Kabuki: Inside the Japanese artform with its biggest star, Ebizo

For centuries, Japan has celebrated a unique art that brings together acting, singing and athleticism, performed before audiences that, at times, act like they're at a sporting event rather than a theater. Jon Wertheim reports on the "off-kilter" world of Kabuki.

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If the story of coronavirus has dominated your thoughts — and how could it not — here's a story that likely hasn't. Before the global pandemic, Japan was set to confer one of its highest honors on one of its most towering celebrities, a man who was supposed to be a kind of ambassador at the Tokyo Olympics. But Ebizo, so big he goes by only one name, is not an actor, a singer or an athlete. Actually, he's all three. He's the brightest star in the cosmos of Kabuki, the eccentric theater art unique to Japan. Kabuki stars are not just made, they're born into dynasties, distinguished families passing the craft, and that trademark Kabuki glare, from one generation to the next. We went to Japan in February, to meet the man breathing fresh life into this beguiling 400-year-old art form. 

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Ebizo in costume

Kabuki is, well, what is it exactly? Performed exclusively by men, it is equal measures drama and melodrama, at once volcanic and tempered, part opera, part dance, part pro wrestling. And it is, proudly, more than a little over the top. Kabuki has been called "a masterpiece of heritage," by no less than the United Nations. And here's a good sign you've reached the pinnacle of this art: You have a personal "spritzer" perfuming the path to your dressing room. So it goes for Ebizo Ichikawa, Kabuki's biggest star. He invited us backstage for a rare look at preparations before a show. 

No ritual here is more elaborate, more central, than the application of makeup, which the actors do themselves.

Jon Wertheim: When you go through that ritual of putting on the makeup, what do you go through?

Ebizo (Translation): The makeup brings you into the role. It's a time for you to step into that role and become the character. 

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Ebizo applies his makeup

If you think his makeup looks heavy, get a load of Ebizo's costume; one hundred thirty pounds and packed with ice, to keep him cool for hours on stage. 

And the guy knows how to make an entrance. 

In this production he plays a faithful lieutenant, ironic since, in real life, Ebizo is the center of attention. 

Yet, for all the extravagant trappings, Kabuki came from humble origins.

In 1603, right around the time Shakespeare first started staging his plays in London, here in Kyoto a woman named Okuni came down to the river and began performing interpretive dance dramas which, like Shakespeare's plays, found an audience among the common folk. These stylized performances, once banned, grew to become a national art form: Kabuki… derived from a Japanese word meaning something a little off-kilter. 

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Kyoto

Kyoto is where we met Kabuki's crown prince, 42 years old and looking every bit the modern pop star in designer glasses and a tailored suit.

Jon Wertheim: What is it like performing here?

Ebizo (Translation): Being able to perform something that started as an entertainment for the masses in front of so many people, is a great honor and pleasure.

Mere days before social distancing, they showed up en masse for Ebizo's sold-out run here, one stop on his national Kabuki circuit. But, in a country with an aging population, the groupies aren't teenagers. One longtime fan admitted to being a little nervous to see the star in person.

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Fans wait for Ebizo

After the show, a crush of well-dressed patrons, overwhelmingly female, waited to send him off. 

His longtime friend Denjiro Tanaka, the lead musician on stage, performs with Ebizo every day. 

Jon Wertheim: What distinguishes him as a performer, as you see it?
 
Denjiro Tanaka (Translation): I would have to say his aura is something which is very unique. Which you can sense almost coming out of him. It's the power of his eyes and of his gaze. 

Yes, the eyes have it. 

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Ebizo performs his signature "mie"

That stare is called a "mie" and it's Ebizo's signature move, like John Wayne's walk. The mie is meant to draw the audience in, conveying a character's raw emotion, while the crowd goes wild. 

But when we asked him to tell us more, Ebizo politely declined. 

Jon Wertheim: Could you teach it to me?

Ebizo (in English): No. Difficult.

Jon Wertheim: Family secret?

Ebizo (Translation): Yes, basically.

We traced Ebizo Ichikawa's family secret all the way here, to the Naritasan Temple, outside Tokyo.

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Correspondent Jon Wertheim with a Buddhist priest at the Naritasan Temple CBS News

This Buddhist priest told us the famous stare was inspired by this god, Fudo. In the 1600s, Ebizo's ancestor, Ichikawa Danjuro the 1st, an early Kabuki talent, came here to pray to Fudo for a son. His prayers were answered. A son was born and with him, a family dynasty: the Ichikawa Danjuro line. Through the centuries, they would canonize a repertoire of 18 classic plays. 

Ebizo's grandfather, Danjuro the 11th, and father, Danjuro the 12th, were bona fide Kabuki matinée idols, famous as much for their good looks as their skill.

Ebizo trained under his father and performed with him until his death seven years ago. Last year, Ebizo announced that he would take on the Danjuro name, the 13th man of the Ichikawa lineage to take on that title.  

Jon Wertheim: What does that mean to you?

Ebizo (Translation): Well, I think the time has come.
 
Jon Wertheim: Why do you say that?
 
Ebizo (Translation): It's my fate, you know. This is the house I was born into, what I have trained for.

Jon Wertheim: Is there one quality shared by all the men with the Danjuro title?
 
Ebizo (Translation): I think really holding the whole future of Kabuki on your shoulders.
 
Jon Wertheim: That's how you feel?
 
Ebizo (Translation): Yes. It's not just about me. I really need to think about the whole enterprise.

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Ebizo

Mark Oshima, an American living in Tokyo, translates Kabuki plays into English and has followed these Kabuki bluebloods. 

Mark Oshima: I mean, Ebizo looks like a Kabuki actor.  And he comes from what people think of as a pure Kabuki family. So people all say, "He's a thoroughbred." And Japanese love thoroughbreds.

That said, Kabuki has never been an especially profitable enterprise, given massive overhead: giant casts on ornate sets. The hope is that Ebizo will be a one-man boom to the industry.

Jon Wertheim: What's going on in the audience during performances? 

Mark Oshima: It's just like a sports crowd.

Mark Oshima: You know, there are times when you have your beers and hot dogs, and times when you cheer...

Mark Oshima: Times when you pay attention to what's going on and times when you don't.

Jon Wertheim: You'll also hear audiences during these performances yelling out, "Narita-ya." 

Mark Oshima: This is something called a yago, or house name. If I were going to cheer you on, I would say "60 Minutes!" Now you may-- every-- everyone would know that. Ebizo's yago comes from the temple at Narita, which has been very, very important to generations and generations of-- of-- Danjuro.

Jon Wertheim: So there's real connoisseurship here.

Mark Oshima: Connoisseurship.

Jon Wertheim: You should feel free to yell out the 60 Minutes yago anytime you want.

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Mark Oshima

For all its idiosyncrasies, Kabuki is grueling business. Actors perform for hours every day, sometimes twice a day, month after month.

Ebizo (Translation): Every morning, I have to assess my condition. 

Ebizo (Translation): I have to figure out: can my body do this today? Can it do that? 

Jon Wertheim: You speak like an athlete. Do you think of yourself as an athlete?
 
Ebizo (Translation): Yes, but with no off-season.

Not unlike some athletes, Ebizo indulged in his share of nights out in his youth, once getting into a nasty bar brawl. An entire country worried the injuries to his face would thwart the trademark stare. His friend Tanaka recalls this rebellious phase. 

Denjiro Tanaka (Translation): Yes. When he was young, he was a bit of a bad boy, you could say. He was quite famous in the Kabuki world for that. But I think to be a superstar, in a way, you do need to be a bit of a bad boy. Otherwise, getting up on stage in front of thousands of people, you wouldn't be able to charm them with your performance.

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Denjiro Tanaka

Leaving his bad boy days behind him, Ebizo proved himself last summer in Tokyo, taking on 13 roles in a four-hour production. He could be seen slipping offstage as the dutiful wife and reappearing seconds later as the warrior.  

Jon Wertheim: Can you name the roles? Do you remember?

Ebizo (Translation): Ehhhh (laugh). Yeah, I can't remember them all right now. There are too many of them. 
 
And Ebizo plays yet another role full time: single dad.

It was ten years ago, with fanfare befitting a royal wedding, that Ebizo married a popular Tokyo newscaster, Mao Kobayashi. In short order, they had a daughter and a son. But in 2014, Mao was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

When she passed away three years later, all of Japan went into mourning. 

Jon Wertheim: What would you like people to know about her?

Ebizo (Translation): About Mao. I just think about my son and daughter, the way they are maturing, without Mao, none of that would have been possible. She was a human overflowing with love and I hope people won't forget that.

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Ebizo and Mao Kobayashi with their two children, Kangen and Reika

He told us he tries his best to balance performing with parenting. Made a little easier when his son Kangen, now seven, announced that he would follow his father into Kabuki. 

Jon Wertheim: Kangen is now in the same line of work as you are and your father and his father. How do you feel about that?

Ebizo (Translation): At the moment, he's talented. He's very cute. But I'm sure one day he'll face some struggles in his life, in Kabuki. And so I need to make sure I can support him… without being overprotective.

His son Kangen is already adept at tapping into his emotions as an actor.

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Ebizo with his son, Kangen

Watch how his eyes well up while he rehearses a scene about a boy who's separated from his father. 

Jon Wertheim: I've seen Kangen already does connect with the audience. Did you teach him that?

Ebizo (Translation): No, I think it really comes naturally to him.

Also a natural gift: Kangen's ability to sneak in a nap during makeup. 

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Reika performs with Kangen while Ebizo looks on

As for Ebizo's 8-year-old daughter Reika, a dancer in training, going into the family business is not as straightforward. Women are banned from most Kabuki stages, though perhaps not for much longer if you ask her father.

Jon Wertheim: Does any part of you regret that she won't be able to have a career as a Kabuki actor?

Ebizo (Translation): It's not set in stone that she can't one day become a Kabuki actor herself. 

Jon Wertheim: You'd like to see more women involved in Kabuki?

Ebizo (Translation): It used to be that everybody was, you know, "Kabuki, you know, it's only for men." But I think that's quite an old-fashioned way of looking at it.

If anyone can modernize the art form, it's Ebizo. His influence in Japan transcends Kabuki; his face moves magazines.  

His multi-million dollar endorsement portfolio includes McDonald's. 

And case in point: he recently adapted Star Wars for Kabuki. But the future, as they say, will have to wait.

This week, Japan expanded a state of emergency in the face of Coronavirus to cover the entire country. Kabuki theaters, like theaters across the world, went dark last month. 

As they wait for the lights to come back up, this source of continuity, the man who will braid together Kabuki's past and its destiny, also waits, proudly, an artist in full bloom.

Produced by Nathalie Sommer and Vanessa Fica. Field producer, Lucy Craft. Broadcast associate, Cristina Gallotto. Edited by Jorge J. García. Intern, Justin Stevens.