Monday, February 19, 2018


An Actor’s Revenge opens and closes in a theater, bookending its vengeance tale with performance and placing the audience in a comfortable place that reminds us that this is entertainment and thus meant to be enjoyed a certain way. What lies in between fits the bill perfectly: a bonkers drama with ludicrous twists and audacious visuals. It is artifice at its purest, yet drama at its most sincere.

Writer/director Kon Ichikawa (The Makioka Sisters [review], Fires on the Plain [review]) has set his 1963 film, based on a novel by Otokichi Mikami, in the 1830s, at a time when life in Japan was difficult. The common people lived under the shogunate, and the economy was bad. Rice shortages caused unrest, becoming grist for the mill here as one component of the manipulative scheme put forth by Yuki (Kazua Hasegawa, Gate of Hell), a popular kabuki actor considered by many to be the finest female lead in all of Japan. Yes, this was a time when women’s parts were played by men, and not only does Yuki play a woman on stage, but for all intents and purposes, he remains androgynous in real life--dresses, make-up, speaking at a higher pitch. As with Satyajit Ray’s The Hero [review], the actor has an image to uphold.

At the start of the film, Yuki’s troupe is beginning a guest run in Edo. While on stage, the actor sees several familiar faces in the crowd, ones that chill him to the core. Watching from expensive box seats are men who drove Yuki’s parents to suicide. As we learn through Yuki’s internal monologue--expressed while still performing, the show must ever go on--he has been waiting his whole life for the chance to take his revenge on them. And so Yuki puts into motion an elaborate plot to drive the three merchants to madness and ultimately death, using the lead man’s daughter, Namiji (Ayako Wakao, Street of Shame [review]), as the entry point into their lives and homes. Namiji is smitten with Yuki, and Namiji is a woman of great influence, so all doors open.

The intrigue along this track develops over private conversations, with Yuki meeting with his three targets in their individual residences, working his way into their personal business, while also developing a genuine connection with Namiji. Meanwhile, outside, a collection of local thieves not only competes for fame in their province, but they also continuously cross paths with Yuki. They are both comic relief and a plot complication. The lady thief Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) falls for Yuki after he physically stops her from robbing Namiji. Another, Yamitaro, keeps watch from afar, enjoying how Yuki’s life is its own performance, how everything he does has a specific choreography. Hasegawa plays Yamitaro as well as Yuki, a dual role you may not notice on first viewing. That’s how good the actor is. It’s not just make-up and costume, but he creates distinct personas for each. Given that this was his 300th film, he certainly had plenty of time to hone his craft.

It’s the juxtaposition of these two characters where the artifice and the reality truly come together in An Actor’s Revenge. Ichikawa is interested not just in the parts people play in their actual lives, but in how they present themselves to others--and likewise how he can present these things to the film-going audience. An Actor’s Revenge relies heavily on style and staging. Nighttime scenes are set against solid black, with no discernible backgrounds. When Namiji loses her way, she is found on a similarly empty plain, shrouded in fog. Yuki’s plot against his enemies is essentially a stage play helmed in a natural theater. You almost suspect that when Ichikawa returns everyone to the actual stage in the end, he’s going to reveal we never left, and the film actors will return to take a bow.

At the same time, Ichikawa’s approach is deadly serious. There is no irony, no winking at the audience. If art is a reflection of real life, then it must be approached with the same vigor. Our entertainment has consequences. It has lessons to teach. It’s the oldest storytelling trick in the book: lull the consumer into a certain happy state, only for the weight of what we are seeing to land heavily upon us. There is a price for revenge, and one not always paid by the person with the vendetta.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

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