An Actor’s Revenge and a Director’s Triumph

An Actor’s Revenge, the English name given to the 1963 Japanese film Yukinojo henge (Yukinojo the Phantom), is the perfect title for a killer blend of cinema and theater. The director, Kon Ichikawa, transforms a standard period revenge plot, rooted in the cross-dressing kabuki theater of the 1830s, into a hypnotic prism that generates fresh colors as he holds each facet to the light. The palette of the film is psychedelic: the opening performance explodes in red, pink, gold, white, and purple. The kabuki proscenium, letterboxed against the darkness, looks wider than widescreen—it’s an incandescent ribbon that tests the limits of the frame. And in Ichikawa’s hands, even the shape of the screen seems changeable. He breaks up the space with exhilarating audacity, whether by adopting an artful version of picture-in-picture or literally spotlighting his characters (in the theater or in the street) or dissolving boundaries so that a snow-blanketed stage stretches out in all directions like a vast Arctic landscape. The story runs the gamut from farce, soap opera, and action-packed chanbara all the way to heart-crushing tragicomedy. The supporting characters cover the emotional spectrum. They can be satirically rapacious and grotesque yet still transfix us with their pathos and terror.

If any movie requires a protean protagonist to pull everything together, it’s this one. Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) fits the bill. Orphaned at age seven, trained as an onnagata (a male performer of female roles), and schooled in martial arts, Yukinojo has become a star whose soft face and physique belie his physical strength and steel will. His experience and expertise do more than make him a top performer; they also put him in a position to observe Japanese culture and society, high and low, with ruthless, flexible objectivity. As Yukinojo plots vengeance against the three powerful, greedy men who drove his mother and father to suicide, he analyzes their ambitions and sets them at loggerheads. Being an actor and thus déclassé, close to “the people,” he knows how dangerous it is for big shots to wheel and deal in basic commodities like rice as the masses face famine in the turbulent Tenpo era, beset by droughts, fires, and floods. Warehouses become targets for hungry mobs. This movie is an aesthete’s delight that’s also socially aware. As a pickpocket at the theater remarks in one scene, “People spend more when times are hard.”

The film’s cinematic reach stems from the peerless range of Ichikawa, who continues to defy critical categorization a decade after his death in 2008. He made An Actor’s Revenge during his peak period, which began with the antiwar fable The Burmese Harp (1956) and ended with the epic documentary Tokyo Olympiad (1965). Studio executives at Daiei intended to punish the director for his costly techniques on Conflagration (1958), Bonchi (1960), and The Outcast (1962) by saddling him with this assignment. After all, it was a remake of a trilogy made by Teinosuke Kinugasa (1953’s Gate of Hell) between 1934 and ’36; it even showcases the same star, Hasegawa, ostensibly in his three hundredth production. Ichikawa, though, made this old chestnut of a tale bloom. With the help of his preferred screenwriter—his wife, Natto Wada—Ichikawa made the project an excuse to go all-in creatively, with a whirling narrative and eye-popping beauty. His virtuoso moviemaking melds stage magic and the uncanny while exploring psychological and gender role-playing in a time of chaos.

Ichikawa and Wada’s storytelling has an ultramodern briskness and edge. As the main attraction of the kabuki company, Yukinojo, born in Nagasaki and raised in Osaka, conquers Edo (later renamed Tokyo) on the troupe’s first appearance in the capital city. The movie begins on opening night, which draws two of the bad guys to the box seats: Kawaguchiya (Saburo Date), an ex-clerk, now an ambitious trader; and Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura, who had recently starred in Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds and The End of Summer), formerly a Nagasaki magistrate, now a member of the shogun’s retinue. (The shogun, Japan’s military ruler, controlled the country’s entire feudal structure and government, up to and including the mikado, or emperor.) Dobe’s daughter, Lady Namiji, the shogun’s favorite concubine—played by Ayako Wakao, who had appeared in Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1956 swan song Street of Shame and alongside Nakamura a few years later in Floating Weeds—also attends the show, and instantly falls for Yukinojo’s peculiar masculine-feminine charms. None of them knows Yukinojo’s true identity. Since the onnagata wears women’s clothes and subtle makeup even during his downtime, it’s unlikely that the men will recognize him as the boy they orphaned back in Nagasaki. Yukinojo, on the other hand, knows all about them, as well as the third villain, Hiromiya (Eijiro Yanagi), a rich merchant. Ichikawa reduces the rest of the first-night audience to a blur, then outlines Dobe, Kawaguchiya, and Namiji in the actor’s vision like a group portrait in a rearview mirror. Yukinojo confides in voice-over that he will use Namiji to sunder and destroy Hiromiya and the other two.

Yukinojo’s enemies consider theater people amoral members of the demimonde. Still, it’s a staggering insult when Kawaguchiya offers Yukinojo lifelong protection in exchange for his amorous services. Namiji’s father, Dobe, invites Yukinojo to their home, hoping that she’ll tire of him after one or two visits. All the while, Kawaguchiya bets that if he can put Namiji in his debt by setting up a long-term affair between her and the actor, he can use Namiji’s sway with the shogun to expand his own wealth and prestige. As he leads the way to her room, he thinks he’s the one toying with Yukinojo.

But Yukinojo himself has determined to exploit Namiji’s crush and snake his way into Dobe’s household. Again and again, Yukinojo takes advantage of anyone who underestimates him. Extreme weather has produced catastrophic famines, generating riots against rice merchants who hoard their stores. Realizing that Kawaguchiya has tried to corner the market in rice, Yukinojo advises his third target, Hiromiya, to bring his stash of the grain into the city and unload it. When the unholy trio are weakened and at one another’s throats, Yukinojo pulls off two primal performances: impersonating his dead father for Kawaguchiya, and recreating his mother’s suicide for Dobe, thus shattering his antagonists’ confidence and sanity. Here, the director’s careful preparation and expressionistic masterstrokes of lighting, staging, and composition—for instance, the shadow Yukinojo casts as he plays the part of his mother possesses a life, and death, of its own—take us into a phantom zone as eerie as anything in Shakespeare, Tarkovsky, or the Superman franchise.

What Yukinojo brings down on his foes really is an actor’s revenge, dizzyingly dramatic in its form, surgically perceptive in its manipulation of movers and shakers too vain to recognize their own weaknesses. And Ichikawa’s giddy, experimental movie is itself an auteur’s revenge on his studio, because he treats the timeworn material as an opportunity rather than a punishment. Until the tragic drama of its climax, the movie remains inventive, amusing, antisentimental, and playfully meta about almost everything and everyone, including the downtrodden and even the hero himself. Yukinojo inspires passionate debate among theatergoers who buy cheap tickets for standing room (the equivalent of “the gods” as seen in Children of Paradise or the balcony in The Red Shoes). An Actor’s Revenge doesn’t idealize the popular audience, or the dirt-poor, either. It’s frightening to see desperate men riot for rice; they recall the cutthroat gangs in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, released just a couple of years earlier. Thugs lurk in the film’s plentiful shadows and around each corner of its stylized sets. Yukinojo shocks even himself with his cold-bloodedness. He doesn’t strike immediately: he waits for the moments that will produce maximum emotional torture. He takes actions that result in the death of an innocent woman who genuinely loves him.

Hasegawa’s performance is extraordinary from beginning to end. Yukinojo’s onstage postures and gestures, generally soft and elegant, are sometimes definite and passionate. They’re always expressive, often of two things at once—the emotions he’s acting out and the ones simmering beneath the surface. It’s significant that Hasegawa was in his fifties when he made An Actor’s Revenge. Watching this weathered, stocky man play Yukinojo is a bit like watching the burly Shintaro Katsu play the blind swordsman Zatoichi. His age and bulk humanize a mythic character, putting the focus on Yukinojo’s intensity and powers of suggestion. Ichikawa is so comfortable in the world he has created that he can be irreverent about the time-honored kabuki theater and the tradition of the onnagata. He allows us to laugh at and with the tomboy thief Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) when she says she finds Yukinojo creepy. But Yukinojo’s art and presence are potent enough to turn skeptics into converts. Hasegawa interprets Yukinojo’s craft as an elevated form of dissembling. In close-ups, we see from his eyes that he has more going on in his head than whatever he’s miming, dancing, or reciting in the moment. Offstage, he wraps himself in his onnagata guise as if in a cloak of privacy. Whenever a former fellow student from martial-arts school, consumed with jealousy, challenges Yukinojo to a duel in the street—something he does repeatedly—Hasegawa snaps into a fierce, magnetic concentration. Ichikawa’s focus on these galvanizing transformations stokes the film as much as do his nonstop innovation and imagistic dazzle.

In the volatile culture of the film’s setting, the ambiguity of Yukinojo’s gender is an asset. His ability to put a man’s muscle behind an onnagata’s demure composure spellbinds the second female lead, Ohatsu. Why wouldn’t it? Most males she sees are either callow youths or vicious bastards. Ironically, Ohatsu plays the reckless seducer with Yukinojo, while Namiji, the courtesan, acts like a blushing ingenue with him. Yukinojo’s sake-drinking sessions with Namiji are so tender they might be called love scenes. Both clad in elegant kimonos in different shades of purple, the two sip from tiny silver cups and embrace cheek to cheek, as the strings on the soundtrack play a bittersweet romantic theme that would suit one of Sirk’s, Minnelli’s, or Hitchcock’s melodramas. (The gleefully eclectic score also includes an amped-up version of traditional kabuki music, and jazzy interludes and staccato riffs for ruminative moments and action scenes.) Yukinojo doesn’t take an aggressive, conventionally masculine role when he woos Namiji. He’s modest, at times coquettish. And Namiji, though sensitive and gentle, is no shrinking violet. Ichikawa cuts away just after they press their bodies together as if ready to make love.

The director establishes their apparent emotional parity but never lets us forget that Yukinojo controls the power dynamic with his secret agenda. As a revenge artist, the actor has chosen the ideal path to annihilating her father: Dobe’s life will be hell without the apple of his eye and his sole source of power at court. But Namiji gets to “Yuki,” as she calls him, and to the audience, too, so we understand why the onnagata must seek some sweeping expiation for fatally exploiting her.

Adding to the movie’s gender-role merry-go-round is the general perception around the city’s underworld that Ohatsu, lovely and handy with a gun or knife, isn’t traditionally “feminine” or sympathetic enough to be a desirable mate. The only guy’s guy who can turn Ohatsu’s head is her fellow cutpurse Yamitaro, who operates like an urban Robin Hood without a band of merry men. As he did decades before, Hasegawa plays Yamitaro as well as Yukinojo, and in this part he exudes a gruff, warm charm. It is comical and touching that Yamitaro is attracted to Yukinojo in ways he finds difficult to explain. At the end, he tells Ohatsu that he may give up banditry and girls and beg to become Yukinojo’s assistant. Ichikawa employs the dual casting wittily. It feels organically funny, not at all self-conscious, when Ohatsu tells Yamitaro that, in profile, he resembles Yukinojo.

Remarkably, Ichikawa’s moviemaking wizardry makes this spinning contraption of a film feel all of a piece. Each shot contains something marvelous—such as Yamitaro effortlessly scaling a wall like a figure from a Cocteau fairy tale (Ichikawa adored Cocteau), or Ohatsu popping out from a black nocturnal forest as a royal-blue horizon line streaks across the screen—or something devastating: say, a corpse hanging from a rope like an unstrung marionette. Of course, the film is more than a collection of flourishes. Ichikawa uses classic and contemporary materials to create his own elastic, personal aesthetic.

The filmmaker is perhaps best known today for the tough-minded nostalgia of his 1983 masterpiece The Makioka Sisters. There, he intimately and lyrically evokes the elegiac side of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel about the fraying of an old Osaka merchant family as it confronts westernization. An Actor’s Revenge does something fundamentally different. It bristles with modernity while miraculously retaining the nuance of an art form that began in the sixteenth century. The director displays an old-time stage, illuminated, as Tanizaki once wrote, “by the meager light of candles and lanterns.” But that’s just a conceit. All the tools in Ichikawa’s studio contribute to his very 1960s light show. At the same time, he treats his star performer lovingly, like a master portrait artist preserving the illusions of gender.

Tanizaki hated the “vulgarity” of kabuki seen in bright Western stage light. (He favored the refinement and simplicity of Noh theater.) For him, the authentic Japanese sensibility rests on an appreciation of darkness. His book-length essay In Praise of Shadows celebrates, among other things, “the mystery of shadows,” “the secrets of shadows,” “the magic of shadows,” and “delight in shadows.” Yet that’s also the basis of the kaleidoscopic, sometimes “vulgar” beauty of An Actor’s Revenge. Working with breathtaking confidence and freedom, Ichikawa shapes both his interior and exterior action so that it always leaps out of darkness. He stages one fight primarily as the clash and clang of a blade and a dagger at night. Steel glints and slashes through the blackness. In another coup de cinéma, two constables try to lasso Yamitaro, and for a moment they snag one of his wrists (or does he grab the rope?). The lasso disappears into the night as if falling down a bottomless well. Shrouded in murk, the constables proceed, hand by hand, along the taut, tingling cable, only to discover that Yamitaro has tied it to a post. All these episodes work visually and viscerally. Ichikawa choreographs camera and actors for maximum punch.

In the movie’s ultimate poetic irony, a benshi (or narrator) tells us that Yukinojo, “the greatest female lead of his age,” the inspiration of so much life-or-death conflict and passion, fades from memory once he gives up the stage. The final shots depict the actor disappearing into the wild flora of a windswept plain. It’s as if Ichikawa is saying, like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “Our revels now are ended,” his actors “melted into air, into thin air.” The “gorgeous palaces” and “solemn temples”—the enigmas of sexuality and the moral vanities of justice—“dissolve, / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind.” The glory of An Actor’s Revenge is its infinite suggestiveness. Ichikawa, like Shakespeare, transforms a revenge saga about playacting into a profound masquerade about man’s, and woman’s, fate.

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