An Actor’s Revenge

Studio: Criterion

Feb 26, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The absolutely gorgeous cover of An Actor’s Revenge, one of the Criterion Collection’s latest releases, doesn’t hold a candle to the scene it’s depicting. A snow-encased wasteland with an old man standing over a fallen woman as flakes of white drift to the ground is only expanded upon when shown in all its widescreen glory. This opening sequence is part of a kabuki theatre performance where Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) is working, and simultaneously keeping an eye on the private balcony. Watching the show are the three men responsible for the actor’s family’s destruction – his parents are both long dead, and revenge has been gestating ever since.

In depicting the stage, director Kon Ichikawa uses anamorphic widescreen (the accompanying booklet includes an article Ichikawa wrote in 1955 about his adoption of widescreen) to capture the length of the performance surface. It almost appears as if it stretches into infinity, as though the camera could truck to one side and the stage would simply continue. It’s simple, efficient storytelling – group A wronged someone, and revenge is sought – all while using some jaw-dropping visuals to up the ante. The snow bleaches the scene in blinding white, and it becomes part of An Actor’s Revenge’s visual motif. Some scenes are shrouded in darkness save for the character or two who appear on the fringes of the screen. In others, it’s a burst of color.

Yukinojo is a female impersonator, and is an intoxicating presence to those who watch him perform. He’s also disarming in the sense that no one would suspect his intentions. Add in a subplot with a couple of aspiring ace burglars, and there are plenty of chaotic irons in the fire. It could easily go off the rails, but it’s perfectly paced and leans into a variety of tones from classical melodrama to samurai swashbuckling to more modern sensibilities that aligned better with the edgier Japanese cinema that was burgeoning at the time.

Whether by design or by happenstance, the Criterion Collection released a pair of oddities from two auteur filmmakers on the same day. Last week, I looked at Satyajit Ray’s The Hero that was described as being a departure from his usual foray into more realistic humanist dramas (though his latter career was apparently more experimental).  Similarly to my experience with Ray, I’ve only seen one other Ichikawa film (1956’s The Burmese Harp). It’s only by way of the supplemental interview with film critic and filmmaker Tony Rayns that it’s revealed that An Actor’s Revenge was unlike any other film Ichikawa made over his long career.

That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily an aberration. Rayns explains that Ichikawa’s background in animation may have been a contributor to the rich visual textures of the film. While the widescreen is used to simulate the stage and how the audience would have seen it live, there are so many cuts to shift perspective. The tonal changes are similarly controlled through throwbacks to silent cinema (bubbles opening to show who Yukinojo is watching while people are watching him, for example) but also in its soundtrack. The music, depending on the style of scene, moves from classical Japanese to contemporary jazz. This could perhaps be read as an indication that while times change, motivations don’t – it’s a bridge between the past and the present.

Rayns’ interview is only 13 minutes in length, but it provides such excellent context to the making of the film. Lead actor Hasegawa, who also plays a famed thief called Yamitaro in the film, first portrayed this dual-role in an original version of the movie 30 years earlier and reprised it here for what was his 300th film. Ichikawa was brought in late, and that’s apparently where the more striking visual flourishes came from. This added context isn’t necessary to enjoy An Actor’s Revenge, and neither is knowledge of the cultural background that it was borne of, but it does enhance the experience. Film (and art) is often a window into worlds we are unfamiliar with, and that’s what makes exploring them so exciting.



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