Ichikawa, Sadanji II (1880–1940) By Zheng, Guohe
Ichikawa, Sadanji was Japan’s most popular actor from the 1910s to the 1930s, and is unique in having contributed to the modernist movement in both kabuki and shingeki, Japan’s traditional and modern styles of theater.
Born Takahashii Eijirō, son of Ichikawa Sadanji I, he first appeared on stage at the age of four and, by the age of eighteen, had assumed the stage names of Botan, Koyone, and Enshō, in tura. When Sadanji I died in 1904, he inherited not only Meiji-za, his father’s company and theater, but an enormous debt. Sadanji I was the last of the Meiji kabuki superstars who died in a two-year period, leaving his son without his fame and skills, and experiencing the coldness of the kabuki establishment. With the support of Kawakami Otojirō (1864–1911) and particularly Matsui Shōyō (1870–1933), however, he led Meiji-za through its difficulties and became Ichikawa Sadanji II in 1906.
This period witnessed not only the decline of kabuki, but also the rise of shinpa. This, along with his experience of the kabuki establishment, whetted his interest for modern theater as well. In 1906–1907 he spent eight months traveling in Europe watching Western masterpieces, taking courses, and observing Western theater management. Inspired by the discoveries of this trip, upon his return he attempted a modernist reform at Meiji-za. The reform, which included allowing actresses to perform in kabuki and the elimination of the age-old tradition of providing catering services for spectators in the theater, proved to be too radical to be acceptable. This setback caused his modernist enthusiasm to be directed toward a different platform.