An Actor's Revenge Review
The curtain rises on a stage where a single figure struggling against a paper blizzard or is it an actual blizzard? From this striking opening, An Actor's Revenge skates a fine line between artistry and parody, trading in theatrical cliché, filmic originality and melodrama along the way. The film is directed by Kon Ichikawa, the dark and detached aspiring animator behind such films as Tokyo Olympiad and Fires on the Plain, and written by his wife, Natto Wada (who also wrote most of Ichikawa's other movies). An Actor's Revenge tells the tale of Yukinojo, a Kabuki female impersonator (or onnagata), who enacts a long-awaited plan to avenge the psychological torture of his parents at the hands of a Lord and two rival merchants.
With an opening and a story like that one would be correct in assuming that An Actor's Revenge draws heavily from the theatrical arts. However, it would be wrong to think that it is just a filmed form of theatre. Kon Ichikawa's reputation as a directorial trouble-maker and innovator is on display here, from the spacial wizardry of the beginning through a multitude of genres. Switching from samurai film to ghost story, through comedy, romantic melodrama, and historical drama, all often occupying the same scene. Everything is meticulously planned to play with tropes and forms that many people would have taken for granted. The use of a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, cleverly reflects the shape of a kabuki theatre.
The side plot involving three thieves, not only acts as a way to poke fun at the bizarre goings-on and adding more humour thanks to their rivalries but also invoke theatrical choruses commenting on the proceedings. There is not only a narrative awareness to the proceedings but also a level of visual flair that is unprecedented even in Japanese Cinema, which I hold as perhaps one of the most painterly of national cinemas. Ichikawa uses colour, light and shadow in such a way that I would bet a substantial amount of money that if you paused the film at any point you could have your next computer wallpaper. The use of blocking, framing and focus all speak to a film that is just as visually engaging as it is narratively interesting.
What is remarkable is that Kon Ichikawa, screenwriter Natto Wada, and cinematographer Setsuo Kobayashi can keep all of these separate parts together in a coherent, entertaining and artistically rewarding film. However, what helps tremendously are the performances from the leads. Kazuo Hasegawa pulls double-duty as Yukinojo, and one of the chorus thieves, Yamitaro. It is hard to believe that these two are played by the same person, such are the performances here. Hasegawa is lost in both, one under a layer of theatrical make-up and slightly hammy delivery as the onnagata Yukinojo and the other detached and happy-go-lucky thief Yamitaro - both entertaining in their own way.
Backing him up are two of Daiei Studios finest female leads, Fumiko Yamamoto and Ayako Wakao. Yamamoto plays Ohatsu the rival thief to Yamitaro, while Wakao is Namiji, the daughter of one of the Lords infatuated with Yukinojo. Like Hasegawa, both are on opposite ends of the tonal line and both are captivating; Yamamoto especially as the strong-willed thief trying to break free from Yamitaro's shadow. Despite this though, all of the actors and performers - like the separate genres and stylistic choices - come together without any cracks or breaks in the narrative. There is never a wink or a nod to the audience about how ridiculous a sword school rivalry in the middle of a theatrical picture is. They allow the viewer to bask in its beauty, its originality and those slightly more bizarre moments.
The story behind An Actors Revenge is just as bizarre as the film itself. It begins in 1935 where a film called An Actors Revenge, based on a newspaper serial, is released starring a well-known matinee idol in the stable of Daiei Studios - Kazuo Hasegawa as the lead. 28 years and 300 roles of Hasegawa later and Daiei decide to remake the film with younger actors and they placed Kon Ichikawa at the helm. But, as I have hopefully explained, An Actors Revenge, is far from a tired remake celebrating a mainstay star and bringing up the new generation. The many extras go into more detail and the BFI have included a tonne, including:
A newly recorded commentary track from Tony Rayns: The consummate expert on Asian Cinema - who has introduced releases of Seijun Suzuki's Early Work, Three Films by Jia Jang-ke and many others - provides an insightful look at An Actor's Revenge, both as a film and as a piece of history, going further into the career of its lead and its director and the time that it was made.
100 Years of Japanese Cinema: This 52-minute documentary directed by Nagisa Ôshima, the Japanese director behind In the Realm of the Senses, gives a personal history of Japanese Cinema. Although somewhat dated (made in 1994), it is still a great introduction to the three periods in Japanese history which critics and academics agree produced the golden age of Japanese films. While this extra could have been included on any other BFI release of Japanese cinema (it does not refer specifically to An Actor's Revenge), it does provide the context in which the film operated and the origin, of how Japanese filmmakers saw themselves and the challenges they faced.
Images of Japan in Topical Budget Newsreels, 1927-1930 (Oriental Splendour, Japan. Pays Homage, Japan, To Rid Their Souls of Evil, In Old Japan): These short snippets of news footage from the rival to British Pathe show how Japan was viewed by the rest of the world and brought an incredibly unique culture to the average person in Britain. This extra perhaps provides more historical context that ties the film to its inter-war origins.
Fully Illustrated Booklet with new writing by James Bell, Espen Bale, Virginie Selavy and Vic Pratt: The booklet that the BFI include in all the releases is a fount of information that cinephiles will want to pour over. James Bell’s essay gives a fascinating look at the journey An Actor's Revenge went on, while Espen Bale gives us a closer look at Kon Ichikawa and Kazuo Hasegawa. All the work is easy to read and just as entertaining as the film and Tony Rayns’ commentary.
Alongside the extras, the BFI have done a tremendous job with the film using a 4K restoration to get their BD50 1080p 24ps picture which perfectly deepens shadow and makes all the vibrant colours of the costumes and sets pop tremendously. This high standard also spreads to the extras which are taken from a 2K restoration without digital or analogue errors of any kind. They also have PCM 2.0 mono audio 48Hz/24 bit for the Blu-ray, which also never seemed corrupted or damaged by the digitising or in its original form. Both the audio track and the video track for the DVD are a solid PAL, 25fps with a Dolby Digital mono audio (320kbps). The menus are well constructed with easily navigable options and clear subtitles.
An Actor's Revenge is a strange beast indeed, a Kabuki-inspired melodrama adapted from a film, adapted from a newspaper serial. Yet the stamp of true artistry is on this, thanks to the playful way Kon Ichikawa subverts expectations and tropes. Backed up by some stellar performances and visuals that you could hang on your wall. This disc accentuates the film's strengths thanks to a great quality image and an entire history book worth of extras. It is fair to say that one actor will certainly take their revenge if you don't pick this one up.