It’s late Edo-period Japan. An acting troupe from Osaka has arrived in the capital city to perform. Thieves and pickpockets stalk their prey among the paying audience, while merchants and aristocrats watch from the balcony seats. Yukinojo, a slightly paunchy onnagata (kabuki actor who plays female roles), sits centre stage, and looks up. The lord and two lackeys who drove his father to suicide are in the audience, along with the lord’s daughter Namiji, who is slowly falling in love with her father’s feminine nemesis. Yukinojo’s quest for revenge is nearing its end.
This is the melodramatic premise that Daiei studios dictated to their prolific star director Kon Ichikawa after the extravagant flop of his previous feature film. But filtered through the mind of Ichikawa, an eclectic, mercurial stylist with a strong sense of humour and a modernist streak, the theatricality of An Actor’s Revenge turns into an arresting, experimental work of pop art with a finely modulated spectrum of emotions and tones. One moment a character’s clandestine stroll through expressionistic pitch-black shadows is punctuated by hip smatterings of contemporary jazz; the next, a complex scene of love and betrayal rife with class tensions and queer subtext is wrung of all its melodramatic teariness by a Hollywood-style string orchestra until only the underlying dry humour is left.
It would be too much, were it not for the calculatedly frugal way that Ichikawa approaches the project. An animator by training, inspired by everything from Disney to the ukiyo-e paintings of the film’s period setting, he seems to have meticulously planned each object and element of every single shot. Straight, parallel sets of diagonal lines are everywhere, exaggerating perspective and guiding the viewer’s eye fluidly between foreground and background; the effect is so pronounced that in some ‘outdoor’ scenes the right-angled corner of the sky backdrop is still visible. The extreme widescreen aspect ratio, chosen for its similarity to the width of a kabuki stage, is enhanced and distorted by the director’s attention to negative space, especially in the solid black canvas of the film’s night scenes, onto which characters and props impose only when absolutely necessary.
It is as if everything in the frame pains Ichikawa; no object that is not absolutely necessary makes it through his vetting process, as if even the characters on screen had to be drawn, frame-by-frame, by the master’s hand. Similarly ruthless attention is paid to the film’s soundtrack, which also blurs exterior/interior boundaries. The bareness and theatricality of the presentation is not just affectation, though. The director is showing what he can do with the austerity imposed on him by the studio, but he’s also using this carefully controlled environment as a sandbox where he can play with the different elements of the story however he wishes.
The aforementioned thieves are the film’s supporting characters. They have snappy nicknames like ‘the noon kid’ and wear the same outfits. While they compete for loot, they also have friendly dialogues with each other about Robin Hood ethics and what it means to be a true Edoite. They show up to Yukinojo’s first performance with disinterest and mere professional curiosity, but eventually his behaviour on and off stage proves an irresistible spectacle. A lot of the film’s light-hearted sincerity comes from these characters, who develop from ironic spectators (who can’t agree on whether a moment in Yukinojo’s real life is a ‘love scene’ or a ‘fight scene’— it’s a matter of perspective) to engaged participants and believers in Yukinojo’s mission.
In a dual role, veteran actor Kazuo Hasegawa plays Yukinojo and also Yamitaro, the dashing and socially conscious prince of Edo’s thieves. The studio greenlit the film as a celebration, because it is Hasegawa’s 300th screen appearance, and he had appeared in the original film of which this is a remake, in the same dual role, thirty years earlier. It’s touching that Ichikawa doesn’t mock the no-longer youthful physicality of his lead actor’s two characters, both of whom are meant to be charming and effective in a fight. But why should he? Unlike some consciously meta-theatrical cinema, An Actor’s Revenge doesn’t seek to undermine our appreciation of these characters or open up a gulf between their authentic selves and their stage personas. Crucially, Yukinojo is more feminine off the stage than on it, even when dispatching opponents with samurai swords; he may by lying initially about having fallen in love with Lady Namiji, but by the end of the film his love has been fully realised.
The success of both characters over their opponents despite their physical limitations can hardly be called ‘irony’ or a wry comment on Hasegawa’s advanced years. Rather, it’s a genuine tribute to an actor still very capable of working his magic, even, or perhaps especially, in two archetypal and unrealistic roles. Unlike in a Shakespeare play, his crossdressing doesn’t lead to farce or mistaken identity. The other characters take Yukinojo’s gender self-expression, which is consistently maintained in private and public, as a matter of fact, and have no qualms or reservations expressing their desire and love for him— in fact, one jilted female character ultimately declares that she will ‘settle for’ the similar-looking, but masculine-presenting Yamitaro. The history of kabuki theatre, which eventually went from all-female troupes to a legal requirement for all-male ones, is the history of the authorities’ repression of the open expression of female and queer desire. It’s a history that Ichikawa knows, and takes seriously, even while he makes sure that he maintains kabuki’s essential lightness, playfulness and flamboyance on a tight budget.
In a flashback sequence, Yukinojo’s martial arts tutor gifts him a scroll that contains his most precious teachings; in a typically chanbara twist, it is blank. He explains, ‘words cannot explain the mysteries of an art. I just tried to formally convey my inmost mind through my everyday conduct’. Ironically, these words sum up Ichikawa’s approach to the style and form of his film art rather nicely. They certainly describe Hasegawa’s expressive, gesturally precise, fully committed acting style. But they could also be used as a Judith Butler-esque commentary on the authentic and deeply rooted way that Yukinojo presents himself (I’m following the film’s lead and using the masculine pronoun, but with more and more reservations as I write…). His femininity is not a guise, and despite the film’s interest in plainly stating the straitened economic circumstances of its setting, and the growing revolutionary zeal of the impoverished populace, no one condemns him as decadent, conceited, preening or extravagant.
The BFI have placed Nagisa Oshima’s 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, a left-leaning history of Japan’s film culture as an expression of anti-capitalist dissent, on the same disc as An Actor’s Revenge. I was initially bemused by this, until I saw both films in question. I have issues with how Oshima presents his material (there’s little context and analysis for the film excerpts he chooses), but both films are united in their search for a radical aesthetic that might contribute to progressive social change— or, more accurately, what unites them is that they do not wish to stop searching, and will not settle for one look or another; they strive for a constant innovation that is sensitive to the unique and multifaceted subjectivity of whatever they are attempting to communicate.
An Actor’s Revenge is an exercise in ‘60s new wave style, but one thing that distinguishes it from many of those efforts is that it is much more interested in earnest characters and big emotions than in austere ‘cool’ and detachment. I have been profusely crediting Ichikawa with this masterpiece; the film’s aesthetics make quite the first, and lasting, impression, but credit must also go to his wife Natto Wada’s witty screenplay, which manages irony and playfulness without being cruel or callous, and manages homage and tribute without being fawning or derivative. A lot of new wave directors could have learned from that approach. Thanks to this re-release, the rest of us still can.