REVIEW: Revenge of a Kabuki Actor - Kon Ichikawa (1963)
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
So many critics and fans get all excited about the cinematic innovations of Seijun Suzuki. They go on about how he brilliantly adapts aspects of traditional Japanese theatre and synthesizes them with his own boldly coloured and often surreal aesthetic. All of this is true, and I'm one of those fans that jumps up and down with a big wild grin on his face about Suzuki-san's works, but as singular as the "Branded to Kill" and "Tokyo Drifter" director's vision is his style does have its precedents. One of these, Kon Ichikawa's 1963 film "Revenge of an Actor", has now thankfully been released on a Region 1 disc in North America by AnimEigo (under the slightly revised title "Revenge of a Kabuki Actor"), so Japanese film fans will have another reason to get excited. Very excited.
The film centers around Yukinojo, played by legendary star Kazuo Hasegawa, an oyama or kabuki actor who, due to female performers being banned from the stage plays strictly women's roles. Yukinojo has grown up in the theatre after his parents, owners of a successful business in Nagasaki, were driven into financial ruin, madness and eventual suicide by a trio of ruthless merchants. It's with shock and anger that one night Yukinojo sees two of these, Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura) and Kawaguchi (Eiji Funakoshi) in the balcony of the theatre and at that very moment he swears that he will track down the third, Hiromi (Eijirô Yanagi) and make these three suffer as terribly as his late parents did at their hands. How will Yukinojo accomplish this? First by wooing Sansai Dobe's daughter Namiji (Ayako Wakao) who has fallen in love with him and then by using the three merchants greed and thirst for power against them.
"Revenge of a Kabuki Actor" was commissioned by Daiei Studios to mark the 300th film appearance of kabuki, silent and ultimately talkies veteran Hasegawa who had in fact starred as Yukinojo in the original 1935 film version of "Revenge of a Kabuki Actor" directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa and Ichikawa, best known for the sprawling documentary of the 1964 Tolyo Olympics "Tokyo Olympiad", but who actually began his career as an animator, pulled out all the visual stops in an attempt to top the original. Yukinojo's slow and meticulous revenge is captured in stunning wide angle Cinemascope and Ichikawa continually uses theatrical lighting and set design to heighten the emotional impact of each scene. It's as if Yukinojo's bigger-than-life persona is too grand to be limited to just the kabuki stage and he is in the spotlight wherever he goes. Hasegawa himself is a powerful screen presence, so much so that Ichikawa casts him opposite himself as Yamitaro the Thief, one of the many burglars and brigands who ply their trade in the streets of 19th-century Edo and act almost as a kabuki chorus delivering expository dialogue and commentary to the action. (Keep an eye out for Raizo Ichikawa and Shintaro Katsu as part of this band of thieves as well.)
It's this use of theatrical devices to bend and twist reality to greater dramatic effect that immediately had me thinking of Seijun Suzuki's films up to and including his 1966 film "Tokyo Drifter". One scene in particular, a flashback sequence in which Yukinojo is to receive a secret acting technique from his master is pure Suzuki, the entire set having been painted gold and the lighting and camera angles giving the shots the feel of a German Expressionist silent film.
But besides the visual flash there are other reasons why it's easy to draw parallels between "Revenge of a Kabuki Actor" and Suzuki's sometimes subversive film universe. I thought it was a very bold move to have Sansai Dobe's daughter Namiji fall passionately in love with someone who by our contemporary estimation is a drag queen. Okay, I hear the kabuki purists growling at that comparison, but I want to clarify that it was a brave choice to have such a gender-bending love story be one of the key plot points. It was entirely ahead of its time.
So, obviously I would recommend "Revenge of a Kabuki Actor" to fellow fans of Seijun Suzuki, but I also would highly recommend it to any fan of Japanese cinema. It truly is a singular work by Ichikawa that ties together the early days of Japanese cinema and the then burdgeoning New Wave and one that thankfully has been brought back to center stage. (I couldn't resist!)