For the favoured, fevered few, there's nothing more glamorous than suicide pacts, whether political, religious or amorous. And when they break out like a fashionable infection, they are cauterised with severity. Thus it was when Love Suicides at Sonesaki by Chikamatsu Monzaemon - Japan's answer to Shakespeare - was first produced 300 years ago. Dispatching themselves by moonlight, the hero and heroine of this Kabuki play spawned so many real-life imitations that in 1722, the Shogunate banned any play with the words "love suicide" in its title.
Kasane, the Kabuki show to be seen at Sadler's Wells next month, is about a suicide pact that goes grotesquely wrong. Beautiful Kasane has fallen in love with dashing young samurai Yoemon: she's conceived a child out of wedlock, her vengeful family is pursuing them, and an ecstatically conjoined death is the only answer. As Yoemon loses his nerve, they spot a skull floating towards them on a river: this carries a curse that unfolds with chilling horror.
Kasane's body begins to get eaten away, and her face becomes hideous; Yoemon takes a sickle and hacks at this travesty of the woman he loved; she dies messily, then rises from the dead like an emaciated ghost, but is once more beautiful. Excited shudders all round.
The actor who originally played Yoemon was Ichikawa Danjuro I, being the first in a long succession to bear this name: the Yoemon at Sadler's Wells will be his direct descendant Ebizo XI, an equally charismatic 28-year-old whose huge following is giving Kabuki a new lease of life.
By doubling as a TV soap-star, this Porsche-driving Lothario has done wonders for the street-cred of the fossilised form into which he'd been born. "But I'm still just a little chick - I'm only copying what my father taught me," Ebizo told a Japanese interviewer this year.
"Even when he tells me to do something I disagree with, I still obey him. My great-grandfather taught his three sons in the same way, but they took the art in different directions, following their different personalities."
This acceptance of gerontocracy is the essence of Kabuki, as is the humility with which its leading actors aspire to, and earn, their names. Ebizo was born Takatoshi Horikoshi. He was renamed Shinnoske Ichikawa when he made his first professional appearance at eight, and finally acquired the historic "Ebizo" in a "succession" ceremony that involved a journey to the family temple; home-visits to fans to ask their blessing; and a four-night theatrical extravaganza in which he showed what he could do.
And what this little chick can do is extraordinary. He's a muscular hunk, and in the Superman-role which he chose to play at his succession, he radiated massive force. But as Sadler's Wells audiences will see in the other work he's bringing, he can also, in an onnegata role, communicate melting femininity.
What is an onnegata? To understand the word, which means "form of a woman", you need to watch one put himself together, as I was once privileged to do in the city of Fukuoka. The veteran actor Nakamura Ganjiro III - who has recently succeeded, aged 74, to the illustrious stage-name Sakata Tojuro VI - greeted me with a pulverising handshake and plonked himself down on a sofa. To look at this bright-eyed, stocky figure, you'd have said a builder or a weightlifter.
And prosperous: I'd never seen a chunkier gold watch, or a bigger pearl tie-pin. He talked about his art: how it must seem natural and unforced, and how the romantic role he was going to play - for the 1,100th time - still felt fresh after 48 years. His first stage-lover was his father; that afternoon it would be his son. "But I have never felt that I was playing opposite my own flesh and blood," he said. "We are all simply actors."
Then he started to make up. Wax all over the face, then lashings of white cream. Next, red lines round the eyes, and delicate black streaks high above the hidden brows. The full and fleshy lips, were then reduced to a minute pink rosebud.
When he was finally ready to appear, like a ship in full sail in his wig and flowing robes, his whole physique seemed to change: his shoulders sloped, his neck bent demurely, his stubby hands became infinitely expressive, his turned-in toes made tiny steps, and with every move the fabrics draped around him suggested graceful sculptures.
Meanwhile, his voice had risen to a strangled falsetto coo. No Western cross-dresser ever aspired to this. The garden of mankind may be crammed with multifarious delights, but the Japanese onnagata is its most exotic bloom.
Kabuki stars have always been Japan's pop idols, and if the all-girl Takarazuka stars have usurped their place, it's thanks to a system that the Kabuki actors created - the fanzines, actor-prints, the machinery of fame. The Kabuki audience may now be older, but its fervour is unabated: the onnegatas and their swains walk like gods among the faithful.
Kabuki was inaugurated in the 17th century by a flamboyant temple dancer called Okuni. But because actors practised prostitution they were banned by the Shogunate. However, the public had developed a taste for this entertainment. The answer - as in Shakespearean England - was for boys to replace the women. And as dancing was prohibited, the boys were forced to express everything through speech and gesture.
Thus was created an art-form designed to show off the brilliance of its interpreters. And thus was created the onnegata - as the intense focus for the dammed-up sexual feelings of actors and audience alike.
Ebizo thinks deeply about the future of this venerable art. Pointing to the fact that it was rooted in ordinary life, he recently mused on the possibility that it might do so once more. "If a war between America and Iraq had broken out in the 18th century," he said, "they would have played it as Kabuki." That's not happening yet, but who knows?
Kabuki with Ebizo Ichikawa XI, Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 737 7737; www.sadlerswells.com) from 31 MayReuse content