Kazuo Hasegawa as Yukinojo Nakamura / Yamitaro the Thief in An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojô henge) (1963)

The Pure Artificiality in Kon Ichikawa’s ‘An Actor’s Revenge’

There's no need for a suspension of disbelief in this film insofar as An Actor's Revenge revels in our disbelief, our constant awareness of the staginess of the action—regardless of whether we are witnessing kabuki performances or the carrying out of the revenge plot itself.

An Actor's Revenge
Kon Ichikawa
20 Feb 2018 (US)

Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge (Yukinojô henge) (1963) is a remarkable exploration of the nature of performance. The first scene opens with a breathtaking panoramic shot of an onngata (a female impersonator) cavorting in the falling snow on a kabuki stage. Everything here calls attention to its artificiality. We see the edges of the proscenium and the musicians playing to the side of the stage. The broad horizontality of the shot stretches the cinematic proscenium beyond its seeming limits, as though Ichikawa (employing CinemaScope to its fullest) was spreading out the filmic image on an unimaginably elongated scroll. That very gesture—combining the traditional painting of the East with the technological innovations of modernity—highlights the knowing perversity that pervades The Actor’s Revenge.

As with traditional scroll painting, Ichikawa will often restrict the content of the frame to the bare minimum—a later scene involving an attempt to capture a notorious thief often features the two pursuers alone in a vast emptiness. Ichikawa delights in the negative space and the reduction of the character to a rather miniscule presence in the midst of nothingness. If nothing else, this is a film that makes an art of the long shot—but not in the manner of Kenji Mizoguchi, where the long shot embraces a plethora of explicit and implicit detail, attempting to capture the fine grain of the social world he documents; that approach to the long shot asks us to enter into the reality of the filmic world, it draw us in. Rather, Ichigawa’s approach to the long shot is ultimately alienating, keeping us at a distance. The garish but delightful colors that pervade the screen and the off-kilter camera angles positively contradict any inborn assumption of the “natural” that we might bring to the viewing of a film. We never assume that this is a world that we are capable of entering. It’s already closed off to us and that’s precisely what we find so alluring.

The actor’s age and the camera’s proximity in several shots to his face make it abundantly clear that a man is playing the role of a woman. This is Yukinojo, a celebrated onngata, dancing and acting before a captivated audience. Yukinojo is played by the famous screen actor Kazuo Hasegawa; just before the opening shot, the title frame announces that this film was created in celebration of his 300th performance. Indeed, Actor’s Revenge is a remake of a film in which Hasegawa performed in 1935 (playing the same roles—Yukinojo and also the Robin Hood-like thief Yamitaro) under the director Teinosuke Kinogasa. Of course, nearly 20 years had elapsed and Hasegawa was rather long in the tooth for such a role. In Ichigawa’s hands, however, what should be a liability becomes an asset. Seeing the aging actor reprise a role he had played as a much younger man (and thus more suitable for a role in a revenge plot replete with sword fights and the scaling of buildings) simply underwrites the façade that Ichigawa has constructed. There’s no need for a suspension of disbelief in this film insofar as An Actor’s Revenge revels in our disbelief, our constant awareness of the staginess of the action—regardless of whether we are witnessing kabuki performances or the carrying out of the revenge plot itself.

As Yukinojo executes the stylized movements intrinsic to kabuki performance, the camera cuts to a shot of certain members of the audience seated in a box. They too appear to be on a stage of sorts. The box has its own awning with a curtain hanging from it as though it is opening to reveal these “characters”. Three people are given prominence: a beautiful young woman, Namiji (Ayako Wakao), sits in the middle, ornately dressed and clearly entranced by Yukinojo’s performance; seated to her left and far less impressed is her elderly father Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura); seated to her right, attentive to her every move, is Hiromiya (Eijiro Yanagi). Namiji, moved by Yukinojo, and the ever-observant Hiromiya perform their own set of stylized motions, just as starkly clichéd as anything happening on the actual stage: Namiji sighs deeply while a hand clutches lightly at her heart; Hiromiya, recognizing that this movement signifies that Namiji has fallen under the actor’s spell and that Hiromiya might be able to turn this to his advantage, registers his awareness through a hackneyed gesture, raising his hand to cover his mouth in surprise and avaricious smile.

The camera cuts back to Yukinojo and her dance kicks up the fake snow. In a wonderful cutaway shot, Ichigawa captures the paper flakes as they are blown toward the candles that illuminate the front of the stage. Then something rather remarkable occurs. The stage behind and around Yukinojo quickly fades to black and an iris shot—another cliché, this time from the language of silent film—momentarily isolates Yukinojo. As it does so, the stage shifts to what appears to be a “real” snowy landscape and, in a voice-over, Yukinojo informs us that Hiromiya and Sansai Dobe are two of the three men responsible for the death of Yukinojo’s parents. We are no longer on the kabuki stage and yet this entire moment is so clearly the result of a studio shot that we never lose sight of the pure artificiality of the moment.

Ayako Wakao as Namiji

Indeed “pure artificiality” may be the perfect descriptor for An Artist’s Revenge. The term appears, at first, to be paradoxical. If “artificiality” describes the unnatural then it would seem to be, at base, impure. And yet the etymology of “artificial” tells a different story. “Artificial” derives from the Latin ars (“skill, craft” but also “power”—stemming from the Proto-Indo-European word for “fitting”) and facere (“to make” or “to fashion”). So, the artificial is that which has been fashioned with skill, exudes a certain fittingness, and exerts an unmistakable power. The question of its peculiar manner of fittingness is obviously a pressing one. In its contradistinction to the natural, the artificial is fitting by virtue of standing outside of the natural order of things. Thus, the artificial fits by making a place for itself; it’s suitable by suiting its own self-governing prescriptions.

Yukinojo, like many another traditional onngata, continues to dress and speak like a woman even when not on stage, thus perpetuating the pretense of femininity beyond the bounds of the theater so that theatrical performance becomes another (highly stylized, highly constructed) mode of the everyday. While carrying out his revenge plot, all eyes are upon him—just as though he were continually on the stage. Not only does Namiji fall in love with him but so does a notoriously cold female thief Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto). Indeed, part of what seems to enthrall her is the display of masculine toughness he exhibits while wearing female attire (he roughly thwarts her from committing a robbery). Yukinojo also has a constant witness in the noble thief Yamitaro (also played by Hasegawa), who seems to find him endlessly charming and even desires to leave thieving behind so that he can act as Yukinojo’s servant.

All observers (meaning everyone besides Yukinojo) find this artifice utterly fitting and seem to experience an untold power in Yukinojo’s ceaseless performance. However, as we saw in the discussion of the opening scene, this is a world where everyone performs all the time, a world of overriding artificiality. Sansai Dobe forces his daughter to cavort with the Shogun in order to gain power from the court. Hiromiya acts as a stage manager of sorts, bringing Yukinojo and Namiji together at precisely the moment when the latter had made herself sick with love and estranged herself from court. Yukinojo convinces a merchant to release the rice he was withholding during a famine to the people at a reduced cost so that the merchant will gain favor at court—thus ruining Hiromiya, who had also been hoarding rice in the hopes of reaping huge profit. The very fact that there is so much rice in the hands of the merchants demonstrates the artificial nature of the famine itself.

The difference, of course, is that Yukinojo is better at artifice. His construction—which so thoroughly adopts the artificial that it renders his existence an open contradiction of the normal state of things—is completely embraced by everyone he encounters, if only as a consequence of his utter conviction. In its success, Yukinojo’s performance highlights the constructed nature of the “natural”, supposedly non-theatrical, social world. Yukinojo succeeds in his revenge by outperforming everyone else. And yet it is the very realization that he can manipulate people and events so effectively that leads Yukinojo to relinquish his career and disappear. In discovering the horrible efficacy of the artificial, Yukinojo reveals the world to be out of joint.

Eiji Funakoshi as Heima Kadokura

Criterion Collection presents a new edition of An Artist’s Revenge in a transfer that is nothing short of gorgeous. This particular release is not as heavy on the extras as the typical Criterion affair. There is a charming 1999 interview with Kon Ichigara conducted by film critic Yuki Mori, an interview with critic Tony Rayns that places the film in the context of Ichigara’s output, a booklet essay by Michael Sragow and a 1955 article by Ichikawa on his encounter with CinemaScope. The film, of course, is rewarding all on its own and is well worth careful and enamored viewing—its artificiality is endlessly beguiling.

RATING 7 / 10
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