The Irving of Japan by Osman Edwards

The Sketch 29th March 1899.

 Mr. Ichikawa Danjuro as the Lady-in-Waiting of Kasuga
Mr. Ichikawa Danjuro as the Lady-in-Waiting of Kasuga

Whoever first called Mr. Ichikawa Danjuro the Japanese Irving was inspired.  He stands unquestionably at the head of his profession; he is associated by his fellow countrymen, as we associate Sir Henry Irving, with a splendid series of historic impersonations; he has done a great deal to raise the status and enhance the prestige of actors; he enjoys an income far exceeding that of the Prime Minister, and, next to Marquis Ito, is perhaps the most popular person in Japan.

In one respect he certainly surpasses our great actor. We can hardly imagine the portrayer of Becket, Shylock, or Louise XI favourably impressing his audience in the roles of Portia, Beatrice or Lady Macbeth; but such androgynous feats are frequently accomplished by the Tokyo favourite, who, at sixty five is still capable of much agility as a dancer in the ‘Damari’ or pantomimic scenes which break the somewhat lurid march of a seven-act tragedy.

In the old days, the world of mummers was despotically ruled by caste. Half a dozen families enjoyed the sole right of training and adopting novices, of transmitting technical secrets, and even of playing particular parts. Nowadays, all that is changed. In the absence of an endowed theatre or any system of theatrical training, every tyro must shift for himself. This at least, guarantees some loophole for originality, which was much hampered under the old regime of reverence in imitation.

He belongs to a family which has been on the boards for nine generations. The original Danjuro made his debut in  1673, and the present bearer of that name made his first appearance at the age of three, in 1840, and was adopted by Gonjuro, under whose name he played until 1874, when he resumed his father’s. When I add that his name in private life is Shu Horikoshi, and that fellow-actors call him Naritaya, you will admit that this passion for an alias, is confusing to the foreigner.

Mr. Danjuro himself has initiated many stage reforms. It is he who makes facial expression far more effective than here. The grotesque faces, barred with blue or red stripes, which Kuniyoshi and Kunisada painted, may have impressed an old fashioned audience, but the modern are more to be envied who follow with obviously intense emotion the vivid play of feeling on mobile features. Every foreigner who has witnessed a Japanese play must have regretted the artificial declamation of speeches, pitched very high or very low in tone, to evade the never silent samisen (a kind of three stringed banjo), which accompanies the performer. Other actors now follow Mr. Danjuro’s example in confining as far as possible, this co-incidental music to particular scenes. This enables them to use their voices more naturally.

Japanese plays, continue to be written about national heroes and to inculcate feudal ideas of obedience. Among the more famous roles interpreted by Mr. Danjuro, are Nakamitsu, who behead his own son in place of his masters; Benkei, the devil-youth, who’s gigantic strength and crafty wit were loyally used for his diminutive lord, Yoshitsune; Jiraiya, an oriental Robin Hood; Iwafugi, a malicious Court lady of the Tokugawa period, and Kasuga no Tsubone (the lady in waiting of Kasuga).

The Emperor and upper class confine their interest in things dramatic to the archaic Nõ–plays. Patrons of the stage from the middle and lower classes,  flock in such numbers to the playhouse that the best players draw very large salaries. Last spring after a season of four weeks at Osaka, Mr. Danjuro’s share of the receipts amounted £5000; but it should be added that, in conformity with a generous etiquette, as much as £2,000 of the Osaka windfall was expended in presents to friends and friendly tea houses.

Mr. Danjuro once took part with a Madam Theo in a little sketch entitled The Green Eyed Monster, written half in French, half in Japanese, to amuse the guests of the foreign legations at Tokyo, but he had never seen one of our typical pieces or performers. Conservative in morals as in art, he fears that such a writer as Shakespeare would brutalise and unsex Japanese girlhood. Perhaps he is right?

This edited feature is published by courtesy of the Mander & Mitchenson Theatre Collection.

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