Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Roman Polanski’s Venus In Fur, based on a play about a playwright, has us thinking back on other films about the theater.
Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor (1963)
The first scene of Kon Ichikawa’s Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor (sometimes referred to as An Actor’s Revenge, but that isn’t quite as satisfying) suggests that this will be a film about life in the theater. But as in many stories that concern themselves with the stage, it quickly becomes apparent that the real subject is life as a theater. Preceding Masahiro Shinoda’s similarly meta Double Suicide by six years, Ichikawa’s 1963 film explodes the deceptively staid conventions of kabuki drama into something lurid, bloody, and perverse.
It’s an amazing testament to Ichikawa’s career that Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor isn’t necessarily among his most famous work. One of the masters of Japanese cinema (if not quite one of its gods), Ichikawa is rightly remembered for films like The Burmese Harp and Tokyo Olympiad, his functional yet fluidly expressive style allowing him to tackle a number of genres without ever really claiming any one of them for his own. Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor might be his most transparently stylized movie, but Ichikawa entrusts the movie’s soul to lead actor Kazuo Hasegawa, who was reprising the role he made famous in a 1935 version of the film.
Celebrating his 300th film role, the legendary Hasegawa plays Yukinojo, a celebrated onnagata (a male actor who plays female roles in kabuki performances) whose entire life has been an operatically contrived plot to exact revenge on the three men who killed his parents when he was a child. Like many onnagata in the 17th century, Yukinojo is lusted after by male and female patrons alike, and he continues to affect the dress and mannerisms of a woman even in his private life.
In some respects, the sexual dynamics of the time were more sophisticated than they are in today’s mainstream culture, and Ichikawa’s film—which begins with Yukinojo finally performing for his powerful targets after 20 years of earning the opportunity—immediately subverts contemporary gender roles in order to explore the performative element of identity, and the duality that exists within actors and civilians alike. To hammer that point home, Hasegawa plays a second part in the film, appearing as the kind-hearted and conventionally male thief who serves as the story’s narrator.
The increasingly deranged story seems to tumble deeper and deeper into Yukinojo’s bleeding psyche as it goes on, Ichikawa using vivid Eastmancolor and amazing sets (all of the night-time exteriors were shot in a black box theater) to enhance the artifice and blur the actor’s life into a theatrical production of its own. But for all of its psychosexual intrigue, Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor makes good on the promise of its pulpy English title. This isn’t the kind of film that presents its hero with a fan containing a deadly razor blade and then doesn’t provide him the opportunity to use it.
Availability: Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix.