Had An Actor’s Revenge been a mediocre work - which it most assuredly is not - then it would still possess a certain cultural curiosity. The film was, after all, the “300th film of Kazuo Hasegawa” (as the opening title proudly proclaims) and saw the former matinee idol revisit a title role he has essayed 27 years earlier in Yukinojo the Phantom. The fact that he was now 55, considerably weightier and sporting a double chin seemingly posed no problem - for a modern example imagine Gerard Depardieu (roughly the same age at time of writing) announcing that he is to repeat his youthful performance in Bertrand Blier’s Les Valseuses and all of the activities it would entail. The remarkable achievement is that despite the intriguing perversity of such an undertaking, Hasegawa has no difficulties with the role whatsoever. Indeed, he also takes on a second role as Yamitaro, a Robin Hood-style figure who occasionally serves as a kind of Greek chorus to Yukinojo’s activities.
Being such a professional Hasegawa thus leaves director Kon Ichikawa in a position whereby he can concentrate more fully on the material. Based on a newspaper serial, this material also happens to be on the flimsy, melodramatic side and in dire need of an individual, distinctive approach. As the English title reveals, An Actor’s Revenge is exactly that: Yukinojo (Hasegawa) seeks retribution for the deaths of his parents who were driven to madness and eventual suicide by three corrupt businessmen when he was a child. A strictly generic set-up, then, and one that apparently holds little interest to either Ichikawa or his screenwriter wife, Natto Wada. Instead they focus their attentions on Kasegawa’s roles and constantly undermine what could easily have become a vanity project.
The key factor is Yukinojo’s status as an onnagata or female impersonator, something Hasegawa had been before his cinematic career took off. With this latter aspect in mind, the two creative forces tie the actor in further self-referential knots by blurring not only character and actor, but also Yukinojo’s on- and off-stage personas, plus that of Hasegawa’s other role. Add to this love scenes between female and female impersonator, which may or may not simply be part of the revenge scheme, and things get very interesting indeed. And yet, these maze-like convolutions never comes across as hard work, Ichikawa possessing such a lightness of touch (no doubt the result of his apprenticeship as an animator and the sheer diversity of his 80 film output) that prompts amusement rather than confusion.
A similar approach is taken to the storyline itself. Though written by Wada in a manner that makes it far more interesting than the material deserves, it is Ichikawa’s decision to play further games with it that turns it into something wholly pleasurable. For starters An Actor’s Revenge is an extremely stylish film, so much so that it draws easy comparisons with Suzuki Seijun’s mid-sixties work such as Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill and perhaps even some of Takashi Miike’s more haphazard efforts. In less than two hours we are offered broad comedy, a documentary interlude about rioting peasants (complete with explanatory titles), more traditional swordplay elements and even the occasional horrific moment (for a PG) as when a young Yukinojo discovers his father hanging, all to the accompaniment of, alternatively, breezy jazz music a la Antonio Carlos Jobin, schmaltzy Max Steiner-esque Hollywood strings and more typical Japanese soundtrack fare. Also, for a film so closely concerned with the theatre and theatricality - it opens and closes with Yukinojo on stage, whilst the film as a whole is imbued with an artificiality through the use of studio sets, spotlights and other such devices - it is remarkably cinematic. The ’scope photography in particular stands out with Ichikawa often going to great lengths in order to make it seem even wider. The visual splendour can be evinced most fully through the disc’s menu screen which presents a particularly striking image on a slowed down loop, enhancing its enticing beauty. And of course, it should go without saying that An Actor’s Revenge is presented in its original ratio, thus allowing full enjoyment of only one of its myriad pleasures.
Presented anamorphically, An Actor’s Revenge looks especially fine on disc. There is some slight damage - as should be expected, perhaps, given the films age - though nothing too distracting. Certainly, the colour scheme, another of the film’s principle pleasures, comes across remarkably well, whilst the slight softness of image would appear to be intentional; it certainly fits the mood. As for the soundtrack, the original Japanese mono is provided (with non-optional subtitles generated by the disc) in equally fine condition. There’s very little discernible background noise whilst both the eclectic soundtrack and dialogue remain crisp and clear throughout. As for extras, these are the discs only area of disappointment as they add up to only sleeve notes, a weblink to the BFI’s site and a brief biography for Ichikawa.
Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 2 release of Kon Ichikawa's An Actor's Revenge, a wonderfully playful piece of Japanese cinema that arrives on disc in superb condition if decidedly short on extras.