When my wife and I went to Japan in 2013 one of our objectives was to see an actual Kabuki show. We never got to see one unfortunately, but it remains very high on our list of things to do. The Kabuki theater is a Japanese specialty, going back hundreds of years. It is heavily stylized and only performed by men. Female roles are performed by men in drag specialized in impersonating women, but (as I understand it) without any sexual implications. It still bothers me that we missed a show.
The setting for “An Actor’s Revenge” (Yukinojo Henge) is exactly the Kabuki theater. Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) is a Kabuki actor specialized in female roles back in 1836. It would seem that Kabuki actors back then practiced method acting, certainly Yukinojo stays in the role and is also wearing a woman’s outfit, makeup and mannerisms off-stage. Today you might call him a transvestite, but that sort of modern labels does not apply. Yukinojo is considered, also by himself, a male and an actor.
Yukinojo is on a dark mission. As a small boy he witnessed his father hanging himself, ruined by three men, who since then has become rich and powerful. Taken in by Kikunojo (Chūsha Ichikawa), the manager of a Kabuki theater troupe, he was trained as a Kabuki actor, as well as a swordsman, and has nurtured a desire for revenge, fueled by Kikunojo. Now the troupe is in Edo and it is time for revenge.
Yukinojo is a very unlikely avenger and it is difficult to see if he is accomplishing his revenge by design or by accident. He gets romantically involved with the beautiful Namiji (Ayako Wakao), daughter of one of his enemies and through fate she becomes instrumental in the revenge. A revenge that loses much of its sweetness.
Meanwhile the whole affair is witnessed and commented upon by a group of rivaling thieves. They are hovering on the edge of the story with limited influence on the actual happening, but serves rather like a Shakespearian choir.
There are in fact a lot of theatrical elements to this movie. Many of the scenes look indeed as if they are filmed on a stage, the actors are talking to the audience, sharing their thoughts with the viewer in the way a stage actor would and as mentioned, the role of the thieves seems an obvious theater reference. So, this is the story of the revenge of a theater actor, played out as theater. A very interesting, almost stylized choice of cinematography and rather fitting for a Kabuki story.
I was quite excited about this movie. Beside the very interesting style of the movie it is also visually a stunning movie, taking its historical setting serious with sets and costumes and great colors. The story, as in the case of Kurosawa’s movies, is also one that has reference to the western genre. A single, unlikely, guy avenging his father’s death against overwhelming odds. I believe I have seen this plot a number of times in American movies and could imagine Charles Bronson doing something similar, though probably not in drag. So, Kon Ichikawa also went into this territory.
There is something very curious about taking a very well know theme, a man avenging his father’s death, and transplanting it into a very different setting than what we are used to. I love this idea and in this case Ichikawa gets away with it completely. In “Harakiri” by Kobayahi the revenge motive is played out by samurai, trained warriors. Giving this role to a female impersonating Kabuki actor gives the story a very different angle.