text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Anyone who will walk the extra mile while wandering behind Sensoji, Tokyo’s most famous Buddhist temple, will see him in a place between a tourist bus parking lot and a hospital: perched on his stone dais, actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX, frozen in what is probably kabuki’s most characteristic scene and with his eyes glaring in the “mie” grimace that is a basic element of his peculiar art, is staring across Asakusa, the area of which he was the undisputed ruler from the end of the Edo period until almost the end of the Meiji period; while he managed to see Japan’s passage from feudalism to modern times, his statue was the permanent background for all the drama of the 20th century: from the big earthquake of 1923 to the bombings of 1944, to the rebirth of the 1950s and to the construction of the world’s biggest and most state-of-the-art tower in the other side of the river.
Even though I was born and raised in a country where the bonds with the past border on the obsessive, I can’t begin to contemplate how present day kabuki star, 35 year old Ichikawa Ebizo XI might feel every time he passes in front of this statue of his theatrical great-great-grandfather, the man that gave an almost superhuman aura to the stage name that his father has today and that he is going to inherit in the next few years. Maybe he doesn’t feel anything since the elements of the art created by Danjuro IX, by the previous eight actors that preceded him since 1675, when this “dynasty” started, and by the other three that followed him, are present in the roles and the plays that Ebizo brings to life every time he goes on stage. There are no directors in kabuki; the plays pass from the playwrights to the actors and from them to the audience, which means that the actor is more than a performer: he is a creator.
Actors’ statues can be found everywhere; all cultures believe that they must honor the people who formulate them –and rightly so. But Danjuro’s statue is more than a portrayal of an important person so that his significance won’t be forgotten. By choosing this man, in this role, in this pose and by putting it in this area, the people who made this statue, created a monument not just of kabuki but of the most essential elements of Japanese tradition. That this monument is not in a prominent spot, e.g. in front of Tokyo’s National Theater but in a street that leads to the geisha quarter, is what gives this whole thing a delightfully Japanese tint.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.