“A wonderful piece of melodrama and further prove that Kon Ichikawa deserves its place among the masters of Japanese cinema.”
If one investigates which Kon Ichikawa movies are most known in the west, one always find the same small subset from his oeuvre: His pseudo-documentary Tokyo Olympiad (1965), his adaptation of Tanizaki’s Kagi (1959), his anti-war movies The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959), and An Actor’s Revenge (1963) – Kazuo Hasegawa’s 300th film and his last film before retiring from the silver screen.
And while our review of an already well-known narrative might not directly help to widen the spectator’s scope on Kon Ichikawa’s oeuvre, we do hope that this review may be an entry for some to explore Kon Ichikawa’s rich and diverse oeuvre, an oeuvre that, despite its variety, often concerned protagonists – often alone – striving for some ‘absurd’ goal. The protagonist of An Actor’s Revenge is no different (General-note 1, General note 2).
Yukitaro (Kazuo Hasegawa), now known as Yukinojo, an onnagata/oyama of a famous Osaka Kakubi troupe led by Kikunojō Nakamura (Chūsha Ichikawa), has sworn to take revenge on the three people who were responsible for his parents death. An invitation for a series of performances in the Ichimura theatre in Edo, gives Yukinojo finally the chance to enact his revenge.
With a bit of luck, two of his enemies, the merchant Kawaguchiya (Saburō Date) and the retired magistrate Sansai Dobe (Ganjirō Nakamura) attend the opening performance. Hiromiya (Eijirō Yanagi), another merchant and Yukinojo’s third enemy, doesn’t show up. Another person in the public is Sansai’s lovely daughter Namiji (Ayako Wakao), the shogun’s favourite concubine. While Yukinojo has a plan to destroy both merchant, his plan to destroy Sansai’s reputation involves seduce his daughter and thus disgracing her.
An actor’s Revenge is a narrative that is as much a tribute to kabuki as it is a gentle light-hearted parody of Kabuki’s conventions. In this respect, Kabuki theatrical conventions are integral to the structure of the narrative as well as the framing of the narrative space. This is obvious in Ichikawa’s use of the custom great Onnagata in the 17th and 18th century had to use the female language and idiosyncrasies also in daily life. As a result, the theatrical feminine elegance Yukinojo resounds throughout the entire narrative space.
And the fact that Kazuo Hasegawa also plays Yamitaro underlines another aspect common to Kabuki: the doubling of roles (Actor-note 1). By giving the chance to Hasegawa to play two roles, he is able to show his versatility as actor, bringing, despite his age, an exquisite stylized female delicateness on the screen and show us a more rougher manly side as well. The former is in line with the Kansai Wagoto style of Kabuki, while the latter is influenced by the Edo Aragoto style of Kabuki. This mixture of Wagoto and Aragoto style is also playfully present in Yukinojo’s fighting scenes. While the elegantly attired Yukinojo tries to keep her feminine charm intact as much as possible, a contrasting conciseness and boldness nevertheless slips in his fighting.
The narrative of An Actor’s Revenge is a mixture between a revenge tale and a love story; their intermingling eventual results in a touching melodrama (Narra-Note 1). In this melodramatic mix, the power of the image, its captivating nature and its deceptiveness plays a central role. This is evident from the fact that Yukinojo has to keep on playing a role to enact his revenge: the narrative space becomes his stage. With respect to Namiji for instance, who is enamored by Yukinojo feminine presence as image, Yukinojo only needs to cultivate her loving feelings with his charm (Narra-note 2, Cine-note 1).
The cinematography of An Actor’s Revenge is characterized by an exquisite experimental formalism – a playing with the image, blending the ‘traditional’ Japanese theatrical approach to cinema – the long shot – and the by then long assimilated modern cinematic techniques, like close-ups and cross-cutting (Cine-note 2). While the cinematography is full of movement and diversity of shots, the repeated return to the long shot – even if it is only briefly – evokes the stage as such and reminds the spectator that the narrative space has to be experienced as a form of theater as such and not as a representation of a given reality.
This theater-like nature of An Actor’s Revenge is reinforced by playfully letting Kabuki conventions influence the cinematography as well. Danmari, which literally means fight in the dark, influenced the stylistic framing of the fighting scenes, while Nureba formed the stylistic starting point to frame the love narrative between Yukinojo and Namiji. Other elements that enforce the presentational nature of the narrative includes the theatrical lighting and the shifts between various backgrounds – the one more stage-like than the other. Even in the voice-overs there are tongue-in-cheek references to the presentational ethos of the narrative as such. While the voice-overs are reminiscent of the Gidayu in Kabuki, Yamitaro’s externalized thoughts, which often refer to Yukinojo, can also be read in a self-referential way, thus referring to Kazuo Hasegawa as such who plays both roles.
The eclectic nature of Ichikawa is also obvious is his approach to music. Despite using traditional music in some sequences, the kabuki-influenced cinematography is mainly supported by, at that time, contemporary music. And even though the score is successful in supporting the melodrama and the light-heartedness, it is nevertheless surprising that some musical transitions are not flowing like the rest of the cinematography.
With an extremely refined hand, Ichikawa blends kabuki-conventions, ‘modern’ techniques and old Japanese cinematographical tradition, to craft a stage like no other. And while this stage is obviously in honor of Kazuo Hasegawa, who is able to shine one final time on the silver screen, An Actor’s Revenge is also a light-hearted homage to the presentational ethos that was once so important to Japanese cinema. In short, An Actor’s Revenge is a wonderful piece of melodrama and further prove that Kon Ichikawa deserves its place among the masters of Japanese cinema.
Actor-Note 1: In the 1935 version of the narrative directed by Kinugasa, Kazuo Hasegawa even played three roles. He also played the mother of Yukinojo in a short flashback.
General note 1: To write this review, we read the chapter on An Actor’s Revenge in Keiko McDonald’s book “Japanese Classical theater in film” (1994).
General-note 2: As the image is so important, the English title An Actor’s Revenge, contrary to the Japanese title Yukinojō henge, fails to denote the essential dimension of playing with images the narrative thrives on.
Narra-Note 1: The touching nature of the narrative has to be situated at the conclusion of the tragic love story, a conclusion that concludes Yukinojo’s revenge, but also underlines sensibly the consequences this revenge has caused.
Narra-Note 2: The deceptiveness of the image is equally important with respect to Yukinojo’s revenge on Kawaguchiya. By misrecognizing Yukinojo as a ghost, Kawaguchiya, aided by his beliefs of the supernatural, becomes insane.
Cine-Note 2: In the early 20th century, the cinematic convention in Japan was a full frontal fixed shot, where the bodies of the actors were ever in view. The cinematic apparatus was used to frame pieces of plays, be it Kabuki or more modern work.
Ichikawa does even more to emphasize his hero’s paradoxical charms.Given that a slender white nape is considered the epitome of female. Sensuality in Japan, he lets the camera catch the edge of Yukinojo’s hood fluttering gently in the wind, revealing the artful pallor of his nape…
Hasegawa’s tearful face directly exposed to the camera recalls the Kabuki beau’s stylized gesticulation of sorrow on stage in a poignant counterpoint. Nureba
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