Ichikawa Ennosuke (c) Katsumi MInamoto

Musician Yabuhara Kengyo pays the price for disharmony

Photo courtesy of Parco

Although Covid-19 restrictions are severely disrupting some entertainment sectors in Japan they seem to have barely affected Ichikawa Ennosuke IV, the kabuki actor recently applauded nationwide for his role as an elite banker and rival to the titular heroine of TV’s hit drama serial “Hanzawa Naoki.”

Besides that popular triumph, the 45-year-old successor to a venerable family lineage is also busy pumping life into kabuki and regular theater by embracing streaming to reach both established and new audiences, even as auditorium capacities are restricted due to social-distancing requirements.

On the day we met, for instance, Ennosuke had already performed in a classical lunchtime program at the Kabuki-za in Tokyo before moving to a studio to rehearse his role as Suginoichi, the cunning anti-hero of Hisashi Inoue’s “Yabuhara Kengyo” (“Yabuhara Inspection School”), which runs through Mar. 7 at the Parco Theater in Shibuya.

Recognized in Japan and worldwide as one of the famed postwar author and playwright’s greatest masterpieces, “Yabuhara Kengyo” follows Suginoichi, a penniless blind musician, as he rises to become the highest-ranked minstrel in the ruling shogun’s court.

His promotion is all the more remarkable because he is not only big-headed and averse to studying or practicing music, but — as is known to a few — he is a serial rapist and robber, and a murderer who killed his first teacher, among others, to get ahead.

Despite being advised by another blind minstrel, dutiful Hokiichi (played by Ken Miyake in one of his six roles in this production), to keep a low profile because his handicap puts him at risk of being victimized, Suginoichi pays no heed and is soon arrested on suspicion of murder.

Then, with discontent growing in society, the shogun’s counsellor, Lord Matsudaira, asks Hokiichi how to defuse it. When he suggests making a scapegoat out of a slothful individual who can be cruelly punished in public, Suginoichi is singled out for that purpose.  

This picaresque play premiered at the Seibu Theater (forerunner of the Parco) in 1973, directed by Koichi Kimura. A huge success from the outset, it was repeatedly rerun in Japan and was taken to Hong Kong, New York, London, Paris and Edinburgh, where it won the Critics Award at the 1990 Festival. Then later, lavish and energetic costume-drama versions also famously followed in Japan from Yukio Ninagawa, in 2007, and Tamiya Kuriyama (2012 and ’15).

To direct this new production, which is part of a special series marking the theater’s reopening after major refurbishment, Parco appointed Kunio Sugihara. Widely admired for his boldly challenging stagings such as the rap-style Greek tragedy “Oedipus REXXX” and his 10-hour trilogy “The Greeks,” the 38-year-old dramatist has also presented various modern, so-called super kabuki shows.

In actual fact, multi-tasking Ennosuke, the star of “Yabuhara Kengyo,” has for several years been the main creator in the world of super kabuki, and in 2015 he chose Sugihara to be his assistant director on “One Piece,” a manga-based smash-hit entertainment show in that exciting genre. Since then, the pair have often collaborated together, but this time it’s Sugihara in the driving seat.

After the director announced in a video message that he would create this play with its protagonist living in today’s youth-culture hub of Shibuya, that character’s actor (Ennosuke) observed with seeming insouciance during our meeting, “Usually, in kabuki works, the actors concentrate on the rehearsal from about a week before the curtain-up (because they all know the play), so I have that habit. I don’t know much yet about this production, but I suppose the director is mainly groping for how to link the 300-year-old story to current people’s lives in Shibuya.

“I think the point of contact with today is the central theme of this play, which shows how someone can become a victim of, and for, the society. We see such things everywhere in the world, and individuals can easily be accused of violating some unwritten code of behavior. So Suginoichi suddenly suffers exemplary punishment ordered by those in authority, but it’s very vague what the truth really was.”  

In that vein, the actor warns that it’s quite dangerous to just see things from one side and stick to your own idea because there are many kinds of people in all sorts of positions in the world, and each may have different ideas and opinions.

“Suginoichi was executed because of a murder case, but at other times people receive honors and recognition for mass murder, such as during a war. There are also murder cases in which the killer is positive they acted for their god. So I can’t declare, for example, that my own or someone else’s judgment is ‘definitely’ correct.”

Faced with “such absurdity in the world,” Ennosuke reflects, “though people described Suginoichi as a notorious villain, I think there are many people like him in our society. Probably, humans haven’t developed much since 300 years ago.”

Following that analysis, it was intriguing where the actor’s thoughts would lead when he turned his focus to “the hazy belief that kabuki will continue forever after almost 450 years.”

“It’s as clear as day, because the Shochiku company controls the kabuki business, so if Shochiku goes bankrupt then the kabuki business won’t survive,” he declares.

“Unfortunately, many don’t care whether theater or kabuki outlast the pandemic or not. And I suppose plenty of people will be angry if the government puts a huge amount of money into them.”

But rather than passively waiting for Covid-19 to pass, Ennosuke and his kabuki-actor contemporary Matsumoto Koshiro X are already forging new ways ahead, including by developing the Zu-mu 図夢 Kabuki platform they launched in June 2020 specifically to stream performances online.

“I think people need to realize a similar pandemic may happen again in the near future and be prepared. That’s why we set up Zu-mu Kabuki to create more work opportunities during a pandemic for stage set artists, theater staff and of course actors.

“The reason I started that, and for working on super kabuki, and also why I’ve sometimes teamed up with rising contemporary dramatists like Sugihara, is that I believe it’s important to encourage young talented people. So at first we give as much chance as we can to promising artists, then audiences will decide their future after that.”

As a standard-bearer for Japanese theater, Ennosuke can seem to be gloomy about the current situation, but behind his cool analysis it’s heartening to see him and others working hard to ensure a better future for some branches of performance art in Japan.

**** “Yabuhara Kengyo” runs Feb. 10–Mar. 7 at the Parco Theater in Shibuya, Tokyo. It then tours to Nagoya, Ishikawa and Kyoto till Mar. 21.
For details, call 03-3477-5858 or visit www.parco-play.com.