Kon Ichikawa (director)
BFI Film (studio)
26 March 2018 (released)
02 April 2018
An oddball among Japanese melodramas, AN ACTOR’S REVENGE from 1963 stars the great Kazuo Hasegawa in his 300th screen appearance – in this case in the dual role of a Kabuki female impersonator and a thief exacting a much-delayed revenge on those who, years earlier, drove his parents to suicide.
Visually stunning and highly inventive, this film is Daiei Film Studio’s ‘homage’ to actor Kazuo Hasegawa – a prestige project to mark one of their biggest stars’ 300th screen-appearance. Hasegawa was born in 1908 and his career had begun in the world of Kabuki theatre when he was a teenager – how fitting then that for this 1963 remake he should portray the same role in which he starred 28 years earlier: an onnagata (Kabuki female impersonator) who goes by the stage name of Yukinojo and who has but one thing on his mind: to exact revenge on the three individuals who are responsible for his parent’s suicide many years earlier. Set in Edo (now Tokyo) during the early 19th century, Yukinojo – in the tradition of all onnagatas worth their ‘sake’ (Japanese wine for the uninitiated) – continues to wear female attire and uses female mannerisms etc offstage as well. During one show he spots the three men responsible for his parents death among the audience: the vile Lord Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura) and the merchants Hiromiya (Eijiro Yanagi) and Kawaguchiya (Saburo Date). Scheming an elaborate plan involving the Lord’s perfectly innocent daughter Lady Namiji (Ayako Wakao) as a tool to bring upon his deadly revenge, Yukinojo’s course of action is initially hampered by the fact that Namiji really is in love with him… thus he is forced to pretend he loves her back. Using his tricks of the trade, Yukinojo even appears as a ghost to frighten his enemies.
In a subplot, Hasegawa also plays the thief Yamitaro – a Robin Hood-like figure who, with the aid of blades and swords, robs the rich to give to the poor and it is in those scenes that social and political subtexts enter into the picture. Yamitaro gains the admiration of Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto), a female thief who remarks that none of her fellow male companions (all thieves and pickpockets like her) are quite the way he is…
Although quintessentially a melodrama the film has comic elements too, usually provided by the interaction between Yamitaro and Ohatsu and her gang of thieves.
The off-stage settings appear like stage settings – even bridges and landscape seem of an artificial nature – is this art imitating life or life imitating art? It is a film about illusions but also about the realities – and bitter ones at that – of life. Hasegawa is terrific in both parts though of course it is his part of a female impersonator that is the standout-factor here. That said, it would help if one were acquainted with 19th century Kabuki traditions.
Equally perplexing is not only the film’s visual style but the soundtrack: a mix of traditional Japanese music and Hollywood-style cocktail lounge sounds.
AN ACTOR’S REVENGE is presented as a Dual Format Edition with a host of Special Features, including the insightful Docu ‘100 Years of Japanese Film’.