Kon Ichikawa’s career has experienced a similar fate to those Hollywood directors deemed too eclectic or difficult to wear the label of ‘auteur’. Unlike earlier masters Ozu and Mizoguchi and peers Kurosawa and Imamura, Ichikawa’s cinema has enjoyed only sporadic critical and commercial success outside Japan. An Actor’s Revenge (Yukinojo Henge) remains the director’s best known film, considered by many a classic of world cinema. Its appearance in the BFI’s list of 360 classic films, with an accompanying monograph, is official recognition of its deserved place in one of the most esteemed canons. And deservedly so. A magical blend of filmed theatre and expressionist cinema, accompanied by a bizarre blend of musical styles ranging from classical Japanese through to sixties lounge jazz, Ichikawa’s film is both dazzling and unashamedly entertaining.
A remake of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1935 film, it tells of the revenge sought by a Kabuki actor against the men who killed his parents. Whilst travelling with his theatre troupe, leading female impersonator Yukinojo tracks down the three successful businessmen who drove his parents to madness and suicide through their ruthless pursuit of wealth. Unwilling to despatch them before they recognise the error of their ways, Yukinojo constructs a byzantine plan in which each man plays a part in the others’ undoing. Only at the moment of their death does Yukinojo reveal who is responsible for their downfall.
Ichikawa’s brilliance lies in refusing to update what originally began as a newspaper serial in the early thirties. Instead he relies on the film’s dated elements to create a nostalgic, occasionally kitsch, period piece, enthused with the commotion of high drama and the playfulness of a knockabout comedy. As Tony Rayns has rightly commented, the film is overflowing with tricks and devices that were the mainstay of silent cinema – only this time they were accompanied by the explosive use of colour. Shot entirely in the Daiei Company’s studio, enabling Ichikawa to control every aspect of the film’s look, the film is also populated by moments of exquisite beauty.
Ichikawa’s approach to narrative is no less impressive. He segues past and present seamlessly, using the temporal shifts to change the film’s tone, often quite dramatically. Yukinojo’s past, from the expressionistic recollection of his parent’s demise, through to the training he underwent to ensure that when he did meet his enemies he would have the skills to carry out his vengeful desires, are inserted into the trajectory of the main section of the film, in the town where the enemies live, with almost effortless ease.
Equally important to the success of the film is Kazuo Hasegawa, who plays Yukinojo and Yamitaro the Thief. His youthful performance belies his 55 years and 300 roles, which included the original film, shot when he was 27. It is perhaps because of his age that Hasegawa is so at ease with Ichikawa’s references to older styles of filmmaking.
The recent release of Takeshi Kitano’s impressive Dolls shows what can be achieved by mixing stylised theatre with cinema. Hopefully, it may also lead those who have not seen An Actor’s Revenge to seek it out. For their part, the BFI have excelled in making the film available to contemporary audiences. The DVD extras are the usual BFI biographies of director and star, offering a little more to Tony Rayns’ excellent sleeve notes.