An Actor’s Revenge is a reflective piece about fate and the many faces we wear to get what we truly want, even if it’s something truly awful.
Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge (1963) is a completely batshit remake of the 1935 film of the same name. It tells story of Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa), an onnagata (a Kabuki male actor who plays females) who comes to Edo (Tokyo’s former name) to exact his revenge on the three men who ruined his family, leading both his mother and father to suicide. However, there are so many layers to peel – both within and outside the film – that Ichikawa succeeded in creating one of the first meta masterpieces in cinematic history.
The opening credits announce that An Actor’s Revenge is Hasegawa’s 300th film. Appearing both on the screen and the stage during his long career, Hasegawa actually played Yukinojo in the 1935 version which was directed by Teinosuke Kinogasa. When we first meet Yukinojo, his troupe has come from Osaka and is performing on the Edo stage. Two of his three targets watch from the balcony. The emotional actor later tells his mentor, Kikunojo (Chusha Ichikawa), that he hopes to get close to the men and rather than swiftly dispense with them, he wants to toy with the trio until they go crazy and suffer like his parents did.
Both Ichikawa and Hasegawa are playing with doubles in An Actor’s Revenge. The director allows his character to follow a duplicitous path, both on and off the stage, while the actor gets a chance to take this journey for a second time, nearly 30 years later. Hasegawa also has the opportunity to play a second role in the film as a thief who decides to help Yukinojo exact his revenge, a man who one of the characters remarks looks a lot like Yukinojo. Beyond having Hasegawa reprise his role, Ichikawa also hired Tokugawa Musei, the most famous benshi (performers who narrated silent films) to provide narration here. Throw in a handful of thieves who bear witness and comment on Yukinojo’s plot as it unfolds and a completely anachronistic jazz score and you have a movie that defies easy definition.
Though the film is set firmly in the 1830s, Ichikawa employs a litany of classic and modern filmic techniques that make An Actor’s Revenge unsettling. When Yukinojo first sees the two men from the stage who wronged his parents, Ichikawa irises his camera in and out to create a superimposition in the corner of the screen. At one moment we can see something out of a Cocteau film while another a host of psychedelic colors fill the screen as An Actor’s Revenge veers from retribution thriller to examination of Kabuki theater to even moments of high comedy.
By the time Yukinojo’s plot comes to fruition, An Actor’s Revenge becomes a tragic, frightening look at madness. Though Ichikawa openly hated kabuki, the multi-levels of actor vs. audience is a meta-commentary on both cinema and theater. It’s more experimental than anything Ichikawa had made and while his name is not mentioned in the same breath as Japanese wizards Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi, it’s probably because he was so stylistically hard to pin down. Among Ichikawa’s credits are an anti-war drama The
Burmese Harp (1956), a documentary on the 1966 Tokyo Olympics and the hyper-realistic The Makioka Sisters (1983).
As Yukinojo, Hasegawa’s performance is one to behold. As an onnagata, the actor preserves his feminine qualities even when off the stage. If revenge is often a man’s game, there is something unsettling about a man impersonating a woman tapping into the rage. We learn early that Yukinojo is adept in combat but by the time all three of his targets are dead, none are killed by his own hand. Yet, Ichikawa is going for something deeper than a simple revenge narrative. This is not Death Wish. Instead, An Actor’s Revenge is a reflective piece about fate and the many faces we wear to get what we truly want, even if it’s something truly awful.