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.
The 1950s and 60s were boom years for Japan when its economic miracle began and new consumer goods and lifestyles emerged. With this age came a new breed of media people who used television to construct dreams designed to charm the masses. Kon Ichikawa takes a satirical glance at the sort of dream-merchant that emerged and layers it on the timeless psychology of men and women and the lack of commitment fellas have to the fairer sex as a TV producer finds himself the target of a murder from his wife and nine girlfriends, all of whom are aware of each other, and all of whom are so fed up with his flippant attitude to love they want to kill him.
In the opening ten minutes we are introduced to their scheme in media res and, in a fourth wall breaking moment, one of the plotters reveals how it has already gone badly awry before we get treated to an extended flashback to show us how it all began.
Kon Ichikawa is one of the big name Golden Age directors. A contemporary of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, Ichikawa tried his hand at a wide variety of films (including a documentary for the Olympic Games!). He is perhaps most famous for three films in the West, two highly realistic anti-war films, The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain(1959), and the period drama An Actor’s Revenge (1963), all three made with the scriptwriter Natto Wada, his wife and frequent collaborator, all of which have received subtitled releases and widespread festival play.
Fires on the Plain is a stunner of a film. It is bleak and harrowing and it is the sort of film that the Japanese movie industry probably won’t ever make again because it would be considered box-office suicide to have something as largescale by as grim and realistic as well as being something unafraid to show war as something calamitous, shambolic, and inhuman.
The film is based on a semi-autobiographical novel written in 1951 by Shohei Ooka who, to write the story, channelled his traumatic experiences and emotions as a soldier who survived the Philippines theatre during the closing stages of the war. The Americans are invading Leyte Island in the Philippines and are hot on the heels of the demoralised soldiers of the Japanese army, all of whom are looking to evacuate from the island. We see their increasingly desperate struggle from the perspective of an army conscript, Private First Class Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi), who is sick with tuberculosis.