time when traveling was much harder than now. In Osaka, he played Danshichi, the leading character of the regional play “Natsumatsuri Naniwa Kagami,” and acquired the skills to perform in a way favored by people in Osaka. Later on, the character became a successful role for him after his return to Edo as well.

In addition, during periods other than the time of his expulsion from Edo, he is said to have traveled to Sendai, Nagasaki and other cities. The story of Danjuro VII, who continued traveling throughout his life, could serve as a motif for historical novels or plays.

There are no blood ties between him and Ichikawa Ebizo, who is the current head of the Ichikawa Danjuro family and is expected to succeed his late father to become Ichikawa Danjuro XIII in the future.

However, Kimura said, “Ebizo reportedly is strongly interested in the seventh and is studying him on his own. He apparently feels affinity toward him.”

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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