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February 8, 2014

Kabuki star shines in Wako

Shunen Ichikawa and Dr Noyori, At RIKEN

Ichikawa and Dr Noyori, RIKEN president

At first glance, Shunen Ichikawa looks like an ordinary Japanese man. He is tall, handsome and smartly dressed, but one wouldn’t guess from his appearance that he is one of the most famous Kabuki actors in Japan.

Kabuki is a traditional Japanese theatre art form that dates back to the beginning of the 17th century. “Kabuki”, which can be translated as “skilled dance-drama” originated in Kyoto, and was at first performed by women. But around 1650 women were banned from Kabuki plays and since then male actors have performed both male and female roles.

The auditorium was full last week when the famous Shunen Ichikawa came to the RIKEN Wako campus (the headquarters, near Tokyo), where he had been invited to give a talk. For an hour and a half, he transported his audience into the life of a Kabuki artist.

Since his years as a trainee under master En’yo Ichikawa II, Shunen Ichikawa has worked with the best Kabuki artists in Japan, acted in numerous plays – as a woman! – and been proactive in efforts to modernize Kabuki and attract younger crowds to Kabuki theatres.

Ichikawa only impersonates female characters and it has taken him years of intense training to master the essence of feminity. “To look feminine,” he says, “you have to behave as if you were wearing a traditional Japanese kimono.” To learn how to walk gracefully like a kimono-clad lady, he had to practice for hours, shuffling around on bent knees, head high, back straight and shoulders drawn back.

It takes imagination to recognize the real Ishikawa in the stage persona, adorned with make-up, layers of silk kimono and a large headpiece. This is why seeing him in the flesh, make-up less last Friday was a unique and awe-inspiring experience. An experience that probably enticed many in the audience to reach for their wallets and book tickets for his next performance.