Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ichikawa’s Kabuki Actor

Revenge of a Kabuki Actor
Directed by Kon Ichikawa

Many consider Kon Ichikawa second only to Akira Kurosawa among the great filmmakers of Japan, but frustratingly little of his filmography is available here in America. Following the Japan Society’s mini Ichikawa retrospective this summer, the film billed as his first venture into “samurai cinema” is now available on DVD. However, Revenge of a Kabuki Actor (trailer here) is worlds away from most costume swordplay movies.

In this case, the swordsman out for revenge is not just a kabuki actor, he is an onnagata, one of the actors who played female roles on-stage, who during the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate (prior to the Meiji Restoration) were obliged to maintain their assumed gender role even when off-stage. Yukinojo Nakamura might play delicate lotus blossoms on-stage, but beneath the kimonos, he is an accomplished swordsman of muscular build. Despite attaining wide acclaim, his abiding ambition is to avenge his late parents, who were destroyed by a clique of powerful office-holders and merchants.

Learning his enemies have assumed positions of influence in Edo society, Yukinojo accepts a theatrical engagement there with the intent of attracting their patronage. However, mere killing is too good for them. Yukinojo insists on an elaborate revenge that will inflict pain and humiliation, forcing them to suffer as his parents suffered. Attacking at their most vulnerable point, he seduces Namiji, the sentimental daughter of Sansai Dobe, the most powerful of the actor’s targets. As the Shogun’s concubine, Dobe’s position is entirely dependent on her. The resulting scenes between Yukinojo and Namiji could support an entire film and gender studies academic conference.

As Yukinojo, Kazuo Hasegawa chose to return to the role he first played in the 1935 film version of the same story to mark his three hundredth film appearance. In addition, he also plays Yamitaro, essentially the Robin Hood of Edo. While Yukinojo’s rarified exterior camouflages a cold and calculating heart, Yamitaro has a hearty laugh and a Texas-sized swagger. All he seems to be missing is a parrot and an eye-patch. However, at times the dialogue winks at Hasegawa’s dual role with “you look a little like . . .” references.

Indeed, Kabuki is at times very self-referential. Ostensibly addressing the spirit of his father, Yukinojo’s voice-overs come perilously close to breaching the fourth wall. However, when the characters step out into the night world ruled by thieves and ruffians, Setsuo Kobayashi’s arresting cinematography creates a stark netherworld that is part Twilight Zone, part Beckett. Heightening the late-night ambiance is the anachronistic jazz-influenced soundtrack composed by Yasushi Akutagawa, Tamekichi Mochizuki, and Masako Yagi.

Ichikawa and Natto Wada, his wife and frequent screenwriting collaborator, crafted a sly but totally satisfying revenge tale. Well rendered on disk by AniMeigo, its wide-screen allows viewers to fully appreciate Ichikawa’s visuals, and their program notes nicely serve as footnotes to the on-screen action, explaining historical references that might be lost on many western audiences. While watching Kabuki one is constantly struck by Ichikawa’s masterful touch and the elegant craftsmanship of his crew. It is a film that deserves its reputation as a classic.

Images ©1963 Kadokawa Pictures, Inc.