WWe sometimes talk about thieves in theaters. What could acting and thief have in common? Performers demand attention while pickpockets escape it, but to be good at both you need to closely study human behavior. In his 1962 film An Actors Revenge, director Kon Ichikawa presents the worlds of a touring Kabuki theater company and a group of thieves side by side. His masterstroke is the casting of Kazuo Hasegawa in his 300th film appearance in a dual role of both lead actor in the troops and Robin Hood-style thief. As the first, he coldly steals the heart of an admirer in the audience.
In the opening scene, criminals operate in the auditorium. They pluck the riches of the spectators, while arguing over whether to stay until the end of the show. This is playing too slowly for me, moans a thief. You couldn’t level this review at the film Ichikawas, one of the best theater studies in cinema. This is a remake of a 1935 film of the same name, directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, in which Hasegawa (a kabuki actor turned box office movie star) played the same roles.
The Ichikawas version immediately grabs the audience. In Edo (now Tokyo), the kabuki company presents an elegant production in which snow falls on a stage lined with candles. Yukinojo (Hasegawa) is an acclaimed onnagata, a male actor who plays female roles. Yukinojo’s internal monologue is heard addressing his late father as, in the audience, he spies on a magistrate and shopkeeper responsible for his parents’ deaths 20 years earlier. He came to Edo for revenge.
Yukinojo uses her performance, on and off stage, to gain the affection of the Magistrates’ Daughter (Ayako Wakao). He is mocked by others as weak and effeminate both for being an actor and a onnagata but uses this perception to his advantage for revenge. He also uses his vast knowledge of kabuki set design, makeup, and a spooky wig to take on the appearance of his father’s ghost when he confronts one of the men. (The film’s Japanese title Yukinojo Henge describes him as a ghost and it captures something of his spooky style.) Later, he plays his mother’s death as a shadow game to torment another of his enemies. One of the thieves mocks Yukinojo as neither male nor female; his features share a similarity with both parents, we are told, so it is as if he embodied each in their personal quest for retribution.
It is a dynamic and very elegant thriller told with a striking palette, but it forms a polished companion to a much more meditative, perhaps better known, film about another kabuki troupe, Yasujir Ozus. Floating weeds, which was made three years earlier and shares two of the supporting films of the actors (Ganjir Nakamura and Ayako Wakao). In both films, an actor comes to town with a family business in mind. For Ozus’ hero Komajuro, it’s a reunion with a son who doesn’t know his father’s identity. In Floating Weeds (itself a remake of a previous film), the production of the troops is a flop some nights, the actors outnumber the audience and the company is gripped by resentment. But Komajuro appreciates his role as the leader of this dysfunctional theatrical family, and the late scene in which the troupe dissolves to pursue alternative careers is tinged with sadness. In the movie Ichikawas, the orphan Yukinojo was practically adopted by a theater family; the actor-manager of the company has become a father figure for him.
The cast in An Actors Revenge may be more celebrated than in the movie Ozus, but Ichikawa also acknowledges the ever-precarious lives of artists who are never quite sure what’s going on around the corner. Instability is even inherent in the style of films, which never fixes on a genre. Ichikawa tightly frames some scenes using the lines of windows and doors, while others seem to exist almost like an endless stage, with the figures surrounded by floating fog or darkness. Lighting techniques are often boldly theatrical and even in scenes outside of the theater it is common for conversations to be watched by an audience of watching characters.
The fluid and dreamlike nature of the narrative is reflected in Hasegawa’s delicate performance as Yukinojo, which contrasts with his earthy and comedic turn as the thief Yamitaro. Yukinojo is as ethereal a figure as the theater itself: in the unforgettable final scene, he walks away from his life on stage, leaving his audience with fading memories of his performances.
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