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November 13, 2011

Japanese Film: "An Actor's Revenge" (1963) by Ichikawa Kon

An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge, 1963) was made by director Ichikawa Kon (1915-2008; Fire On the Plain, An Obsession, Harp of Burma) on the request of his studio, Daiei, to honor the Hasegawa Kazuo (1908-1984; Gate of Hell, The Crucified Lovers) - it was the veteran actor's 300th (and last) film, but that number of course includes many one-reelers made in the silent era.


Ichikawa was asked to do a remake of a 1935 tearjerker in which Hasegawa had starred and which had been helmed by Kinugasa Teisuke (1896-1982; Kuritta Ippeji, Gate of Hell). The project had been foisted on Ichikawa because his previous films based on literary works had not brought in enough cash. The original scenario, written by Ito Daisuke, "was so bad, it was good" as Ritchie puts it in A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Ichikawa's fixed scenario writer, his wife Natto Wada, almost kept it as it was.

But I have the feeling that Ichikawa decided to get back at the studio by having some fun. He asked Hasegawa Kazuo to play the same roles as in 1935, those of "onnagata" (female impersonator) Kabuki actor Yukinojo, and of Yamitaro, a good-hearted thief. The first role meant that the now fifty-five year old matinee idol had to appear in drag for most of the film, for Kabuki actors playing female roles also wore woman's clothes in daily life. The campish possibilities are immediately clear, especially as the story of the film has the elderly onnagata engage in a love affair with a gorgeous, young woman...

Ichikawa also decided to make a consciously stagey film, a stage within a stage so to speak, thereby creating the necessary distance between the viewer and the rather hackneyed story. For this special project, he got all the resources he needed from Daiei: excellent color stock, wide view format, and a group of experienced actors and actresses. Ichikawa tried every color experiment he could think of in the film, using innovative camera angles and displaying great virtuosity.

The story ia about onnagata Yukinojo, who one night when his Osaka theater group is performing in Edo, spots his arch enemies among the audience: when he was a small child, way back in Nagasaki, his parents were driven to their death by the magistrate Dobe Sansai (Nakamura Ganjiro) and two merchants, Hiromiya and Kawaguchiya. Dobe's daughter, the beautiful Namiki (Wakao Ayako), is also watching the show and falls in love with Yukinojo. The actor plans to use her to get closer to the three men he wants to kill, but unexpectedly, he falls in love with her himself... Other characters in the film are the above-mentioned thief Yamitaro, his man-hating girlfriend Ohatsu (Yamamoto Fujiko), another thief Hirutaro (Ichikawa Raizo), who dislikes to have to act in the shadow of Yamitaro, and a sword-fighter who is after Yukinojo, Kadokura Heima (Funakoshi Eiji).

Yukinojo's revenge will be successful, but in the process he will loose his love...

Cultural points:
  • Women were forbidden to appear on stage in most of the Edo-period, as the authorities feared that might lead to prostitution. So in Kabuki, men had to play the roles of women. Such actors are called "onnagata" or "oyama." In daily life they also wore woman's clothing, but in order not to be too attractive, the onnagata were forced to have a bald patch in the middle of their head. Despite that precaution, the theater became a source of male prostitution.
  • Onnagata are still going strong in modern Kabuki as well. It is sometimes said that onnagata are more "female" in their body movements than real women, because they are consciously acting femininity based on a centuries long tradition.
  • Yukinojo is not only an actor, he also has studied as a sword-fighter. He is not a hereditary actor, but was brought into the theater after the death of his parents.
  • In traditional Japan, teaching fighting skills, but also crafts, was done by having the pupil for many years watch the Master and imitate him. There usually was no "secret tradition" in written form, as is shown by the "empty scroll" episode in the film. One could only learn through personal contact with a teacher.
  • Originally, under the influence of Kabuki, also women's roles in film were played by men. This lasted until the early twenties, when love stories with close-ups become more frequent and the Adam's apples of the actors got too much attention. Kinugawa Teisuke, the director of the original Yukinojo Henge, had in fact started his career as an onnagata in films.  
  • Some Western commentators mention the jazz music in the film as another stylish innovation by Ichikawa, but that is a mistake: in jidaigeki (historical films) and sword fighting films from the 1950s on, often Western forms of music were used, and jazz was rather common. (Also the tap dance in the finale of Kitano's Zatoichi (2003) was not an innovation, but rather a return to traditional form, as older jidaigeki often had such musical numbers.)
This is a very entertaining film, visually pure pop-art, although there are no deeper layers.