Kon Ichikawa was initially apprehensive when the higher ups at Daiei Studios informed him that his 1957 film The Men of Tohoku would be in anamorphic widescreen. Ichikawa—that great auteur who helped bridge the gap between the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema in the 1950s and the Japanese New Wave of the 60s—had spent years mastering the traditional 1.33 : 1 aspect ratio, giving the world such complex and elegiac masterpieces as The Burmese Harp (1956). In an issue of Eiga geijutsu magazine, he reminisced on his love of the traditional format:
“I had taken it for granted that that was how the screen was shaped. During the decade I had worked as an assistant director, my grasp of the interplay of light and shadow had been shaped by those dimensions—it was within their borders that my “artistic volition” had been formed…day after day, from morning to night, I focused on how to best take advantage of that predetermined space. It was the crucible in which my skills were forged, the window through which I observed humanity.”
But times were changing. With the influx of Hollywood Technicolor extravaganzas and the first stirrings of cinematic revolution in Europe, the Japanese studios knew they had to innovate or get left behind. And so they saddled Ichikawa with the “monstrous, obscene” 2.35 : 1 aspect ratio.
But watching his 1963 An Actor’s Revenge, it seems inconceivable that Ichikawa had ever had doubts about the format. Here we find a dazzlingly audacious widescreen epic, a film that mixes the anarchic experimentation of Nagisa Oshima with the rigid classical storytelling of Akira Kurosawa. Set in the early nineteenth century, the film embodies the highly structured aesthetics of kabuki theater, using its elongated frame to imitate a proscenium both when performers are literally on a stage and when they’re spying, pursuing, or escaping through elongated courtyards, empty alleys, or darkened gardens. The performances are unapologetically bombastic with actors shifting between silent introspection to explosive outbursts of emotion at a moment’s notice. The story is peppered with Shakespearean asides where characters ponder their plans and motives and expository monologues about backstories that serve the place of flashbacks. The film is an brazen explosion of style that could only come from an artist confident in their craft. And with the Criterion Collection’s recent Blu-ray release of the film—from whose liner notes yielded the above quote from Eiga geijutsu—the film is now readily available for anybody curious to explore this great master’s work.
An Actor’s Revenge is a labyrinthine drama centering on Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa in his 300th onscreen performance), an orphan from Nagasaki trained since his childhood as a martial artist and onnagata (a male kabuki actor who performed female roles). During a visit with his acting troupe to Edo, Yukinojo discovers the three men who drove his mother and father to suicide: Kawaguchiya the trader (Saburo Date); Sansai Dobe the politician (Ganjiro Nakamura); and Hiromiya the merchant (Eijiro Yanagi). He decides that he shall take his vengeance upon them, not by killing them, but by pitting them against each other, bankrupting them, and driving them insane. How? Through manipulating Dobe’s daughter Lady Namiji (Ayako Wakao), the shogun’s favorite concubine who falls head-over-heels in love with his feminine onnagata charms. But while Yukinojo schemes his way through the upper classes, a trio of thieves scuttle their way through the pursestrings of Edo’s elite. Among them are Yamitaro, a Japanese Robin Hood who comments on the action like a Greek choir. And who plays him? None other than Hasegawa in a rare double role.
The ingenuity of An Actor’s Revenge comes in how it can be appreciated for its surface stylistic whimsy and for its interior dissection of gender roles and sexuality. Those eager for the former will find incredible satisfaction in Ichikawa’s bizarre juxtaposition of stately widescreen compositions and fragmented close-ups during fight scenes and moments of tension. Much like the climactic ballet sequences in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), the Kabuki actors disappear from the world of the stage into the exterior lives of their characters, such as a snowy field in the midst of a blizzard. The scenes where a murderous Yukinojo reveals his true self and intentions to his victims before destroying them evoke German Expressionism where bold shafts of light pierce through voluminous shadows to highlight a face, a mouth, an eye. From start to finish, the film is a kaleidoscope of colors, close-ups, shadows, long shots, quick edits, and long takes. You could teach a film class on Ichikawa’s stylistic dictionary.
And those who want the meaty interiors will find fodder for an entire journal’s worth of academic studies: does Yukinojo’s embracing of his feminine traits make him invincible against the codified masculinity that reigned in feudal Japanese politics?; does Lady Namiji fall for him because of his rejection of toxic masculinity or could it represent a latent lesbianism? It’s a minefield, but one viewers will be happy to return to again and again. An Actor’s Revenge is a film of great depths which, much like Yukinojo, is content to hold its cards close and keep its audience guessing.