The Founder of Aragoto (1660-1704)
The father of Danjuro I was a respected local leader, nicknamed ‘Scarface’ Juzo. Juzo had close links to the famous ‘chivalrous commoner’ (kyokaku), Token Juemon. Legend has it that Danjuro’s childhood name of Ebizo was bestowed upon him by Juemon.
Danjuro I himself first appears in the historical record in 1680, aged twenty-one, playing the role of Fuwa Banzaemon in the play, Fighting over a Courtesan (Yujoron).
There is convincing evidence to suggest that Danjuro first acted in an aragoto style in 1685 at the Ichimura-za theatre when he played the role of Sakata Kinpira in the play Kinpira’s Visits to the Rokujo Pleasure Quarters (Kinpira Rokujo Gayoi). He is said to have been inspired by the histrionic style of puppet theatre known as Kinpira joruri, then enjoying great popularity in Edo. Kinpira joruri plays featured the youthful Sakata Kinpira who would use his superhuman powers to defeat demons, monsters and villains. The plays were notable for over-the-top violence, with the puppets smashing boulders into smithereens and ripping off heads. However, Danjuro was not the first to portray violent warrior figures on the Edo kabuki stage - earlier actors had developed many techniques for martial roles (aramushagoto), specializing in either evil warriors or virtuous footmen. Danjuro’s genius was to combine these two role types, creating a new style of young, righteous warrior who publicly challenged and defeated evildoers on stage. This was the essence of aragoto. Danjuro I’s aragoto had a folk religious dimension to it as well, since his forceful characters would inevitably appear at the very end of the play as a human manifestation of a powerful god.
In late 1693, at the age of thirty-four, Danjuro took his parents, wife and children with him and went to act in Kyoto. But his dynamic acting style proved too different to what Kyoto audiences were used to and his reviews were poor. He spent about one year in Kyoto, where he took the opportunity to study haiku poetry under the famous poet Shiinomoto Saimaro. He was given the poetic nom de plume Saigyu.
Danjuro possessed undoubted literary talents and was also active as a playwright under the penname Mimasuya Hyogo. The fact that he both wrote and acted in his own aragoto plays allowed him to determine the unique character of these plays.
On the 19th day of the second lunar month 1704, while Danjuro was appearing at the Ichimura-za theatre in the role of Sato Tadanobu in Watamashi Junidan, he was stabbed to death on stage by the actor Ikushima Hanroku. Hanroku’s motive is unknown. Danjuro was forty-five years old.