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Interview with Ichikawa Danjūrō IX

An Interview with Ichikawa Danjūrō IX (1838-1903)

(conducted by the British author and critic Osman Edwards during his six month visit to Japan in 1898-1899)

Source: Japanese Plays and Playfellows, Osman Edwards, John Lane 251 Fifth Avenue, New York, 1901, p. 263-271.

I followed the attendant down winding passages, and was shown into a small wooden compartment, which contained grease-paint, brushes, dresses, and in the corner a dignified old man, with eyes as sharp as Ibsen's and the gravity of an archbishop. In his expression was no hint of robbery, dancing, or witchcraft. I looked round for the green frog, but the only other occupants of the room were two young ladies in sky-blue kimono, whom I afterwards discovered to be the actor's daughters. They never miss one of their father's performances.  Presenting the letter which Mr. Fukuchi [the famous journalist, politician and playwright] had kindly indited, I begged permission to interview Jiraiya [Jiraiya, the magician, being a reference to one of Danjuro's famous roles - see photo left] at length on several phases of his complex personality.  Ichikawa Danjuro (how well the stately syllables suited his demeanour) replied that he would be pleased to receive me any afternoon in the following week at his own house, where he would be resting between two engagements. But I knew that a magician (and, above all, a Japanese magician) held time to be of no more consequence than life or death, so I specifically demanded Wednesday as my share of his timeless immortality. The request was granted: the applicant retired.

I have known actors so devoted to their art that they treat every incident, however trivial, as a matter of theatrical importance, and impose on every acquaintance the role of a spectator. They grasp your hand with that fervour which warms the heart of the gallery, and take leave of a lady with glances such as melt the stalls. This exaggerated consciousness of his calling is utterly absent from Mr. Danjuro, who, off the boards, becomes less of an actor and more of an archbishop in proportion as he realises every year the growing prestige and veneration attached by the bulk of his compatriots to the chief of the Japanese stage. To them he is a great deal more than the successful acquirer of fame and money : he is the inheritor and transmitter of a great tradition, a living link with that pictorial old Japan which, beaten back by modern innovation outside the theatre, holds its own gallantly in the unstormed fortress of national drama. His habitation is in complete accord with the honourable position held by its proprietor. Good taste and simplicity conceal all traces of the wealth which is his. Opposite the reception-room is a small lake, decorated with trees and huge ornamental stones such as the Japanese aesthete loves, since they recall, as far as may be, the freaks which Nature loves to play with forest and mountain. The rooms are of white wood, beautifully planed, and the only objects which suggest the theatre are fuda, or long laths, hung with wreaths and bands of silk, on which are inscribed tributes of admiration from tea-houses, geisha-houses, and guilds of various kinds. When the master entered, wearing a quiet-coloured kimono of grey cotton, he greeted his visitors (my friend Kishimoto had volunteered his services as interpreter) with grave cordiality, and, having ordered a servant to bring in coffee and cakes, proceeded to answer my questions with imperturbable kindness.

"My family," he said, "have been actors for nine generations. My earliest recollection of the stage dates from 1840, when I was carried on in my father's arms, an infant of three, for introduction to the public. As you may know, the fashion of adoption plays a considerable part in all our confraternities. Great names are never allowed to die out. Thus, at the age of eighteen, I took the name of Gonjuro, being adopted by the manager of the old Tokyo theatre, and it was not until my father's death in 1874 that I became Danjuro the Seventh, so styled. Danjuro the First made his debut in the year 1673."

"And which is your favourite part, Mr. Danjuro?"

"I prefer historical plays, which revive old ideals and present noble figures for the emulation of posterity.  In my opinion the best plays are those which stimulate patriotism. Perhap[s] 'Kajincho,' in which Benkei, disguised as a priest, enables Yoshitsune to cross the bridge and become master of Kyoto, is the role I like best."

I had long since made the acquaintance of Benkei, the Devil Youth, and the feats both of mind and body which he achieved for the sake of his youthful victor, ever since the latter had defeated him in single combat on Gojo bridge, were familiar to me both from coloured prints and the representation of " Funa Benkei," by members of a No troupe. It was evident that the star actor had a weakness for "sympathetic" parts, and no doubt his mien and manner were admirably adapted to the impersonation of majestic priests. 

"Have many of your actors the intellectual power to conceive and render historical heroes?"

"No; I fear it must be admitted that the great fault of too many actors is illiteracy. But in my young days we were scarcely to blame for this. The Government actually forbade us to receive any other than a theatrical education, which, as then understood, sufficiently taxed our time and strength. We were obliged to learn and reproduce exactly the traditional tones, gestures, and actions associated with any particular part."

"What is your opinion of foreign methods of acting?"

"I have only seen a few amateurs at the Legations, and cannot form an opinion. But when Mr. Fukuchi and Mr. Osada wrote a little piece in one act, half in French and half in Japanese, in which I had the honour of appearing with Madame Theo, I found it most difficult to sustain my part, since the lady's words and by-play were alike mysterious." A grim smile accompanied this souvenir of that comedietta, "The Greeneyed Monster."

"I suppose you have improved in many ways on the old-fashioned style of acting?"

This widely cast question invited such a shoal of answers that the conscientious examinee paused to consider.

"I will try to mention a few of the changes which I have done my best to bring about. The first thing I aimed at was greater freedom of interpretation. Tradition weighed like a millstone on the actor's neck. Instead of painfully and slavishly copying a predecessor, I set the example, as soon as I felt influential enough, of forming and putting into action my own conception of a character. But it was a hard task. Then I tried to introduce more natural diction. Ranting and hollow declamation were the rule. Even now one is compelled to pitch the voice very high on account of the music, which some actors find an aid to delivery."

"But isn't that most fatiguing for the voice?"

"Not in well-built theatres, like the Kabukiza, where the vaulted roof leaves nothing acoustically to be desired."

"And your famous facial expression?"

"Ah! that, I think, was a real reform. The old actors' faces were barred with red and blue stripes to make them look ferocious, and, though they may have terrified the audience, they could not impress it in any other way, for variety of expression was impossible. Now, without discarding paint altogether, we aim at conveying all the emotions by play of feature, leaving sometimes to the musicians the task of rendering them into words."

In this respect I was able to confirm the actor's words by personal observation. Nothing had struck me as more peculiarly characteristic of a Japanese audience than its delight in histrionic grimace. The loudest applause, the frenetic shouts of "Hi-ya ! Hi-ya!" had been evoked in my hearing, not by repartee or tirade, but always by convulsive contortions of visage in moments of supreme misery or rage. The word grimace connotes, I am afraid, that contempt, allied with coarseness of sensibility, which the stoical Anglo-Saxon is apt to entertain towards more gesticular and sensitive races. But some of Sara Bernhardt's death-scenes would be appreciated at their full value by the acute, minute observers of Tokyo, just as all Paris was thrilled and captivated by Sada Yacco's realistic dying.

"Is the social status of the actor higher than it used to be, Mr. Danjuro?"

"I think it is. Speaking for myself, many of our nobles and one of our princes have done me the honour of inviting me to their houses, but such invitations are by no means common. The illiteracy of actors, to which I alluded just now, is a barrier to their social advancement."

"If I may broach a delicate question, will you tell me if the paragraphs circulated in the Japanese Press are correct ? They state that your season of four weeks last April in Osaka brought you in a sum of 50,000 yen (nearly ₤5000), and that out of this amount you gave away in presents something like 20,000 yen (₤2000)."

The old man smiled, less grimly. "It is quite true," he said. "But the presents are imposed by etiquette, and such customs are more or less reciprocal.  The total receipts of the theatre, as certified by the Government auditor, after the tax had been deducted, amounted to 130,000 yen (₤13,000)."

"How is it you have avoided the master-passion of our London actors to become an actor-manager?"

"I think a manager must be sorely tempted to put money first and art second. I often advise authors to make certain alterations in the plays for which I am engaged, but the responsibility of entire management would distract me from the purely artistic aspect of representation."

A mischievous recollection of Delobelle's "Je n'ai pas le droit de renoncer a mon art" occurred to me, and I cynically wondered whether management might not diminish (it could hardly increase) the lion's share of the receipts.

Will you ask Mr. Danjuro," I said, "if he will like to put any questions to me about European actors and acting? I shall be most delighted to give him information on the subject."

The answer was a blank negative. For the patriotic actor no stage existed but his own. He had never been abroad; his interest in foreign things was limited to the flattering curiosity of foreign admirers.

The interview had already lasted an hour, for the translation of question and answer from concise English into more elaborate Japanese, and vice versa, was a rather slow process. I therefore begged the invaluable Kishimoto to say that I could not think of trespassing any longer on Mr. Danjuro's leisure, and would spare him one or two other interrogations which had suggested themselves. Thanking him in my best Japanese, I was rising to go, but our unwearied host would not hear of it, and insisted on my continuing to the bitter end.

“'Well, since you are so kind, I should much like to hear your opinion of the sōshi shibai"1

Knowing that the sōshi-theatre [a kabuki reform movement which put on plays based on current events] must appear to a conservative actor as red a rag as the Independent Theatre to Mr. Clement Scott or the Theatre de L'CEuvre to the late M. Sarcey, I awaited the reply with interest. But the gallant attempt to destroy feudal spectacular drama with ammunition drawn from French and English arsenals had failed so miserably, that the patriot could afford to be generous. His eyes twinkled as he answered: "Certainly some of the sōshi had great talent, but it was all of the theoretic kind. They had splendid theories about reforming the stage and bringing it into harmony with progress, with the spirit of the age, and other fine things. But, when they had to translate their theories into practice, the result fell very far short of their aims. Their writers were amateurs, their actors were amateurs; they knew nothing of stage-craft. The public, excited by the promises, were willing enough to give them a trial, but, as they did not know how to interest the public."

"Then you gave them no assistance, Mr. Danjuro?"

"None at all."

"Are you blessed with a censor of plays?"

"There is a censorship, but it falls under the head of ordinary police duties, and is not specially limited to the theatre. Political and licentious passages are carefully excised before performance, and I doubt if the authority of the censor has been exercised in the Meiji era (since the Restoration)."

"How is it that foreign plays fail to interest your playgoers?

"It is my honest belief that Kishimoto, from a mistaken idea of sparing my feelings, abridged considerably the answer to this question." Both he and Mr. Danjuro chuckled a great deal, and seemed to be exchanging sympathetic affirmations. Then came the crushing rejoinder: "Because in all your plays the attitude of men to women seems to us not only irrational but ridiculous."

I changed the subject. "Which classes go most to the theatre?"

"The middle and lower classes. Since the Emperor witnessed a performance in Count Inonye's house in 18862 it has become more fashionable for men of rank to go occasionally, but it cannot be said that the aristocracy, as a class, patronise the stage."

"Can Mr. Danjuro tell me if the mawari-butai, or revolving stage, resembling what the Greeks used to call eccyclema, is native or imported? Some Japanese have told me that it was probably adopted from a foreign source."  Mr. Danjuro held the opposite opinion.

"And how far is your stage controlled by guilds?"

"The old system has entirely broken down. Formerly some six or seven families had complete control of the theatre. A novice could only enter the profession through adoption by one or other of these. He received an elaborate education ; he adopted the name and a modified form of the crest of his patron. The right to play certain parts was vested in certain actors, who transmitted the privilege. But now all that is changed. Any one can go on the stage and play any part he likes. There is no restriction and no training either."

"And is the special tax on actors now abolished, giving place to an income-tax?"

"No; that is an error. We still pay a heavy tax, irrespective of income."

"One more question. Have you any association corresponding to that which in England is known by the name of the Actors' Benevolent Fund?"

"Yes; we have a large guild, which undertakes to help members overtaken by misfortune and to expel others whose actions bring discredit on the stage. For we love our art, and are rewarded by its growing popularity with all classes of the community."

On this patriotic note I thought it well to close. I urged Kishimoto to exhaust his stock of honorifics in a suitable vote of thanks, and, as I took leave of the patient, archiepiscopal veteran, I wondered how a mosquito feels when it has been stinging with impertinent curiosity, hour after hour, some grave, immemorial image of Buddha.

1 sōshi shibai – a kabuki reform movement during the later part of the Meiji period which dramatized social and political events of the period and was later to establish itself as Shinpa, the new sect, opposed to the old sect of kabuki.
2 Danjuro's recollection is one year off, as the specially stage play for Emperor Meiji's was performed on April 21, 1887.  After the performance the Emperor said, "I have witnessed a most unusual performance."