Time Out Singapore: ‘Japan Theater’

Gwen Pew chats with respected actor Ebizo Ichikawa XI on kabuki and noh as the two Japanese theatrical forms come together for the first time on an international stage.

Japan Theater

12 Nov 2014: There’s no shortage of international works staged in Singapore, but this month sees the arrival of something special. Two of Japan’s most revered theatrical forms – kabuki and noh – will make their international debut right here, with the renowned kabuki actor Ebizo Ichikawa XI taking the lead role in the performance, simply titled Japan Theater.

Apart from its cultural significance, the show is especially noteworthy because of Ebizo himself. As the 11th generation of the Ichikawa family – whose lineage dates back to the 17th century – he got into the acting business at a young age. ‘When I was three, my dad [Danjuro Ichikawa XII] took me out for a walk in the park, during which he asked if I wanted to be a kabuki actor,’ he recalls. ‘I answered yes, so I guess it was my own decision to join the kabuki world.’

Ebizo made his stage debut at the age of six, and moved up the kabuki hierarchy to acquire the prestigious title of ‘Ebizo’ in 2004. Now 36, his good looks and marriage to popular actress and broadcaster Mao Kobayashi helped him consolidate a fan base and revive an interest in kabuki among the younger generation.

Audiences here can look forward to catching Shakkyo (Stone Bridge) and Renjishi (Lion Dance), the noh and kabuki segments, respectively. Both are set in Tang Dynasty China and tell the story of a spiritual place beside a stone bridge, where a monk has created a lion that dances among the flowers. A high level of skill is required for these intricate performances, and a cast of 50 other troupe members and musicians will join Ebizo.

‘The thing I love most about noh is the intense emotions that are expressed even when everything is static. For kabuki, it’s the way that the affection between parents and their children is expressed through the dynamic motions,’ Ebizo says. ‘One of the most beautiful techniques in the show is the dynamic hair-swinging – called keburi – that takes place at the end.’

The art of kabuki is usually handed down the family – each clan has its own distinctive style and methods – but there are ways in which outsiders can break into the scene. ‘You could attend a training school at the National Institute for two years, take the exam and get started with kabuki,’ Ebizo explains. ‘The other way is to start as a heiyago, a boy or young man taken on as an apprentice or child actor by a kabuki actor.’

But like any sort of acting, training is no easy task. ‘We practice every day, and even though there are usually two daily performances over 25 days when we stage a show, I still feel the need to practise each role over and over again,’ the kabuki doyen tells us. ‘I usually discover new things about the role when I do that. Additionally, I train with a personal trainer every day I’m not onstage to keep my core muscles and body in shape.’

Despite all the hard work, however, Ebizo wouldn’t change a thing. When asked what he would have done if he hadn’t gone into acting, he hesitates. ‘What would I do?’ he repeats. ‘That’s something I’ve never considered before.’

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Kabuki is a highly stylised type of dramatic theatre whose plots are usually based on historic events, tales of love and rivalry or other well-known stories. Its actors often don elaborate costumes and makeup, including white face foundation, to create kabuki’s signature look.

Much has changed since the early days, however. For example, only females would perform in the original productions, but they were later banned as many moonlighted as prostitutes. Now, men portray both male and female roles. And where kabuki performances used to last an entire day, they are now much shorter.

Noh is also played by an all-male cast, but it has much stronger music and dance elements. Its themes are often linked to dreams or the supernatural; performers hide their faces behind masks made from cypress, whose designs symbolise character archetypes.

Both kabuki and noh have their own dedicated theatres, which is why they’re rarely performed on the same stage. Yet they’ve both been deemed so valuable that UNESCO listed them as part of Japan’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. And now, you can watch them without even leaving our shores.

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