Some artists, you know it's them from the first bar, the first sentence, the first shot. Nobody else sounds like Eminem or Björk; nobody else reads like Hemingway or Pynchon; nobody assembles a scene like Kubrick. And then there are artists who aren't as immediately distinctive, but they're large and they contain multitudes. What Kon Ichikawa didn't have in absolute idiosyncracy, he more than made up for in versatility and ingenuity. After the straight-up-and-down-the-middle excellence of his adaptation of Kokoro, An Actor's Revenge (directed seven years later) feels like something from his more flamboyant cousin — all heightened theatricality and fourth-wall deconstruction, all centered around a character who made his whole life into a performance of the same stripe.
The man with the woman's face
As in Shakespeare's time, there were no female actors on the stage in 1830s Japan. For a female role, you turned to an onnagata, a female impersonator. His soft features, mincing steps, and mannered voice wouldn't necessarily fool you into thinking there was in fact a woman in front of you. But as with so many other things in a stage play, you were invited to use your imagination to close the gap — and he would keep things up on his end by staying in (female) character offstage as well as on.
The onnagata in An Actor's Revenge is Yukinojō (Kazuo Hasegawa, in his three hundredth film role). Success on the stage has only made him all the more bitterly conscious of the suffering he endured as a young man. His mother and father were driven to their deaths by a trio of corrupt men, all wealthy and powerful Edoites. And now that Yukinojō's troupe has returned to that city, he vows to destroy them in return.
From the stage, amidst fake snowfall, Yukinojō looks out in the direction of the audience and sees two of the men he seeks there: Sansai Dobe, the retired magistrate; Kawaguchiya, the merchant. And Namiji, Sansai Dobe's lovely daughter. But when Yukinojō looks, he sees at first only more snow — as if the theatrical creation he inhabits has become his world, and in turn ours as well. And when he does see the faces of those he longs to revenge himself against, they appear instead as closeups in an oval overlay, the sort of old-school movie technique that now feels timeless instead of dated.
I want to single out the staging of this opening scene, since it embodies so much of what the movie as a whole wants to do and why. I'll start with the why. Most of the time, when a movie plays with artifice like this, it's a hint that it has nothing else on its mind. Here, it's because the movie is about those things — the way Yukinojō uses his various guises to destroy his enemies, and the way hiding behind a multiplicity of masks will take a toll on him as a human being. Form follows function.
Tangled webs weaved
Yukinojō's plan is simple enough. Insinuate himself into the circles of his enemies, undermine them, and destroy them — or, if possible, give them enough rope to hang themselves with. Sansai Dobe and Kawaguchiya are in cahoots; if Yukinojō worms his way into the company of one, he has the other by default. They admire Yukinojō's talent; they even extend invitations to him first. And there's another in by way of Namiji: Kawaguchiya wants to be her go-between to set her up with Yukinojō , the better to curry favor with the powerful for himself — something Sansai Dobe is highly unthrilled about. And Kawaguchiya is prepared to support Yukinojō for life if this deal goes through: "An actor's popularity isn't guaranteed forever," he says, something that seems to apply doubly so for a female impersonator. And then there's the merchant Hiromiya, third in the triumvirate of evil, easily manipulated by gossip and lies that Yukinojō can claim to be just innocently reporting back from within the castle walls.
Right there lies any amount of dry tinder Yukinojō can throw a match at. But complications abound. One is Heima, Yukinojō's disgraced rival in fencing school, disgusted that a "vulgar actor" would rise so high in the world while he sunk so low. When he draws a sword on Yukinojō, in steps a notorious thief, Yamitaro (Hasegawa again, unrecognizable in a dual role), who takes a shine to the actor — and who ends up learning of the secret dalliances between Yukinojō and Namiji when he attempts to rob her house. That comes on top of another thief, a woman named Ohatsu, encountering Yukinojō and swearing to rob him of what's most valuable to him rather than lose to "that pasty-faced, botched attempt at a woman!"
And then there is Namiji herself. Sansai Dobe is convinced her pining for Yukinojō is a passing phase, meaning he's only too happy to let Yukinojō into her company. Yukinojō is conscious of how he's purposefully leading Namiji on, but also conscious of how someone of her relative innocence and purity doesn't deserve to get swept up in all this. Does his revenge need to come at the cost of destroying her, too? Maybe by prolonging the suffering of his prey, he can also find a way to spare Namiji from the worst of it. Or maybe that's just what he tells himself, because deep down he knows the real tragedy here is in how any true self he could lay claim to has to be sacrificed to the god of his vengeance. Along with a few innocents for good measure.
Behind the mask(s)
It's normally something of a slur to call a movie "stagy" or a "filmed play", but praise to say that a movie draws on the techniques of the theater to become all the more cinematic. Many of my favorite Japanese entertainments draw on such things: the movies of Seijun Suzuki and Shūji Terayama; many anime (the adaptation of In The Forest, Under Cherries In Full Bloom, or the works of Kunihiko Ikuhara); the self-conscious fourth-wall breaking in novels like Taijun Takeda's Luminous Moss.
Ichikawa is in good company when he does the same thing here, but again, it's not simply out of a stylistic affectation. It's an attempt to express Yukinojō's world by way of the makeup of his psychic inner life — a world of lifelong grudges and deceptions, of masks worn over masks. Where other period films would use color and widescreen photography to open things up, Ichikawa intentionally dials it down. Sometimes the actors are nothing more than patches of color on one side of the screen, surrounded by an all-consuming sea of black. At many moments, when Yukinojō's thoughts come to the fore, all the lights die down, save for those on him. Everything not only looks like a set, it looks like a stage set. The substance is nothing; the façade is all. (According to an essay by Ichikawa included with the film, the director originally resisted using Cinemascope, but eventually became sold on the possibilities it opened up.)
The same could be said of Yukinojō himself, and I think that is the idea. He knows full well how everything in his life has been based on projecting a certain image, from the craft he practices to the deception he's engineering. The fact that few mistake him for "the real thing" is part of what gives his performance its power; it lets him deceive those who don't look very closely, and it lets those who do look closely get far more than they might expect. He's at the other end of the spectrum from, say, Eddie of Funeral Procession Of Roses, whose gender-bending public image was designed to reveal and flout far more than it hid away (at least, that's how it seems at first). It makes sense, then, that the last we hear of Yukinojō is an existential gesture along the lines of the conclusion of La Femme Nikita. Once the last mask is removed, there's nothing left. At least, nothing we in the audience are lucky enough to know about.
A previous DVD edition of the movie, marketed under one of its alternate titles Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor, came to us by way of AnimEigo. Like all the other live-action productions on that label, it came with copious cultural footnotes that help both casual and dedicated viewers make the most of watching. Criterion doesn't have the same level of period scholarship in their edition, but they compensate for it by way of a far better mastering job, notes about the film generally by Tony Rayns and Michael Sragow, and a host of other welcome additions.