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BIG IN JAPAN
Ennosuke Ichikawa

Ennosuke IchikawaAsk the average Japanese their opinion of Kabuki, and the response is "It' boring, I don't understand it and it puts me to sleep," says Ichikawa Ennosuke, the actor who has made a name for himself by flouting many of the cloistered Kabuki world's rules and modernizing the art so that it is understandable to today's audiences.

Determined to change Kabuki's negative image, Ichikawa has made it a policy in his own productions to cut all redundant dialogue, speed up the delivery of lines, and alternate fast-moving action scenes with slower ones that reveal emotion and deepen characterization. His motto is "Story, Speed and Spectacle," and his aim both as an actor and as a director is to bring back the energy and excitement of Edo-period Kabuki and make it appealing to modern audiences.

To achieve that aim, he has revived various theatrical stunts, such as quick costume changes, cascades of real water on stage and breathtaking chunori (flying on wires from the stage over the heads of the audience to the top floor). When he first performed chunori in 1968, the audience loved it and to date he has notched up over 4,500 flights. Ichikawa can largely be credited with giving Kabuki greater mass appeal today than at any time this century. However, many traditionalists pour scorn on his efforts. He admits that he has been bullied by senior actors who mocked his performances, but he is quick to add that the criticism has only fueled his determination to continue.

Ichikawa was born in 1939, the eldest son of Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danshiro III and made his stage debut at seven. The most profound influence on his art came from his grandfather, the experimentalist Kabuki actor En'o, with whom Ichikawa lived from the age of 15. In May 1963, at age 23, he took the official name of Ennosuke III, but tragedy struck a double blow when Ichikawa's grandfather died just one month after the naming ceremony, and his father died five months later.

He was encouraged to find another leading actor as his teacher but refused, insisting on going his own way. This resulted in his being given inferior parts for several years, but it was during this time that Ichikawa established his own experimental group so that he could perform the roles he wanted. For the next two decades Ichikawa focused on creating new productions of classical plays and reviving forgotten works. He also toured and taught overseas, especially in Europe, where he is regarded as the artistic peer of such performance masterminds as Maurice Bejart and Sir Peter Brook.

As he honed his skills as a director and producer, Ichikawa's ideas started to take shape for "Super Kabuki" - an energetic, fast-paced Kabuki spoken in modern Japanese, featuring high-tech special effects, dynamic lighting, stunning costumes and minimalist sets. Since 1986 he has produced and starred in six Super Kabuki shows, which have drawn in new audiences and packed venues for months. Look forward to his seventh Super Kabuki, "Sangokushi," which will premiere in Tokyo in April at the Shimbashi Embujo Theater.


Jean Wilson

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