Yukinoji Nakamura (Kazuo Hasegawa) is an “oyama” - a kabuki actor who specialises in playing female roles in mid-nineteenth century Japan. While performing onstage in Osaka with the Ichimura troupe, he catches sight of Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), the corrupt magistrate responsible for killing his parents years ago. The actor swears revenge upon both Dobe and Kawaguchiya (Saburo Date) and Hiromiya (Eijiro Yanagi) a pair of businessmen also complicit in the crime. At first Yukinoji sets his sights on seducing Dobe’s beautiful daughter Namiji (Ayako Wakao) but when she genuinely falls in love with him, he decides on another course of action. With rice in short supply, Yukinoji slyly persuades Kawaguchiya to attempt to corner the market and further manipulates events to drive a wedge between the three men. However, his pursuit of vengeance visits a series of tragedies upon all involved.
Of all the great Japanese filmmakers, the late Kon Ichikawa was perhaps hardest to pin down. His first directorial effort was a puppet movie, A Girl at Dojo Temple (1945) - banned by the US Occupational Authorities on account of its “feudal” subject matter - and he often likened himself to a frustrated animator, citing Walt Disney and Charlie Chaplin as his foremost cinematic influences. Yet Ichikawa’s international reputation was forged with a pair of harrowing, anti-war movies: The Harp of Burma (1956) - which he later remade (some claim badly) in 1985 - and Fires on the Plain (1959).
Over the course of his wildly eclectic career, Ichikawa made an award-winning sports documentary (Tokyo Olympiad (1965)), an art-house horror film (Noh Mask Murders (1991)), a kiddie flick wherein a beloved Italian mouse marionette nearly causes World War Three (Toppo Gigio and the Missile War (1966), the samurai movie equivalent of Easy Rider (The Wanderers (1973), cinema’s first comedy about a talking baby (I Am Two (1962)), and an existential drama about a talking cat (I Am a Cat (1975)). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With a string of mystery-thriller blockbusters, re-workings of Japanese fairytales and the part-anime fantasy The Phoenix (1978) to his credit, Ichikawa was as much a solid studio hand as an auteur, which coupled with the paucity of his work on DVD may explain why he never quite got his due. But he remains a fascinating, idiosyncratic talent whose back catalogue, which stretches up to Edo period drama Big Mama (2001) is ripe for rediscovery.
An Actor’s Revenge is one of Ichikawa’s most well-regarded films, in the West anyway. In Japan it’s another story. The story goes, Daiei Studios were greatly displeased with his last three films: Conflagration (1958), Bonchi (1960) and The Outcast (1962) and so assigned him this project by way of a punishment. It was vehicle intended to celebrate the 300th film appearance by Kazuo Hasegawa, the most lauded screen actor of the period with a career stretching back to the silent era and encompassing Gate of Hell (1953), one of the earliest recipients of the Best Foreign Film Oscar. In fact, this film was a remake of an earlier Hasegawa movie, based on a newspaper serial by Otokichi Mikami, and directed by his Gate of Hell cohort Teinosuke Kinugasa, who interestingly also started his career in kabuki as a female impersonator.
Ichikawa was presumably expected to knuckle down and get on with it, but aided by his screenwriter Natto Wada (a pseudonym for his wife Yumiko Ichikawa, who scripted many of his movies until her death from lung cancer in 1983) proceeded to helm something rather wittier. With his masterful use of scope, astounding colours and ingenious lighting, Ichikawa ensures the well-worn scenario flows like an animated movie with action scenes rendered in surreal, dreamlike flourishes. The plot, while familiar, is somewhat more complex than the standard stalk and kill of most revenge-based thrillers. Yukinoji’s plan to ruin his enemies financially and gradually drive them insane recalls The Count of Monte Cristo and he finds himself similarly tortured by the moral repercussions and the pity he feels for the innocent Namiji.
As played by the lovely and talented Ayako Wakao - who went on to great acclaim in her reoccurring roles for social satirist Yasuzo Masumura, including Manji (1965), Tattoo (1966) and Red Angel (1966) - Namiji is a feistier, more vivacious heroine than usually figures in this kind of story. Her encounters with Yukinoji have a spark of sensuality you just don’t get from Akira Kurosawa. Interestingly though, while Ichikawa pushes flamboyance right up to the edge of camp, the cross-dressing angle is not as crucial to the plot as it first appears. It’s entirely women who are drawn to the fey anti-hero, though various male characters recognise his indefinable magnetism.
A number of oddball characters bring their own complications to the plot, including samurai cinema icons Shintarô Katsu and Raizo Ishikawa, a comely lady thief named Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) who takes a shine to Yukinoji but threatens to expose him when he spurns her, and most notably Hasegawa again in another role. As macho, swaggering rogue Yamitaro he serves as his own Greek chorus, commenting on the action and ensuring Yukinoji retains his humanity.