Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII, Hakuen | Shochiku Kabuki

A traditional performing art steps onto the international stage

Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII, Hakuen | Shochiku Kabuki

Art and resolve are passed down over generations in kabuki, the traditional Japanese performing art that emerged during the early 17th century. Even today, more than 400 years later, the art form continues to inspire and fascinate. In capturing the essence of kabuki in this T-shirt collection, we had help from two collaborators: Shochiku, the company that manages the Kabuki Theatre, Japan’s premier kabuki theater; and Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII, Hakuen, the new leader of a kabuki dynasty that has been around for generations. Danjūrō himself explains how the T-shirts in this collection reflect the traditions and future of kabuki.

A special piece of T-shirts commemorating the succession to the name of Ichikawa Danjūrō, the grand feudal lord of Naritaya.

The T-shirts we created for this collaboration are themed around the Kabuki Juhachiban, a collection of eighteen kabuki works put together by Ichikawa Danjūrō VII from among the many plays passed down from generation to generation in our family. These include The Flower of Edo, which was first performed by Danjūrō II, and Narukami Fudō Kitayama Zakura, a play in five acts. The latter does not appear in the collection in its entirety but was adapted by Danjūrō VII into three of the eighteen plays: Kenuki, Narukami, and Fudō. His desire to preserve our family’s art as if tucking it away in a sturdy box gave rise to the word ohako, which is written with the same characters as juhachiban (“eighteen”) but pronounced like the word “box.” Today, ohako is used to describe one’s specialty or forte, just as the Kabuki Juhachiban represents the best that our family has to offer.

Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII, Hakuen | Shochiku Kabuki

The design on the front of this T-shirt depicts an actor performing Oshimodoshi. Kabuki actors wear a distinctive type of makeup called kumadori, in which red represents the righteous hero, blue represents the evil villain, and brown represents a human character transformed into a supernatural monster or spirit. Oshimodoshi is not strictly a play, but a motif used when a character in villainous blue or supernatural brown attempts to leave the stage and enter the real world via a long stage that cuts through the audience called the hanamichi. This character is forced back onto the main stage by the hero, who essentially traps the villain or monster in the on-stage world. Who knows what trouble they could cause in the real world? This is why the hero—played by a member of the Naritaya acting guild—performs “oshimodoshi,” pushing the evil character back and ordering them to remain in their own world.

The Oshimodoshi costume features an image of a carp, one of the symbols of the Naritaya guild. Carp live in lakes and rivers, but the guild uses it symbolically to represent an actor channeling the spirit of a carp that has decided to brave wave-tossed shallows and the vast ocean. Personally, I think that the Oshimodoshi image on this T-shirt reflects the desire, shared by those of us in the kabuki world, to venture further out into the vast ocean—that is, the world.

Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII, Hakuen | Shochiku Kabuki

The motifs on this T-shirt come from The Flower of Edo (also known as Sukeroku), one of the most famous Kabuki Juhachiban plays. It was written by Ichikawa Danjūrō II around 300 years ago, and even today it is generally performed only by the Naritaya guild. The play is set in some of the most important landmarks of Edo (present-day Tokyo), from the Yoshiwara red-light district to the rice storehouses of Kuramae and the Uogashi fish market. The Naritaya guild had close ties with the Edo merchants who ran major businesses like these, and I think the designs on the T-shirt hark back to that time.

The protagonist of The Flower of Edo, Sukeroku, wears an iconic kimono with a white, red, and black color scheme and striking makeup featuring red lips, red eyeliner, and black eyebrows over stark white foundation. Unlike today’s theaters, playhouses during feudal times had no interior lighting, so it was difficult to see the stage. That is why this style of makeup came about—to help the audience discern the actors’ expressions even from a distance or in the dark. Sukeroku’s color scheme also makes it clear to the audience that he has the personality of a dandy. His kimono is tied by an obi sash bearing three designs: the three nestled squares of the Ichikawa Danjūrō family crest; a shrimp symbolizing longevity; and an apricot leaf and peony crest, which was bestowed upon Danjūrō II by the Konoe family of Imperial advisors. The T-shirt combines the designs on Sukeroku’s obi with other parts of his costume, namely his purple headband and striped umbrella. The headband is a yamai-hachimaki, or “invalid’s headband,” so called because people used to tie headbands dyed with purple gromwell, a medicinal herb, across their foreheads when they fell ill. People generally wore these headbands only when sick, but for a time it was fashionable for even healthy people to wear them. When Sukeroku wears it, it is as a fashion statement.

Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII, Hakuen | Shochiku Kabuki

This T-shirt features the kumadori makeup worn by the protagonist of Kotohoide Mimasu Kagekiyo, a play I wrote by arranging four of the Kabuki Juhachiban—Kagekiyo, Kamahige, Gedatsu, and Kan’u—into a single story. I wanted to do the reverse of what Danjūrō VII did when he broke up Danjūrō II’s Narukami Fudō Kitayama Zakura into Narukami, Kenuki, and Fudō. The new play tells the story of Kagekiyo, a samurai of the Taira clan who was forgotten by history. To hint at the darker side of his personality, his makeup has a bit of blue (evil) mixed in with the red (good). The T-shirt is designed to look like an oshiguma, an impression of an actor’s makeup made on a piece of cloth to provide a lucky fan with a memento after the conclusion of a performance.

Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII, Hakuen | Shochiku Kabuki

Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII, Hakuen discusses the future of kabuki

Most people are familiar with the theatrical style epitomized by Shakespeare, whose works have logical, orderly plotlines that are easy to follow. Kabuki is different—many of the plots twist and turn with almost no semblance of logic or order. In this post-pandemic world, I feel that audiences are yearning for something visually striking that has a sense of nostalgia about it, as well as the feelings of security and happiness that come from watching a performance. That’s why it’s important for us actors to dazzle the audience with our glamorous costumes when we step out onto the stage. This is in contrast to Shakespeare, in which it is the story, more than the appearance of the actors, that stirs the audience on an emotional level—perhaps more in line with contemporary sensibilities.

For that reason, I get the feeling that kabuki will soon be facing pressure to evolve, as it has many times before. Ichikawa Danjūrō I was the first to perform in the dynamic and powerful aragoto style, which was passed down to Danjūrō II, Danjūrō III, and so on. Eventually, aragoto began to feel stale for both the performers and the people of Edo. So, Danjūrō IV got creative. He began playing villainous characters and characters with a dark side, like Kagekiyo. A few generations later, Danjūrō VII introduced elaborate stage effects—such as quick costume changes and aerial stunts on wires—and used them extensively. The popular stereotype over the last few decades has been that the Ichikawa Danjūrō family is very stiff and serious, but my ancestors have actually behaved in some very unorthodox ways as they adapted to the changing times, even as they still adhered to tradition.

I hope that people from overseas will see how kabuki is a uniquely Japanese tradition that has developed over generations. I think they often see something inherently cool in the things that represent Japan—not just kabuki, but also bonsai, geisha, and even aspects of nature, like cherry blossoms and Mt. Fuji. These things are all around us here in Japan, so we tend to take them for granted.

I’ve noticed that audiences’ reactions to kabuki differ from country to country. Let’s say I give the same performance in France and the United Kingdom. French audiences want to hear the live audio, so they rely on subtitles rather than listening to an audio guide. But British audiences want to follow the story more closely, so we need to provide them with audio guides rather than subtitles. Italian audiences tend to show an honest, enthusiastic reaction if they like the play. I’m also reminded of a memorable performance in Singapore, a revival of Uwanari (meaning “second wife” or “jealousy”) from the Kabuki Juhachiban. It is the story of a man caught between two different women, in which we portrayed the subtleties of emotion slightly differently than in the original. There was a couple sitting in the front row, and the woman flew into a rage at the man beside her the moment the performance ended. I immediately recognized that the subtleties of our performance had not gone over the head of this woman, even though the play was in a foreign language.

I am sometimes asked how I will change kabuki for future generations. Every bearer of the Danjūrō name has introduced some significant changes. Ichikawa Danjūrō IX, for example, ensured that kabuki would remain accessible as a form of entertainment for the masses. I will eventually need to figure out what it is that I can do. Naturally, I will continue to perform the classics as well as gidayū (adaptations from puppet theater), sewamono (stories of ordinary people), and new works. But you have to realize—if you do something new in an attempt to do something new, it is not truly new. So, how do I do something new without making it look forced? I think I will have to turn to the past and tradition to find the answer. Then, 10 or 20 years from now, the next generation—my son Shinnosuke VIII and my daughter Botan IV—will take over and change kabuki in their own ways.


Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII, Hakuen | Danjūrō is a member of the Naritaya acting guild. His debut performance was in May 1983 at the Kabuki-za Theater, playing Harumiya in The Tale of Genji. In 2022, he became the thirteenth actor to take on the name Ichikawa Danjūrō, an illustrious stage name passed down since the 17th century. Danjūrō wears a formal persimmon-colored kimono with a crest of three nestled squares and a wig with a topknot resembling an axe blade. In the signature technique of the Ichikawa family, he lifts a wooden stand in his left hand, steps forward forcefully with his right foot, and glares menacingly out at the audience as he proclaims, “One glare for your viewing pleasure!” It was once said that Danjūrō’s glare could prevent colds for a year.

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©In Association with Shochiku

©In Association with Shochiku
Source: “Kabuki Juhachiban” from NDL Digital Collections (https://dl.ndl.go.jp/)