Director: Kon Ichikawa
Screenplay: Daisuke Itô, Teinosuke Kinugasa, Natto Wada
Based on a Newspaper Serial by: Otokichi Mikami
Starring: Kazuo Hasegawa, Fujiko Yamamoto, Ayako Wakao, Eiji Funakoshi, Ganjirô Nakamura
Running Time: 113 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Kon Ichikawa began his career as a cartoonist, but was soon pushed into live action filmmaking and directing in the late 1940s. He enjoyed a long and varied career right up to has final years before passing away in 2008 at the grand old age of 92. It was the period between the 1950s and mid-1960s that he produced his most respected work though. During this time he worked very closely with his wife Natto Wada on his films. She wrote the scripts (often adapted from literary classics) and he directed them. However, after their acclaimed documentary about the 1964 Olympics, Tokyo Olympiad, she retired from screenwriting and Ichikawa’s work never quite reached the same quality of his films during that golden period. During this time, the director completed some forty-odd films though, so you can’t say he didn’t leave his mark. These titles include the anti-war dramas The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain, which found acclaim in the West, and the action drama An Actor’s Revenge, which I’m reviewing here, due to its re-release on Blu-Ray by the BFI.
An Actor’s Revenge is a most unusual film, as I will delve into later, so you might be surprised to know that it’s actually a remake of a film of the same name from 1935, which itself was adapted from a newspaper serial. Strangely enough, both versions star Kazuo Hasegawa and the 1963 film was planned as a celebration of the actor’s 300th role (quiet an achievement considering he was only 55 at the time) and was touted to be a big event picture for Daiei Studios, who were struggling as TV was stealing cinema’s thunder.
An Actor’s Revenge is a period piece that tells the story of Yukinojo Nakamura, a Kabuki actor who specialises in female impersonation. As was often the case in that era, he dressed and acted like a woman off the stage too. Beneath his feminine and formal appearance however, beat a cold heart lusting for revenge. You see, his mother and father were driven to suicide by three men, Sansai Dobe (Ganjirô Nakamura), Kawaguchiya (Saburô Date) and Hiromiya (Eijirô Yanagi), and back then, when he was only 7, Yukinojo vowed to take their lives. In fact his whole career in the theatre was leading up to being able to meet these men and gain their respect, in order to get close and bring justice down upon them. We open the film with Dobe finally appearing at one of Yukinojo’s performances, allowing the actor (or actress) chance to set his plan into motion. This first involves exploiting the love of Dobe’s daughter Namiji (Ayako Wakao), who is also Dobe’s key to having a say in court, due to her being the Shogun’s favourite mistress.
Straight from the offset I knew I was in a for a treat here as the film opens with a stunningly beautiful Kabuki theatre performance shot in ultra wide cinemascope. In fact the film is a visual feast from start to finish. There is no attempt to make anything look realistic, instead employing a stylised effect in the production design, lighting and costumes, taking inspiration from Kabuki as well as some nods towards the silent era of film. This striking approach is a joy to behold and the film is worth watching for the visuals alone.
The style of the drama is interesting too though, blending genres to create a mix of high melodrama and action. The former is occasionally accentuated with syrupy Hollywood music. Elsewhere you get some lounge jazz and more traditional Japanese music, to accompany the playful visuals. You get some nice post-modern touches too, such as the running commentary on the film provided by side character Yamitaro (also played by Hasegawa). Ichikawa truly pulls out all the stops to create a wonderful celebration of the possibilities of cinema.
The film isn’t without fault though. The melodrama didn’t connect with me on an emotional level due to its often overblown nature. The film felt a little overstuffed at times too. I could follow the plot, but I thought there were more characters than necessary and many seemed superfluous to the main plot. Listening to Tony Rayns’ commentary on the film, it seems this was because the film featuring lots of celebrity cameos due to the celebratory nature of the production. Because these stars meant little to me though, the appearances just felt random.
These issues didn’t detract too much from the pleasure of watching this unusual and visually stunning curiosity though. Even if it didn’t always hit the mark, as a piece of cinema it’s astounding and one-of-a-kind.
An Actor’s Revenge is released on 26th March on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by the BFI. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks and sounds fantastic. The picture is detailed, clean and colourful without looking doctored.
There are several extra features included too. Here's the list:
- New audio commentary by critic, programmer and Japanese film expert Tony Ryans
- 100 Years of Japanese Film (Nagisa Oshima, 1995, 52 mins): the award-winning director of In the Realm of the Senses (1976), explores the first century of Japanese cinema
- Oriental Splendour, Japan Pays Homage, Japan. To Rid Their Souls of Evil, and In Old Japan (1927-1930, 4 mins): four rare archive films documenting Japanese life, from the Topical Budget newsreel
- Fully illustrated booklet with new writing by James Bell, Espen Bale, Virginie Sélavy and Vic Pratt, plus original review by David Wilson and full film credits
The commentary is excellent. Tony Ryans proves once again that there’s little he doesn’t know about Asian cinema and fills us in on the history of the film and its cast and crew, as well as providing insight into the period its being set and the styles being referenced. Oshima’s documentary is a superb addition to the set too, offering an intoxicating look at the history of Japanese cinema.