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From Kon Ichikawa, the maker of The Burmese Harp, Fires on the Plain and Tokyo Olympiad comes Revenge of a Kabuki Actor (Yukujino Henge), an entertaining and decidedly strange 1963 tale of murderous vengeance. Filmed in beautiful color and designed in such a way that "real" exteriors are almost as stylized as the tableaux on the Kabuki stage, Ichikawa's masterful film features several notable stars.
The drama and action cut across class lines in 1830s Japan. Yukinojo Nakamura (Kazuo Hasegawa) is an oyama, a Kabuki actor specializing in playing women. He has returned to Edo to revenge himself on the evil merchants who drove his parents to suicidal deaths when he was just a child. As is the custom, Yukinojo plays the female role offstage as well, which makes him a revenge-seeking, sword-fighting cross-dresser. The situation gets a few odd looks but it's nothing outrageous or new; since 1935 Yukujino Henge has been made into a movie or a TV play at least seven times. The famed actor talks in a stage falsetto but is a master at swordsmanship, thanks to a secret past as a student of the martial arts.
On the stage Yukinojo plays doomed princesses and compromised courtesans. He's apparently so appealing that two beautiful women fall madly in love with him. The clever Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) is a master pickpocket and burglar, and part of an informal group of thieves who compete for fame and popularity just as do stage actors. Her boss is Yamitaro the Thief (also Kazuo Hasegawa, in a double role). Ohatsu and another aspiring thief listen at doorways and hide on rooftops to observe Yukinojo's progress; they approve of his plan of vengeance.
The other love-struck female is Namiji (Ayako Wakao of Manji and Street of Shame), the daughter of one of the three wicked merchants. Namiji has been promised as a concubine for the Shogun, and the merchant's livelihood depends upon her obedience. Knowing that Yukinojo has captured his daughter's heart, the merchant invites the fancy actor to his home in hopes that direct social contact will break the spell. Even though Yukinojo looks and behaves like a middle-aged woman, Namiji swoons in rapture. The actor realizes that he can use the innocent Namiji to put his revenge plan into action. Yukinojo knows she will suffer, but feels he has no choice.
Revenge of a Kabuki Actor hits us immediately with a wild mix of visual and acting styles. The wide Kabuki stage proscenium creates an even more elongated frame within the 2:35 DaieiScope image. Some of the night exteriors are filmed on sets almost as stylized at those in the theater. The actors and merchants plot in formal sitting rooms, while flashbacks transport us to grisly suicide scenes from the past. A quick-cut montage shows starving peasants rioting for rice. A couple of impressive swordfights are included as well -- Ohatsu is excited to see a real sword battle, instead of one of those fakes from the Edo stage! Finally, when Yukinojo disguises himself to terrorize one of the evil merchants, director Ichikawa uses classic lighting tricks more suited to a Japanese ghost story.
Further expanding the film's range of action and drama, the carefree thieves form a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on Yukinojo's scheme. Yukinojo must contend with a bitter rival from his student days, a swordsman named Heima (Eiji Funakoshi). When Najimi is stricken with shock after a violent incident, a fugitive priest (Shintaro Katsu) must remind himself of his vow of chastity as he saves her from further harm. At this time Katsu was just finding fame as the beloved blind swordsman Zatoichi.
Ichikawa integrates all the divergent material into a satisfying whole -- Revenge of a Kabuki Actor finishes on a note of mystery and legend. I imagine that American viewers will watch the movie expecting Yukinojo to eventually drop his effeminate gestures, lower his voice several octaves and tell us how he really feels. Don't hold your breath, as it doesn't happen.
AnimEigo's DVD of Revenge of a Kabuki Actor is in fine shape, with an excellent enhanced transfer that shows off some great color designs. The film is stylized for color but never becomes fussy -- it doesn't overpower the story as in Kwaidan. AnimEigo's menus alert us to audio problems on an untouched mono track and provide a second track where they've minimized the hiss. I heard something a bit off during the title sequence but nothing more. The music score is very interesting, by the way, utilizing traditional string accompaniment for the Kabuki performances and light jazz for some of the action with the amusing thieves.
The attentive subtitling becomes intrusive only when specific translations sound too much like contemporary street jargon -- I assume it's that way for commercial considerations. Always welcome are the helpful program notes, which cover many details about the time period of the story, the nature of oyama performers and histories of all the major actors. A lot of thought goes into these well-researched AnimEigo extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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