An Actor's Revenge

An Actor’s Revenge (Yukinojo henge) (1963 Japan 113mins)

Source: ACMI/NLA Prod Co: Daiei Prod: Masaichi Nagata Dir: Kon Ichikawa Scr: Natto Wada, Daisuke Itô, Teinosuke Kinugasa, from Otokichi Mikami’s ‘novel’ Phot: Setsuo Kobayashi Ed: Shigeo Nishida Art Dir: Yoshinobu Nishioka Mus: Yasushi Akutagawa, Tamekichi Mochizuki, Masako Yagi

Cast: Kazuo Hasegawa, Fujiko Yamamoto, Ayako Wakao, Raizo Ichikawa, Shintarô Katsu, Eiji Funakoshi

The Yukinojo project also offered possibilities within the vast, uncharted realm of kitsch. Wada found the original scenario so bad it was good, and kept almost everything… The resulting film is a tour de force of great virtuosity in which the director scrambled stage and screen, tried every color experiment he could think of, and created one of the most visually entertaining films of the decade. (1)

– Donald Richie

As a punitive assignment for a string of meticulously perfectionist but commercially unsuccessful films, Kon Ichikawa was tasked with the re-adaptation of an outmoded novel by Otokichi Mikami entitled An Actor’s Revenge, and consequently, together with his wife and frequent collaborator, screenwriter Natto Wada, turned the banal pulp shimpa melodrama into a delirious, highly stylized, and idiosyncratic spectacle. Originally adapted into a three-part serial film by Teinosuke Kinugasa in 1935-36 (who himself had a career as a kabuki onnagata – a stage actor of female roles – before becoming a director) and featuring the original lead from the Kinugasa adaptation, veteran actor Kazuo Hasegawa for a performance that would mark his 300th film appearance, An Actor’s Revenge tells the story of Yukinojo Nakamura (Kazuo Hasegawa), a renowned 19th century, Tokugawa-era onnagata consumed with one obsession throughout his entire life: to avenge his parents’ death.

From the onset, Ichikawa’s irreverent and sardonic humor would define the infectiously playful, yet stylistically audacious and self-assured tone of the film’s eccentric fusion of high-brow art and pop culture kitsch. Bearing the imprint of his early training as an animation illustrator and artist (Ichikawa often cites Walt Disney as his most formative influence), Yukinojo’s interior monologue, which occurs during the staid, dramatic theatricality of a kabuki performance, is shown through an incongruous peripheral view that is patterned after a comic strip thought bubble as he catches sight of his father’s conspirators (and also notes the absence of Hiromiya [Eijaro Yanagi], his late father’s ruthless competitor): a politically connected, corrupt retired magistrate named Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura) and his wealthy merchant ally, Kawaguchiya (Saburo Date). Yukinojo also finds the unwitting instrument of his revenge in Dobe’s hopelessly romantic daughter, Namiji (Ayako Wakao), the mistress of a powerful shogun, who is shown visibly swooning in the film’s opening sequence (and in the process, runs through an amusing gamut of hackneyed gestural acting conventions) over his sympathetic and moving performance.

Structuring the film through the layered, narrative perspective of a performance within a performance, Ichikawa further illustrates his penchant for dark comedy and incisive satire. The restrictive, measured formalization of traditional kabuki theater is presented through the innovative, broader aspect ratio of Cinemascope. However, Ichikawa irreverently flouts the adapted conventions of widescreen formatting even further with clever, whimsical visuals such as a lassoed rope that appears to stretch beyond the bounds of the screen into infinity, and the familiar genre of sweeping, epic scale chanbara swordfights parodically reduced to odd sensorial compositions of truncated image snapshots and dissociated sounds: intermittently clashing blades, obscured action set in perceptibly artificial outdoor stage sets, opponents singularly framed (often in confined frontality) during fight sequences, and momentary flashes of non-directional light.

Hasegawa’s dual role of the itinerant actor Yukinojo, who retains his effeminate onnagata persona off stage, and the virile and charismatic gentleman thief, Yamitaro – a casting decision incorporated from the original Kinugasa film – provides an innate situational irony and reflexive humor to the film’s overtly tragic story of revenge and star-crossed love. The tale of the beautiful young Namiji’s curious infatuation with the aging female impersonator seemingly founders towards absurdist, melodramatic camp, even as the film cursorily broaches infrequently treaded, uncomfortable psychological realms of gender identification and sexual ambiguity that are typically associated with more somber art cinema.

Ichikawa also incorporates episodes of characterizational duality into the film that serve as both comedy relief and directed allegory. The cunning and fiercely independent lady thief, Ohatsu’s (Fujiko Yamamoto) unreconciled attraction towards the enigmatic Yukinojo is also manifested through her competitive obsession with the elusive altruistic thief, Yamitaro (who, in turn, is equally intrigued by Yukinojo’s complex, off-stage personality), creating a subtextual intimacy among the three highly regarded, but innately untrustworthy, social outsiders. Their unorthodox alliance is mirrored in the notorious partnership of the three powerful conspirators who operate within the codified laws of society in order to extend their power and privilege, reflecting the pervasive, often incestuous relationship between feudal government and merchant economy during the Tokugawa shogunate that fostered a repressive, inbred class structure as a means of retaining its centralized authority.

An Actor’s Revenge is a stylistically bold and irreverent satire that seeks to reconcile the familiar, traditional elements of native culture with the modern vitality of Western influence in contemporary Japan. Ichikawa’s recurrent fragmentation of images innately reflects the voyeuristic relationship between spectator and performer: obscured, extended fight scenes witnessed from rooftops, seamless visual transitions between theatrical dramatization and stylized, ‘real-life’ off-stage episodes, the framing of actors through doorways or other visual occlusions that seem to underscore the intrusive, key-hole perspective of the audience. The old-fashioned script for the tragic melodrama (shimpa) popular in early Japanese cinema is infused with irony, social satire, and subversive visual double entendres. The audaciously eccentric fusion of traditional and modern Japanese art forms are further exemplified through an eclectic soundtrack that combines traditional kabuki accompaniment, folk music, jazz, and avant-garde ambient sounds. By concurrently celebrating and defying traditional Japanese artistic and dramatic forms, Ichikawa creates an audacious and infinitely fascinating exercise in straddling the fragile equilibrium that interweaves cultural past and present, Eastern and Western aesthetics, classical theater and modern cinema.

Endnotes

  1. Donald Richie, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 2001) 157.