An Actor’s Revenge 雪之丞変化 Dir: Kon Ichikawa (1963)

An Actor’s Revenge  An Actor's Revenge 1963 Poster

雪之丞変化 「Yukinojo Henge」

Release Date: January 13rg, 1963

Duration: 114 mins.

Director: Kon Ichikawa

Writer: Otokichi Mikami (Newspaper Serial), Daisuke Ito, Teinosuke Kinugassa (Adaptation), Natto Wada (Screenplay),

Starring: Kazuo Hasegawa, Fujiko Yamamoto, Ayako Wakao, Eiji Funakoshi, Saburo Date, Kikue Mori,

IMDB

Kon Ichikawa’s 1963 version of An Actor’s Revenge is a remake of the 1935 film starring Kazuo Hasegawa who came back to reprise a role that helped make him a star. Hasegawa, already a major kabuki and movie actor, must have thought this story special as this is his 300th film appearance. Far from being a staid jidaigeki adaptation, Ichikawa fuses period verisimilitude with colourful art direction and abstract framing to create a vision where the borders between the theatrical and real no longer exist.

It is 1863 and Japan is about to suffer the Tenpo famine (1833-37). Times are already tough for the ordinary citizenry who have lost faith in the government and labour under the daily grind of life. While the aristocratic class prefer the restrained theatrics Noh, the lower classes like to escape into the exuberant world of kabuki. The film’s main character Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) is a well-known ‘onnagata’ (an actor who specialises in playing female roles) in a travelling kabuki troupe from Osaka. Much sought after for his skill, he and the theatre group have been invited to Edo (the old name of Tokyo) to perform but Yukinojo has an ulterior motive for acting: finding and taking revenge on Lord Dob, a retired magistrate, and two rice merchants named Kawaguchiya and Hiromiya.

Twenty years ago, they played a part in the death of Yukinojo’s parents and in the years that elapsed he has thought of nothing but revenge. This desire has driven him as far as to learn the way of the sword as well as the ways of the stage. He is so driven by the thought of revenge that he plots to ruin the lives of his targets in the most long drawn out way possible before death and he fixes on using Lord Dob’s daughter  Namiji (Ayako Wakao) to do it…

The scheme he cooks up to take out his targets is an exquisitely intricate and daring one designed to play the villains off against each other and milk the maximum of emotions from such as anger, humiliation and despair during their downfall. Seeing this executed results in narrative twists and turns and melodramatic meltdowns for the corrupt antagonists. Acting as more than just the backdrop of the film, the combustible atmosphere of a society rocked by riots from the starving working class is weaved into the story and we see how these conditions play a part in the vile rice merchant’s nefarious political and financial machinations.

To flesh out Yukinojo’s quest, we get flashbacks to his tragic past as an infant who watched his parents driven to madness and then suicide by the greedy villains. This acts as a great motivator for Yukinojo. Channeling this tragedy is Kazuo Hasegawa who demonstrates why this is his role as he transforms from a graceful and demure onnagata to a fierce and terrifying agent of revenge in the flash of a blade and the reveal of an acidic look when he lets his theatrical façade crack and displays poisonous hatred for his prey.

Balanced against this is Namiji who is the essence of innocence and pure-hearted love as she falls for Yukinojo and it offers some really great character conflict for the man as he spends time agonising over how shameful and vile his actions are to include her in his plans. In a film where so much hatred and anger abounds, Ayako Wakao’s naïve performance as Namiji offers a fresh-faced innocence as she offers a genuine love that will make audience’s hearts ache, her fate acting as a tragic counterpoint to the main plot. It’s a great performance considering she had already played morally compromised and lustful characters in Yasuzo Masamura and Yuzo Kawashima films like A Wife Confesses (1961), The Graceful Brute (1962) and The Temple of Wild Geese (1962) a year before this was made!

Ayako Wakao gets all the press as a tragic heroine but it’s the performance of Fujiko Yamamoto as coquettish cat burglar Ohatsu who is utterly charming and romantic and completely different from her character in Kon Ichikawa’s Ten Dark Women (1959) that I personally liked.

Fujiko Yamamoto An Actor's Revenge

Adding to the mix of emotions and storylines are subplots involving a rival swordsman from Yukinojo’s old dojo and a comical collection of cunning pickpockets competing in a Robin Hood-like game to save working-class people in the city from starvation. Their inclusion in the story brings some welcome social history as we go from the luxurious surroundings of the parasitic merchant class to the streets where ramshackle huts sitting along swampland form the setting. Seeing the deprivation makes the villains and their trickery even more despicable and their subsequent downfall highly gratifying.

Hard times make for great art as they focus minds and here the mise-en-scene, subject matter and psychologies of the character are melded together to colour the screen, to heighten the atmosphere of a melodramatic story through combining the worlds of the kabuki stage and the street, and the perfect framing of scenes leads to slipping seamlessly between the two spaces.

It seems like a lot of the action takes place on sound stages. Smart set dressing combined with excellent camera placement and movement make the most of the limited exterior and interior locations to recreate the sense of 1836. There are the occasional painted backgrounds for dramatic horizons and they can act as a screen for occasional shadow plays that enact their own stories. Lighting is used tactically to heighten tension and coloured lighting adds emotional hues, casting the set in the mind of the protagonist. To top it all off, the camerawork and editing are perfect for zeroing in on emotions, cutting to a close-up or dollying in on a face as the drama unfolds and we watch character navigate difficult situation.

The films Ichikawa that I have reviewed thus far are all in the realist vein but An Actor’s Revenge is a departure, a highly theatrical and artistic vision which brings the theatre of kabuki and a whole load of history onto the screen with flair to make a wonderfully beautiful and tragic story.

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