The Kabuki actor known as Ebizo X had been preparing for April 1 since childhood. He gave up cigarettes and alcohol. He spent days cloistered in a studio pacing through scenes from particular plays, fortifying his voice and exercising, sometimes with a teacher in attendance. On April 1, he took a new name, Danjuro XII, and joined a succession of larger-than-life actors bearing that name who have reigned over the flamboyant Kabuki stage since shortly after its inception in the cities of feudal Japan. There has been no Danjuro since 1965. Theater devotees awaited the April 1 event like a royal ascension. For the past three centuries, the Danjuro name has been passed down among his family, the Horikoshi family, sometimes by blood line, sometimes by adoption of a promising understudy. Many theater people were talking about the stage being artistically whole again, although a few dissenters questioned whether this man, now 38, really has the mettle for the name. But the more practical-minded are looking at the publicity that the event generated around Japan. They hope it will help draw people back to Kabuki, an ancient institution which has taken a hammering in the 20th century and is enjoyed about as much as the average American enjoys Shakespeare. The ascension was the focus of three months of special performances and celebrations in Kabuki theaters. Danjuro and a troupe from the Shochiku Kabuki company will tour the United States to do it all over again, including a two-week run at the Kennedy Center starting July 23. The Japanese praise Kabuki as a national treasure and spend about $10 million a year in taxes subsidizing it. But its decline in popularity is often cited as another sign that values that made Japan great are slipping. Schoolchildren are dutifully bused to Japan's national theater and other Kabuki stages in Tokyo. But few return on their own. On Sunday evenings fewer than 1 percent of the TV sets in the Tokyo region are tuned to Kabuki broadcast by public stations. A baseball game can draw 30 percent or more. "For entertainment, I prefer something more lively," said Akemi Iida, an employe at a Tokyo law firm. "We have so much to choose from these days." She had heard about the Danjuro succession, as the advertisements are everywhere, "but it means nothing to me." The irony is that Kabuki, like Shakespeare's dramas, was, in the beginning, something everybody could enjoy, if they had the money. Its emergence as a distinct art form around the year 1600 is sometimes regarded as a backlash to the rigid conventions of Noh, Japan's other major type of traditional theater. Kabuki's brilliantly colored costumes, its revolving painted sets and action-packed plot lines -- swordplay and vengeance figure prominently -- filled to the brim large wooden theaters that went up in Edo, as feudal Tokyo was known, and other cities. A raucous nightlife revolved around the theaters, which in the beginning were sometimes fronts for prostitution. Brawls over actresses led authorities to ban women from the stage in 1629. (All-male casts remain the rule today). Gradually, Kabuki came of age. A vast repertoire of dramas was written. Elaborate makeup -- some of the techniques are kept secret by the actors -- manners of walking, gesturing and speaking evolved that took a lifetime of study to master. Around 1675, an actor with the stage name Ichikawa Danjuro appeared. His biographies describe him as a man of letters, a playwright, a devout Buddhist and above all a brilliant actor, specializing in aragoto, or vigorous action parts. He died in 1704, murdered on a stage in Edo by another actor. His son took the name and thus began the line. Other actor family lines were also established and endure today, but the Danjuro name is considered the most prestigious. The new Danjuro was born 38 years ago as Natsuo Horikoshi. As first son of the man who was later Danjuro XI, he knew he could expect the name himself and was trained from childhood. But his father died in 1965, only three years after his own ascension, leaving his son's education to others in the family. By some accounts, many in the Kabuki world, looking at flagging box office sales, pushed for promoting the son quickly. But older actors who oversaw his training held back approval until the young man was more seasoned. Today's Kabuki actors are not ascetics living in the past. The new Danjuro went to college. He wears smart three-piece suits, owns a telescope, and until recently smoked in his dressing room. He has appeared on television talk shows and samurai dramas, for which Kabuki actors are sought out because they add period color. Since plans for the succession were made public two years ago, he has been especially hot property. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone turned up at a party for him at a Tokyo hotel recently. U.S. Ambassador Mike Mansfield also has been photographed with him. To his followers, people like Hatsue Kawamura, daughter of a woman who was housekeeper to a famous actor 50 years ago, April 1 was a dream come true. "I've spent more time with Kabuki than with my family," Kawamura said recently, in anticipation of the event. Kawamura was one of several hundred people who showed up recently at a charity fundraiser where the man was signing autographs -- his last as Ebizo -- with a calligrapher's brush and, with the amicable self-assurance of royalty, fielding questions on his art. One questioner wanted to know what he is looking at when he strikes a violent, wide-eyed stare at emotional peaks, a Kabuki trademark. Nothing, he said. "I imagine the sun and the moon, that one eye is the sun, round with the pupil in the center, that the other is squinting, like the crescent moon." Kabuki audiences these days tend to be gray-haired and sprinkled with foreign tourists. But the old flavor is recalled by fans in the cheap seats who bellow ecstatic words of admiration at strategic moments. Here, too, there are elaborate conventions for what they can say. Theater operators, recognizing the atmosphere they add, often admit these people free. Periodically, there are moves to reform Kabuki and make it more accessible. Japanese-language earphones are used in some theaters because many of the actors' words are gibberish to ordinary people. Cheaper tickets, shorter programs and programs devoted to a single story, rather than the more common interspersing of acts from separate dramas, have also been suggested. But other people feel the key is getting young people involved early in life, making them learn the conventions, the characters and stories so that as adults they will enjoy them naturally. Danjuro himself says he feels an obligation to convey the art to the next generation but can only do so much to popularize it. "The duty of the actor is not to enlighten, but to perform on the stage," he said. He is at the prime of life. But already, he is preparing a successor, his 7-year-old son. April 1 was a milestone for him, too. He will take the name Shinoske, a stage name his father had during his climb to the top.