KABUKI ABC (56) / Ichikawa Ebizo: With wife in his heart and son in his arms, he literally soars in display of grace

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKabuki superstar Ichikawa Ebizo, 39, plays a total of six roles in three plays in both daytime and evening performances for the July Grand Kabuki series, which is being held at the Kabukiza theater in the Higashi-Ginza district of Tokyo until July 27.

His wife, freelance news announcer Mao Kobayashi, died at age 34 on June 22, but Ebizo encourages himself by thinking, “The stage must be a top priority, no matter what.” He brings excitement to the audience that fills the theater every day.

In “Kagatobi” in the daytime performance, Ebizo skillfully performs two contrasting roles: the villainous Dogen and the dashing head fireman Umekichi. In the subsequent dance, “Renjishi,” Ebizo performs as the spirit of a father lion. Together with Bando Minosuke, who performs the role of the son lion’s spirit, Ebizo shows a powerful keburi (swinging of long hair) at the end of the dance.

The three roles — Dogen, Umekichi and the spirit of the father lion — were all performed by Ebizo’s father Ichikawa Danjuro XII, who died in 2013, and are closely tied to the Danjuro family.

In “Renjishi” in particular, which is based on a folk story in which a father lion pushes his cubs over a precipice to make them grow up strong, Ebizo many times performed as a cub with his father, who had played the father lion.

“I remember that I was given tough guidance,” Ebizo said. He may be keenly aware of the handing down of artistic skills from father to son at this time.

The play “Daemon Hana no Gosho Ibun” in the evening was performed by Ichikawa Danjuro VII in the late years of the Edo period (1603-1867), but this is the first time the Danjuro family has performed it in 170 years.

The leading character of the play is the famous bandit Nippon Daemon, who aims to conquer the country. Ebizo plays three roles: Daemon, a good samurai warrior called Tamashima Kobe who stands against Daemon, and the god of fire prevention called Akiba Daigongen.

In the first half of the play, there is a scene where Daemon and Kobe fight each other. In this scene, Ebizo switches roles in a few seconds, like an illusion, a highlight of the play that drew applause from the audience.

In the latter half of the play, Ebizo’s 4-year-old son Kangen Horikoshi appears as the white fox Byakko, the messenger of Akiba Daigongen, and performs “chunori” (flying through the air suspended from a wire), becoming the youngest person to perform this feat in the history of kabuki.

While this has already made headlines in newspapers and TV, the enthusiastic performance by a 4-year-old boy who has just lost his mother strikes the hearts of the audience.

I covered the chunori scene on the first day of the performance on July 3. Together with his father, who is playing Akiba Daigongen, Kangen was suspended from a wire, flew through the air from the hanamichi path and was slowly elevated to the back seats on the about 10-meter-high third floor of the theater, all while being held by his father.

When Kangen waved his hands in response to loud applause from the audience, the applause became louder still and did not stop for more than a minute.

Both Ebizo and Kangen were born shackled to the Danjuro family, the symbol of the Edo kabuki world. Mao is said to have ardently wished she could watch the performance, and Danjuro XII entrusted his family legacy and artistic skills to his successors before he passed away. With their feelings in mind, Ebizo and Kangen became gods and flew through the sky this month.

I witnessed a historic moment that will be transmitted by word of mouth to future generations. Thinking of this, I was so touched that I could not help but shed a tear, along with the other audience members filling up the theater.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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