An Actor’s Revenge (1963) by Kon Ichikawa

Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) is a female impersonator working at a travelling theatre company. During a performance in Edo she finds a small group in the audience who were responsible for her parents’ tragic deaths. These are Lord Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), Kawaguchiya (Saburo Date) and Hiromiya (Eijiro Yanagi). Yukinojo is set on a course of revenge against this trio, though simply killing them will not suffice; he wishes to see them suffer madness before facing their ultimate fate. A side-story involves a thief, Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) and her accomplices, who get caught up in Yukinojo’s quest for retribution.

“An Actor’s Revenge” sets out its stall in the opening moments as Yukinojo fixes his eyes on his victims. What appears at first to be a simple revenge story, soon turns into a careful exploration of what this quest for vengeance means for Yukinojo and the psychology of revenge. At first cold and sly, we see Yukinojo become genuinely upset as she realises that she is in part destroying herself through her actions. She is consumed by her desire to see them punished and with each life she takes she knows she will become less herself and more a killer. The idea of actors, roles, masks and false identities, plays well against this backdrop. It set up the twisted tale quite nicely with the notion that people may not be what they seem. The audience come to realise that it is not only Yukinojo who is disguising a secret, but almost every character has a hidden life they are concealing from the world. Sexual politics, surprisingly perhaps, does not play a major role in the story, although Yukinojo’s appearance or transformation is mentioned several times, often in a derogatory way. It is interesting to contrast his story with that of Ohatsu, as the two could be considered to have swapped genders in terms of more traditional roles. Ohatsu is very much a woman in a man’s world, taking on their values and outdoing them in callousness, while Yukinojo embodies feminine wiles and compassion for her victims. A stunning film to look at with exceptional performances, a thrillingly dark revenge story with a peculiar hero, and a fantastic score.

From the opening shots of a Kabuki performance, the film is beautifully shot, and continues this theatrical aesthetic with actors’ careful movements, vibrant colours, and excellent use of framing. This gives “An Actor’s Revenge” a stylish look and blurs the line to some extent between the life on stage and reality. The screenplay by Natto Wada, shows a flair for dialogue, with conversations driving the majority of the action. It captures a range of voices and knows exactly when to withhold certain information (such as the precise details of Yukinojo’s father’s death) for maximum impact later on. Yukinojo’s own story has all the elements of a great drama, a tragedy spurring our hero to revenge, feelings of guilt or procrastination over what he must do, and a cast of colourful characters, both comedic and sinister to enliven the story. Kazuo Hasegawa’s performance as Yukinojo is exceptional as he undergoes several transformations and seems in genuine moral distress over his course of action. Hasegawa also plays one of the thieves, Yamitaro, a duel role that is commented on by the characters for their likeness to one another. Fujiko Yamamoto gives a thrilling turn as the cool and calculating Ohatsu, a woman totally in charge of her less capable followers. The orchestral score by Tamekichi Mochizuki and Masao Yagi, with piano, strings and harp, is the perfect counterpart to the sumptuous cinematography. There are a number of leitmotifs used throughout for certain moments or characters, and the music is carefully weighted to lend impact where required.