DANJURO ICHIKAWA—Mr. Shu Horikoshi privately—the greatest tragedian ever seen on the Japanese stage (in long three hundred years) suddenly died a few weeks ago in his sixty-sixth year. All the people—the "matinee" girls and geishas must have been crying their eyes out—will wear black in imagination for the death of the great Naritaya.
I was one of those who used to call out "Naritaya" (his trade name) loudly from the pit, upon his appearance on the stage in some historical role. Japs—the people who take things philosophically, as it is said—cannot express their admiration without making a noise. It was my good fortune to see him in his classical "Kanjincho" and "Dojoji."
Who will be the inheritor of his great name "Danjuro"? Who will he the tenth Danjuro? Yaojo, with no mean power in acting, perhaps. What a less our Japanese stage is suffering recently! It lost Kikugoro Onoye, another great actor, some seven mouths ago. And now Danjuro! We have still Sadanji with us—one of the three pillars of the Japanese stage world. What a gallant actor is Sadanji! However, our stage will remain in darkness for some time. If it should be forever!
The first Danjuro was Ebizo Horikoshi, who was born in 1660 of poor but respectable parents. He went on the stage under the stage name of Danjuro Ichikawa at the age of 34, and soon was acknowledged the leading actor of Yeddo (the present Tokio). He was murdered on the stage in 1704 by a fellow player with whom he had remonstrated on his licentious life. His son Kuzo, who was born in 1688, succeeded to the stage name, which he maintained in high repute until his death in 1758.
Kuzo made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Narita, where he appealed to the god to aid him in his profession. Afterward when he became famous he assumed in gratitude the name of Naritaya as his trade name. He adopted a son, being childless. The young man died before him. He was obliged to adopt another, the fourth Danjuro (1711-1788), who. was succeeded by his son, the fifth (1741-1806). The sixth (1778-1799) also died before his father, whose name had been transmitted to him in 1790, and his nephew (1790-1855) inherited the most coveted name. His son (1823-1854) committed suicide to save his father from reproach. The name remained in abeyance for nineteen years until it was assumed in 1873 by a half brother, who was born in 1838.
This ninth Danjuro was the greatest of all the Danjuros. He has been the king of the Japanese stage for the last thirty years. He raised the standard, and the stage to high respect. Were not the actors in feudal days dubbed riverside beggars from the first theatre in Kioto being built on the riverside? Danjuro endeavored to make the stage an educational institution as well as a public diversion. He almost succeeded.
We have nothing to be proud of before the world in Japan, if it be not our Danjuro. We would not lose him, say, for half a dozen premiers. Alas, he is no-more! He is the magnificent production only to be compared with Jingoro Hidari in sculpture or with Hokusai in art. His sublimity in impersonation was higher than that of Salvini. His mighty magnetism was hardly shown by Henry Irving. His versatile polish in art would delight Nat Goodwin.
It is a fact that he was the biggest money-maker in all Japan—in all Asia, you might say. Some eight years ago he went to Osaka for one month. His salary was 50,000 yens. Twenty-five thousand dollars' in American gold for thirty days, sir!
I often talked with Arthur Diosy (chairman of the "Japan Society") in London, and our chat usually turned to the subject of the Japanese play. I should have liked to hear how Danjuro—"his art is the god's," as we say—would be taken by the Western people, I say, since even Sada Yacco and Oto Kawakami could invite no small admiration. We never could take it seriously that Madam Yacco should be compared with Sara Bernhardt. We dubbed the followers of Kawakami "Soshi Yakusha." Soshi means a fellow half a student, half a vagrant, hanging around the politicians, while yakusha is an actor—wholly an amateur, spoken cynically. They raised the flag of realistic acting, doubtless adopting a certain Western method, utterly ignoring the original Japanese rhetoric in impersonation. Some of them are born actors. However, our prejudiced minds would never permit them the title of actor. They are not finished artists in our best sense.
Mr. Diosy confided to me that the Japan Society intended to invite Danjuro some day for one season. However, he was afraid the money required would be tremendous. Danjuro often stated that his one desire of life would be to play on the Western stage—especially in America.
Once some nine years ago he played with one Russian actress (her name I forget, though she was a famous one), she in French. He couldn't understand even one word of French. The play was a one-act play, being the scene of his meeting with her to whom he had been betrothed in France, and her meeting with his Japanese wife whom he had married soon after his return to Japan. What a marvelous skill he exhibited in the embarrassment of his role.
It is said she confessed after the play that he was the most wonderful actor she ever met. The acting was superb. They understood! each other, not in language, but in feeling. The language would not be very important, really, for great players.
I sat with Osman Edwards, the author of "Japanese Plays and Playgoers" and a no mean theatrical critic, some ten months ago over the table of the Playgoers' Club in London. The purple smoke and completely jolly air filled up the room. The discussion on Mr. Forbes Robertson's Othello (he was playing it at that time) had subsided. We slowly turned to a social talk. Our subject was nothing but the Japanese play.
He apologetically objected to a Japanese orchestra bursting into such a tragic thrill—which is, however, a delight to Japanese ears—and to an eight hours' performance. Undoubtedly the sight of the spectators eating, drinking and smoking would be objectionable to the Western people. The revolving stage (by means of which the scenes can be changed without first drawing the curtain) and the "Flowery-Path"—a projecting entrance passage from the front to the stage, running through by the side of the pit—would appear degenerating to childishness. The "blackamoors" (the prompters clothed in black and with black veils over their faces, busily flitting about the stage) would seem ridiculous, although they are useful to keep order.
It would take some time. Mr. Edwards admitted, to truly appreciate the Japanese play as with Japanese pictures or any other Japanese thing. The stage has been developing to the highest watermark, but in a different way from the Western. It does appear to you too grotesque at first, but when once you get used to it the delight would be eternal, so he said. He declared Danjuro Ichikawa the greatest actor in the world, whose art was nothing but magic. His carefulness in acting—not so minute in detail as Kikugoro's—is continued by the great spirit who gracefully presides over the stage. His gestures, which are the special distinction in Japanese acting, are wonderfully appealing.
"Wasn't his female impersonation simply great?" he exclaimed.
Yes, it was.