***/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B-
starring Kazuo Hasegawa, Fujiko Yamamoto, Ayako Wakao, Eiji Funakoshi
screenplay by Natto Wada, based on the novel by Otokichi Mikami, adapted by Daisuke Ito and Teinosuke Kinugasa
directed by Kon Ichikawa
by Bryant Frazer An Actor's Revenge, director Kon Ichikawa's colourful melodrama depicting an elaborate revenge plot by a Japanese onnagata--a kabuki actor trained to play exclusively female roles--begins, appropriately enough, in the Ichimura Theater, where the very first shot illustrates that a panoramic aspect ratio is a perfect match for the wide proscenium. On stage, beefy and androgynous, is Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa), a renowned onnagata appearing in Edo for the first time. This beautiful sequence, defined by Ichikawa's precise, modern Daiescope framing and by the intense reds, pinks, purples, and greens of Yukinojo's costume, is not just kabuki on film. It's simultaneously an expression of character, showing how Yukinojo experiences the rest of the world while in performance, and a declaration of aesthetics, introducing Ichikawa's stylized approach using techniques borrowed from or inspired by theatre.
The camera is restless from the start, reframing the action on stage as well as catching views of the stage itself from oblique angles. As the sequence progresses, the theatre itself vanishes and we see Yukinojo posing on a broader landscape that's less tightly stagebound than the theatrical tableau, though not "realistic," either--the painted backdrops are in the more distant background, extending in every direction, and the mood-setting snowfall is more profligate. Ichikawa then uses optical process shots and dissolves to create visual windows on screen that serve as portals between the theatrical setting, where Yukinojo is performing, and the stylized reality he imagines, which is depicted to us in the visual language of cinema. That's not to say he is lost in himself. His lively interior monologue, apparently detached from his demanding outward presentation, is conveyed through voiceover narration. Before he staggers to one end of the stage and collapses into a blanket of ersatz snow, he has already identified, watching from box seats overhead, two of the three men he blames for the death of his parents. He has travelled from Osaka to kill them. Once he puts his face down, his death scene complete, he has decided that his seduction of the magistrate's daughter, Namiki (Ayako Wakao), will be the instrument of his revenge.
That amazing set-up burns just four minutes of screen time, making a tidy but provocative overture for an unconventional film. Part of what gives An Actor's Revenge its enduring appeal is the apparent incongruity of its premise--Yukinojo, who plays a woman both on and off stage, is not only one of the finest actors in Japan, but also a capable swordsman, a world-class lothario, and an impressively poker-faced liar and schemer. Originally written as a newspaper serial, the yarn was first filmed in 1935 by director Teinosuke Kinugasa (A Page of Madness), who had been an onnagata himself at Nikkatsu, and starred Hasegawa--an actor Kinugasa worked with extensively at Shochiku--in a triple role. It became enough of a hit that Daiei commissioned this remake nearly thirty years later. Though Hasegawa returned to reprise his roles (two of them, anyway), An Actor's Revenge wasn't considered an especially prestigious project. According to the liner notes contributed to the new Criterion edition by critic Michael Sragow, Ichikawa was saddled with it partly as punishment for his profligacy on recent productions for the studio. Ichikawa's minimal, kabuki-like approach to some of the film's elements may have helped keep its budget on track, but it's hard to imagine the studio anticipated the level of formal invention he would bring to a relatively safe, legacy project. Certainly nothing in the two earlier, more naturalistic pictures he was known for in the West, The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain, suggested it.
Where many filmmakers would have seen fit to plow ahead with a straightforward melodrama in the classic studio style, Ichikawa and screenwriter Natto Wada (his wife at the time and a frequent collaborator) developed the material with a modernist spin. Yukinojo, who performs as a woman throughout, is a professional thespian but an amateur vigilante, and we're invited to compare his outwardly harmless character to the obviously shadier types who cross Yukinojo's path as he navigates his way to revenge. There is Heima Kadokura (Eiji Funakoshi), a grudge-holding rival from Yukinojo's days studying swordfighting; Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto), a tough-minded pickpocket who finds the onnagata to be a finer specimen of manhood than any of the local toughs vying for her attention, and finally Yamitaro (Hasegawa in his second role), a wall-climbing thief of enormous self-assurance and charisma who saves Yukinojo from a would-be assassin in a sly first-act meet-cute. Yamitaro, quite masculine, admires Yukinojo to an extreme that may be romantic; by the final reel, he's sworn off women and is seeking to press himself into service as Yukinoko's attendant. In one of the film's best jokes, Ohatsu notes that one of them bears a passing resemblance to the other.
Unlike some of their counterparts in the Japanese New Wave (think Shinoda or Suzuki), Ichikawa and Wada resist cues from American film noir, instead using the Edo underworld as an excuse to continue exploring styles of expression. That means Ichikawa's regular DP, Setsuo Kobayashi, gets a workout, with dramatically different lighting set-ups and styles required from scene to scene. Interior shots are conventionally staged, albeit with fairly aggressive lighting choices, lush colour schemes, and always-careful shot compositions that emphasize empty space in the widescreen frame. The exteriors are more adventurous. The scene in which Yukinojo is first ambushed by Kadokura is shot with the characters lit against inky blackness, its swordfight represented only by blades glinting and slashing in the darkness. While the timely appearance of a palanquin suggests we are still inside the city, visually the scene may as well take place in the countryside. The most important element is the sense of peril, which is amply conveyed through the use of unrelenting darkness--and then undercut by the vibe-busting arrival of a pair of excitable but ineffectual policemen. The anachronistic cool-jazz soundtrack, in contrast to the traditional Japanese music heard in earlier scenes, might be a nod to Western gangster films or simply a way to extend the lighthearted treatment of these scenes and characters.
Other scenes play out in an environment that more directly evokes the kabuki stage, like Yukinojo's meeting with Ohatsu in front of a spooky forest of dead trees, a thick line of blue twilight sprayed across the horizon; or the final showdown between Yukinojo and Kadokura, which plays out in front of a shadowy rock face that foreshortens screen space. Some of the most striking moments come in the scenes depicting Yukinojo's eponymous revenge--one of them is lit and framed in starkly expressionistic, horror-movie terms, as Yukinojo terrorizes his victim in phantasmal guise, while another is characterized by an intense shot/reverse-shot confrontation between Yukinojo and his rival, who brandishes a cup of poisoned tea. Mostly, An Actor's Revenge plays as a sumptuous setting for a dusty old melodrama, yet these scenes demonstrate Ichikawa's skill as a dramatist in addition to a stylist.
The story may be old and hoary, but Hasegawa's ethereal performance casts a weird spell. "You can't tell if Yukinojo is a man or a woman," complains Ohatsu at one point. "It's creepy." Before long, she must admit that she has fallen in love with Yukinojo, whom she simultaneously disparages as "that pasty-faced botched attempt at a woman." It's a funny line in part because it feels like an authentic attempt to be cruel, yes (of all the characters in the film, Ohatsu is the designated asshole), but also because of its element of reflexivity. An Actor's Revenge understands and acknowledges that the aging Hasegawa is no match for the sexy androgyne he was when he first played the role three decades earlier. But though this performance treads near to self-parody, neither Hasegawa nor Ichikawa tips a hand. Hasegawa's carefully-modulated performance is treated with admiration, and Yukinojo is by any consideration a tragic creation--a magnetic personality with no interest in making friends, an avatar of sensitivity who rejects intimacy in favour of justice, and a free-thinking artist forever shadowed by his past. In the film's final moments, a voiceover by well-known Japanese voice actor Musei Tokugawa--remembered for his work as a benshi, a narrator of silent movies--explains that, after having his vengeance, Yukinojo vanished from the public eye. Did Yukinojo go into hiding? Or did he merely abandon his persona to rejoin the human pageant, finally unrecognizable in his own skin? With the deaths of his enemies rendering his performance complete, the last layer is peeled away from Yukinojo's story, with but one thing left to display on screen: a title card reading "The End."
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Transferred from a new 4K digital master created in Japan by Daiei parent Kadokawa, Criterion's Blu-ray release of An Actor's Revenge meets the company's typically high standards. The picture isn't as tack-sharp as other HD releases, probably owing to the film's use of vintage anamorphic lenses, but the 4K scanning process adequately preserves the texture of the camera negative, with its fine grain rendered accurately. Moreover, the transfer is surprisingly clean and damage-free for a 50-year-old film. Close inspection reveals a hint of digital artifacting among the grain patterns, but nothing that would distract during ordinary viewing. If the picture is perhaps surprisingly dark overall, especially in comparison to previous standard-def video releases, the results are dynamic. (Although I have no idea what 35mm prints looked like, I assume Kadokawa knows what it's doing with elements from its own vaults, especially since an uninformed transfer is likely to go the other way, boosting brightness levels to reveal every bit of info in the negative.) What's really breathtaking in this presentation are the colours, which are all the more beautiful for their emergence here out of the deepest shadows. The uncompressed, centre-channel monaural LPCM audio track is less nuanced, its dynamics clearly limited by the technology of the time. That said, the Japanese dialogue is clear and well out in front of the rest of the mix. The music, too, reads cleanly and brightly in both traditional and piano-jazz modes, although varying levels of noise on the track sometimes threaten to swallow up subtle foley and other sound effects.
Extra features are limited, particularly for a Criterion release. We get "My Life in Cinema" (58 mins.), a 1999 production of The Directors Guild of Japan featuring a one-on-one interview with Ichikawa by Japanese critic Yuri Mori, a knowledgeable questioner and attentive listener. Ichikawa is seated in front of a poster of animated characters, including Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse (he cites Disney's Silly Symphonies as a formative influence) and smokes throughout, responding to queries without taking the cigarette out of his mouth. The interview provides a concise but informative overview of Ichikawa's career, from his early "rather chaotic" (per Mori) filmography at Shintoho through his 2000 flirtation with animation, Shinsengumi. This feature is all conversation and no film clips--which is fine with me; though some viewers may find the results dry, Mori does a good job of placing the films in an aesthetic as well as biographic-historic context, and I don't really miss the visuals. Unfortunately, given this feature's place of prominence in the package, An Actor's Revenge itself is never mentioned.
English critic Tony Rayns contributed an audio commentary to the recent BFI Blu-ray of the film but appears here only as a talking head (in HD) offering 13 minutes of adroit critical commentary accompanied by an assortment of production stills. Rayns argues that An Actor's Revenge was "a film like no one had seen before," citing Keisuke Kinoshita's earlier The Ballad of Narayama as an antecedent thanks to its use of kabuki-theatre conventions on screen. He especially credits Ichikawa's "synthesis of the archaic and the modernist," noting that "the material was creaky and melodramatic in 1935," let alone 1963. Additional critical perspective is on offer in the accompanying booklet, featuring a detailed essay by Michael Sragow offering cultural and historical context along with a multileveled consideration of Hasegawa's performance, plus a piece by Ichikawa himself that's all about shooting in the widescreen dimensions that served him so well here.