An Actor’s Revenge

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In 1963 Ichikawa Kon was assigned to remake the 1936 “Yukinojô henge” as punishment (because his recent films had not made money). The very flamboyant result has been variously titled in English “An Actor’s Revenge,” “Revenge of a Kabuki Actor,” “The Revenge of Ukeno-Jo,” “The Revenge of Yukinojo.” The original title means “Yukinojô Transformed” (or “The Transformation of Yukinojô”). Yukinojô is a very popular oyama (male who not only performs female roles but lives the female role offstage as well). Everyone (in a Japanese audience) knows that the Kabuki female roles are played by biological males. I wonder if Yukinojô would be rendered in English now as an “actor” or an “actress” (with gender trumping sex these days in English).

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The oyama herein turns out to be a skilled swordfighter (swordsman). Moreover, Hasegawa Kazuo not only plays Yukinojô, but also plays Yamitaro the Thief, the male observer and to some extent abettor of the revenge against three rich and corrupt natives of Nagasaki who drove Yukinojô’s parents to suicide, so I can accept “actor” and realize that the literal translation, “Yukinojô Transformed,” would not have particular appeal to audiences.

Not only the opening kabuki performance in which Yukinojô sees the fatuous merchants in a box watching the performance, but the whole movie, not least the fight scenes, are very stylized (studio-shot for starters), brilliantly filmed by Kobayashi Setsuo (who had shot “Fires on the Plain”, “Ten Dark Women,” and “Being Two Isn’t Easy” for Ichikawa, and would shoot “Princess from the Moon” much later, in 1987). There are scenes with large blocks of a single color (red, gold, blue) recalling Ichikawa’s background in graphic design.

Since (some? most?) Japanese accept the artificiality of fairly hulking males impersonating simpering, demure females in kabuki, it’s difficult for me to guess whether the movie seems as campy to Japanese as it does to me. (It seems campier to me now that when I first saw it decades ago at the Pacific Film Archives and knew less than I do now about Japanese culture in general, and gender-crossing roles in particular. I’m not even sure that I recognized that the movie was set in the waning decades of the Tokugawa Shogunate. And it remains difficult for me to distinguish what is parodying kabuki and what is stylized within kabuki theater.)

The merchants first seen in the box, Sansai (Nakamura Ganjiro) and Kawaguchi (Funakoshi Eiji) are accompanied by Sansai’s daughter, the shogun’s favorite concubine, Namiji (Wakao Ayako), who is staying with her father convalescing from something or another. Because she is what her father loves most in the world, Yukinojô realizes from the start that she is going to be collateral damage, not deserving the psychological torture he intends to inflict on her father and his co-conspirators—the third of whom is Hiromi (Yanagi Eijiriô).

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I find it difficult to credit that a beautiful and privileged young woman would fall in love with a female impersonator (actors being of very low social status) decades her senior, but she is not the only one. The rather cocky and also quite attractive female pickpocket (Yamamoto Fujiko) also does. (She proclaims herself a man-hater, but eventually feels attraction to Yamitaro the Thief (feeling some resemblance of Tamitaro and Yukinojô, whom the audience realizes is played by the same actor). The movie should appeal to those interested in gender-bending and/or Japanese stylizations. The visual flamboyance is supplemented by a very eclectic soundtrack that combines jazz, folk music, and ambient sounds (as in Takemitsu’s sound-engineering.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

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