An Actor’s Revenge, 1963

As a punitive assignment for a string of commercially unsuccessful films, Kon Ichikawa was tasked with a re-adaptation of a mediocre serialized story entitled An Actor’s Revenge, and consequently turned the banal pulp melodrama into an dazzling, idiosyncratic spectacle. Originally adapted to film by Teinosuke Kinugasa (who himself had a career as an onnagata – a stage actor of female roles – before becoming a director) and casting the original actor from Kinugasa’s film, Kazuo Hasegawa, An Actor’s Revenge tells the story of Yukinojo Nakamura (Kazuo Hasegawa), a popular nineteenth century Kabuki onnagata who has been consumed by one obsession throughout his life: to avenge his parents’ death. One evening, during a theatrical performance, Yukinojo catches sight of his adversaries, a politically connected corrupt warlord named Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura) and his wealthy merchant ally, Kawaguchiya (Saburo Date), who, together with his father’s primary business rival, Hiromiya (Eijaro Yanagi), exploited the Nakamuras’ dire financial situation to precipitate the family’s ruin. Yukinojo’s sympathetic performance gains the attention of Dobe’s hopelessly romantic daughter, Namiji (Ayako Wakao), the mistress of a powerful shogun, who encourages her father to extend him an invitation to the palace. Yukinojo’s deliberate coyness in accepting the invitation and in demonstrating affection towards the vulnerable Namiji inevitably succeeds in winning her heart, and Yukinojo manipulates the affair in order to subvert Dobe’s inherent influence over Namiji’s shogun lover. Yukinojo further capitalizes on his admission into Dobe’s social inner circle by pitting the greedy merchants, Kawaguchiya and Hiromiya, against each other in monopolizing the rice market, an underhanded scheme that would prove to have devastating and unexpectedly tragic consequences.

An Actor’s Revenge is a stylistically bold and irreverent satire that seeks to reconcile the familiar, traditional elements of Japanese culture with the modern vitality of Western influence in contemporary Japan. Kon Ichikawa uses a performance within a performance perspective to create a union of distinctive artistic influences through the dual role of Hasegawa: the Kabuki onnagata as performed by Yukinojo, and cinema actor as performed by Yukinojo’s alterego, the omniscient thief, Yamitaro. Ichikawa’s recurrent fragmentation of images reflect the voyeuristic relationship between spectator and performer: obscured, extended fight scenes witnessed from rooftops, seamless visual transitions between theatrical dramatization and off-stage, real-life events, framing of actors through doorways or other visual occlusions that seem to underscore the intrusive, keyhole perspective of the audience. The old-fashioned script for the tragic melodrama (shimpa) popular in early Japanese cinema is infused with irony, social satire, and subversive visual double entendres. The audaciously eccentric fusion of traditional and modern Japanese art forms are further exemplified through an eclectic soundtrack that combines folk music, jazz and avant-garde ambient sounds. Ultimately, An Actor’s Revenge becomes an audacious and infinitely fascinating exercise in straddling the fragile equilibrium that interweaves cultural past and present, East and West, theater and cinema.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.