It's a bit of an odd choice for Criterion, exemplifying an older type of Japanese movie that both Japanese exporters and American importers imagined western world audiences expected from Japan. After Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) unexpectedly won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and became a sensation on the worldwide art house circuit, Daiei Studios in particular regularly produced movies with one eye on the foreign market. Hasegawa had starred in Gate of Hell (1953), one of their biggest international hits, and An Actor's Revenge certainly falls into that category as well.
For domestic audiences, Daiei marketed An Actor's Revenge as an event. During this time, all the Japanese studios released their biggest movies around various holidays (this was a New Year's release), often tying them in as well to company anniversaries and whatnot, as Toho did the previous year with their biggest productions promoted as "30th Anniversary" titles. Ichikawa's film was heavily sold (even in the opening titles) as Kazuo Hasegawa's 300th movie, a slight exaggeration as it was "only" his 289th, at least according to the Japanese Movie Database. He starred in only one other theatrical feature after An Actor's Revenge, then worked in television and on the stage until shortly before his death in 1984.
Hasegawa had been a star of silent and pre-war talking pictures - Japan expert Donald Richie likens him to Charles Boyer - who remained popular if considerably less so after with the rise of postwar stars like Toshiro Mifune and Yujiro Ishihara. By this point his fan base overwhelmingly consisted of middle-aged and older women. This helps explain the peculiar tone of An Actor's Revenge, which casts Hasegawa as an onnagata, a kabuki actor specializing, exclusively so, in women's roles. As the film is set in the 1830s, per that tradition he assumes the role of a woman offstage as well.
He was 55 and though considered handsome and even youthful by the standards of the time, seen today Hasegawa, who in the film also plays a chivalrous thief, looks more like a ruddy-faced gangster. (His face was slashed by yakuza in the late 1930s when he dared to change studios, adding to the effect.) In the movie even the heterosexual men admire this onnagata's great beauty, no matter that, to western eyes, a western world parallel would be a movie featuring Edward G. Robinson in drag.
Hasegawa himself was not a kabuki actor, though a couple of the supporting actors are. Though he helped establish one of Japan's leading theatrical companies (with the actress Isuzu Yamada), it was not directly associated with kabuki, though Hasegawa certainly would have seen that dramatic form and probably associated with various kabuki players.
The story concerns the Chushingura-like, decades-long revenge plot of Yukitaro (Hasegawa), a celebrated onnagata named Yukinojo, against the three men who drove his father and mother to commit suicide when he was just a boy. The three now wealthy men - Sansai (Ganjuro Nakamura, of Ozu's Floating Weeds), Kawaguchiya (Saburo Date), and Hiromiya (Eijiro Yanagi) - live guarded lives in Edo, refusing admission to their homes to anyone from outside of Edo. Yujinojo, despite being from Osaka, has become too much the glamorous celebrity to ignore, however, and each craves an audience with the actor. (Despite his 24-7 feminine appearance, he's always addressed with male pronouns.)
Wanting to sell it as a major event, and given Hasegawa's declining appeal at the box office, Daiei practically turned An Actor's Revenge into an all-star film. Largely lost on western world audiences, these extended cameos sometimes digress from the main story. Fujiko Yamamoto, soon to be blackballed by the studio, appears as gutsy female thief Ohatsu; Ayako Wakao plays Namiji, the young woman Yukinojo intends to use as a pawn in his revenge plot. Eiji Funakoshi and Raizo Ichikawa appear, as does Shintaro Katsu, who as an escaped convict, seems to be channeling Toshiro Mifune's Sanjuro character, as in that film even tying up and sticking someone in a futon closet.
In the Blu-ray's booklet essay, Michael Sragow writes with great enthusiasm about the film's "psychedelic" use of color, Ichikawa's use of widescreen, etc., but the undeniably visually striking look of the picture was not particularly unusual even in 1963, and much of it would become commonplace, almost clichéd, even in ordinary genre pictures within a few years. That's not a complaint so much as a hallmark of Japan's high standards of cinematography, which in the early days of ‘scope especially made better use of wide screen and color than the vast majority of American productions of the same era, even in fast-and-cheap Japanese B-movies.
What is unusual about the film, and difficult to discern and distill, even for a more experienced Japanese film scholars like this writer, is how Ichikawa seems to be gently spoofing 1930s melodramas and chanbara. Much of the film, such as the Ohatsu character's boasting about her skills as a thief, appear to be spoofing a pre-war style of Japanese cinema that was broader and more ridiculous, but also with a kind of affection similar to nostalgic movies like The Crimson Pirate (1952) and Judex (1963). Nevertheless, there undoubtedly are lines and references that may have been real howlers in Japan but are lost on American viewers.
The movie is also difficult to place in terms of other Japanese films because its director, Kon Ichikawa, was a resolutely commercial filmmaker who followed the commercial winds so successfully he was virtually the last man of his generation still standing behind the camera thirty-plus years after nearly all of his contemporaries were forced into retirement. He made documentaries, adapted manga, churned out Agatha Christie-type horror-mysteries when that genre was popular, determined to keep on "crank-in" (the Japanese term for the start of a new film) with a cigarette perennially balanced on his lower lip. He clearly threw all his creative energies into every film he made, no matter that some of them are quite bad, and his vivid imagination is stamped throughout An Actor's Revenge, a strangely beguiling work both offbeat and commercial at once.
Video & Audio
Presented in its original Daieiscope, Criterion's Blu-ray of An Actor's Revenge utilizes a 4k scan of the 35mm original camera negative. The color, like a lot of early ‘60s Japanese movies, isn't quite as vibrant as such films would become by the end of the decade, but the transfer is generally excellent, comparable to Criterion's early Zatoichi Blu-rays. The mono audio is fine and the English translation is very good, despite the odd decision to list the opening credits long before they actually appear onscreen. (And what's with the wispy font on the Blu-ray cover art and menu screens?) Region "A" encoded.
Supplements include an hour-long interview with Ichikawa, conducted by film critic Yuki Mori in 1999; a new interview with critic Tony Rayns; and the aforementioned booklet essay, which also features a short piece by Ichikawa written in 1955 about the emerging wide screen formats.
Interesting less for its artistic importance, well made though it is, than as an offbeat last hurrah for one of Japan's biggest pre-war stars in a vehicle tailor-made for his adoring, mostly female fans, An Actor's Revenge is Highly Recommended.