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July 09, 2009

Revenge of a Kabuki Actor

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Yukinoji Hange/An Actor's Revenge
Kon Ichikawa - 1963
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

I've only seen a handful of films by Kon Ichikawa, and Revenge of a Kabuki Actor is one of my favorites. The letterboxed New Yorker Films tape now is replaced by an anamorphic DVD that also has improved subtitles that not only translate the dialogue but also, at certain points, will at some context to what is being said. Because of the improved translation, it is also easier to follow the story, but also Ichikawa's satirical points about celebrity.

Kazuo Hasegawa celebrated is 300th film appearance doing a remake of the film he starred in under Teinosuke Kinugasa's direction in 1935. As it turned out, Ichikawa's version was the second to last film Hasegawa made before devoting himself entirely to stage productions. In retrospect, this all seems appropriate as the main character is an actor, and the film, and often the comments made by the characters, concern dramatic and timely entrances and exits. I don't know if Kinugasa's version is available in any format to compare the two versions. What is certain is that between having Kinugasa play two roles, sometimes appearing appearing opposite himself, and what is implied by the relationships of some of the characters, Ichikawa has made a film that remains perversely humorous, or perhaps humorously perverse.

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Certainly helpful is one of the DVD notes that explains that by law, oyama, male kubuki actors, were to maintain the female facade off stage. Taking place in the 1830s, it is only the appearance of a gun and a mechanical clock that remind the viewer that the film takes place at a time when Japan held onto feudal traditions. One of the running jokes of the film is that almost everyone falls in love with Yukinojo, the kabuki actor played by the baby faced Hasegawa. Among those to be charmed are the willing, Lady Najimi, who literally falls lovesick, and the initially disinterested, the supposed "man-hater", the female gang leader, Ohatsu, who first declares Yukinoji to be creepy with his high pitched voice, make up and purple kimono. An older businessman offers patronage, while the thief Yamitaro expresses affection that may be more than brotherly. Even setting aside that some oyama were homosexual, the rivalry of women for Yukinoji makes Revenge of a Kubuki Actor a gender-bender where love charges along without need for apology, explanation or second thoughts.

What might be considered more perverse is that the revenge portion of the story is the least interesting part of the film. Yukinoji, a celebrated actor from Hokkaido, has been invited to appear in Edo. It is in Edo that he is able to face the three men who ruined his parents, causing their suicides when Yukinoji was still a child. The men in question seek out Yukinoji, not knowing who he really is, setting themselves up for their Yukinoji's revenge. The trio forwarded their own ambitions in business and government taking advantage of Yukinoji's parents. Complicating things further is the presence of Heima, a formal rival of Yukinoji's when both studied sword-fighting.

And here's where Revenge of Kabuki Actor is fun. Yukinoji may rightly be described as sissy, but it doesn't stop him from handling himself against a band of swordsmen. The exterior scenes mostly take place in a dreamlike or theatrical environment with characters moving in and out of darkness. Sparks illuminate the scene as sword strikes sword. Observing Yukinoji fighting Heima and his samurai friends, Ohatsu comments that the "real" swordplay is more entertaining than what appears in the theater. The use of settings, lighting and color shift in such a way as to eliminate the distinction between artificial and realistic appearing environments.

While Hasegawa was saying goodbye to a career that began in the silent era, many of the other stars were at their respective peaks or on the ascent. Curiously, Fujiko Yamamoto, who played Ohatsu, also retired from the screen after making one more film as if there was a tie in life as there is with her character who disappears with Yamitaro, who decides to retire from thievery. Ayako Wakao had also established her career in the Fifties, but continued her career through the beginning of the Seventies, with infrequent appearances since then. Briefly seen in Shintaro Katsu who had begun his first of many films as Zatoichi, the sword wielding blind masseuse, just the year before. Raizo Ichikawa, in a supporting role as a thief seeking reknown, also began his series as the samurai Nemuri Kyoshiro.

Could some of the dialogue and situations have been veiled commentary on the inner workings at Daiei Studios? The self-reflective parts of Revenge of Kabuki Actor add to the fun, while some the parallels between what happens to Hasegawa, Yamamoto and Raizo Ichikawa's professional lives and their respective characters is uncanny. A filmmaker with lesser imagination would have immediately pounced on the potentially campier aspects of Revenge of a Kabuki Actors. Hasegawa may have been too old to recreate his famous role, yet this works within the context of a story in which the characters peg their lives on appearances being mistaken for reality. That the film remains highly enjoyable may also be related to something Ichikawa has said in an interview with Mark Schilling: "What hasn't changed is the way we look at human beings. Mores and manners change, the cut of a suit changes, but the way we look at human beings doesn't change so much."

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 9, 2009 12:12 AM