Yukinojo henge (An Actor’s Revenge, Japan 1963)

An example of the use of widescreen space in An Actor's Revenge

An example of the use of widescreen space in An Actor's Revenge

Ichikawa Kon (1915-2008)
The prolific veteran director Ichikawa Kon was of the same generation as Kurosawa Akira, born just five years later and making his debut in 1946. His last directing credit was in 2008 – his 89th according to IMDB. Trained as an animator and with admiration for Disney, Ichikawa’s obvious skills in composing images come to the fore in An Actor’s Revenge.

Ichikawa’s work has occasionally been seen in the West, but he has suffered from the curse of the auteurist critics in the sense that the subject matter and approaches in his films have been so varied. His most successful films outside Japan include The Burmese Harp (1956) about a group of Japanese soldiers led by a music teacher at the end of the Second World War. This fitted the conception of a humanist art film for the international market in the 1950s but a 1985 remake by Ichikawa did not receive distribution outside Japan. Tokyo Olympiad (1965) is a three-hour meditative documentary on the first international event in Tokyo since the destruction of 1945. Given massive resources in the hope that he would make a propagandistic film, Ichikawa produced a documentary masterpiece that ranks with Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the 1936 games as a work of high cinematic art.

An Actor’s Revenge is the third of Ichikawa’s films to be widely seen outside Japan (although it did not reach America until 1971). It is now one of the films in the bfi’s ‘360’ collection with a monograph by Ian Breakwell (bfi 1995). Very different from the other two films mentioned here, there are nevertheless connections in terms of style and approach. Ichikawa doesn’t have the single-minded vision of a Kurosawa or a Mizoguchi, but he does have a basic humanism and a superlative eye for visual composition as well as a dry sense of humour. These served him well on a wide range of films including adaptations of works by most of Japan’s leading writers. On many of his films, he was able to draw on the work of his wife Natto Wada as scriptwriter.

An Actor’s Revenge
The film is a remake of a 1936 box-office hit by director Kinugasa Teinosuke. In one sense the offer of the job to Ichikawa was a sign that the studio had little interest in his work or at least wanted a ‘safer’ commercial product than the perfectionist works he had been producing. This was a period when younger ‘New Wave’ filmmakers were making the headlines and the prospect of a standard remake was not exciting. The pretext of the production was that the actor Hasegawa Kazuo would be making his 300th appearance, repeating his twin roles from 1936 – but now he would be 55 years old.

The original story concerns a kabuki theatrical troupe from Osaka who arrive in Edo (Tokyo) in 1836 and put on shows featuring a star performer, Yukinojo, who plays onnagata roles – a man playing as a woman. The onnagata follows the prevailing convention and stays in the female role offstage, pursuing three former Nagasaki men who he believes were responsible for the death of his parents. Whilst the onnagata persona masks his swordplay skills, Yokinojo is still able to seduce Namiji, the daughter of Lord Dobe, the most powerful of his three targets. Hasegawa also plays Yamitaro, a handsome and virile thief who observes the onnagata’s activities with amusement. Ohatsu is a beautiful and ‘feisty’ thief who finds herself caught between Yukinojo and Yamitaro.

In bare outline, the plot details suggest nothing more than the banal shimpa melodrama that the studio presumably saw as a safe option. However, Wada Natto decided the original script (by the celebrated 1920s director Itô Daisuke) was ‘so bad it was good’ and decided to keep it. The transformation would come from Ichikawa’s realisation.

An Actor’s Revenge is riveting cinema because of Ichikawa’s use of widescreen, colour and music. The daring aesthetic decisions mean that the material is re-introduced to us in such a way to revitalise the possible readings about gender difference and dialogue between ideas of ‘high culture’ and popular art. This is what makes the film an outstanding example of avant-garde cinema – a film that remains resolutely ‘modernist’ in its approach to cinema, but which does not seem dated in 2008. Added to this, the DVD transfer achieved by the bfi is absolutely stunning in its representation of Ichikawa’s colour palette.

Widescreen was taken up by a number of auteur directors in Japan as well as in commercial genre production of samurai films etc. Few directors used the new screen shape with as much care and attention as Ichikawa Kon. The aspect ratio adopted for CinemaScope after 1953 eventually settled down as 2.35:1. This remained the norm for much of Hollywood and international cinema up to the late 1960s when adaptable Panavision lenses and the pressures of television forced Hollywood to revert to a less dramatic 1.85:1 ratio, commonly known as ‘modern widescreen’.

CinemaScope was the widest screenshape in general use and Ichikawa treats it like a drawing board. Working from his background in painting and animation, he was quite willing to isolate characters in one part of the screen, leaving other parts ‘empty’ (i.e. nothing happening in other parts of a room) or simply ‘masking out’ the rest of the screen and leaving it black. In this respect, the film resembles some of François Truffaut’s ‘Scope work in the same period during the French New Wave. In films such as Shoot the Pianist and Jules et Jim, Truffaut uses silent cinema techniques to ‘iris in’ and ‘mask out’ parts of the frame. In the image below, Ichikawa uses the screen shape to offer Yukinojo’s view from the stage out into the audience in the gallery, where he sees his enemies. Although this would be possible as a single shot (even if deep focus would be very difficult), Ichikawa borrows from animation and gives us the equivalent of a visual ‘thought bubble’. We hear his thoughts on the soundtrack and see the villains in the bubble onscreen.

‘Scope is also used to mimic the kabuki stage:

The visual and aural style of An Actor’s Revenge, which strikes some people as artificial and baffling, is merely unusual because Ichikawa, unlike so many directors, sees film as an audiovisual medium, thus enabling him to treat a theatrical theme pictorially with a minimum of dialogue. He exploits the similarity of form between the kabuki stage and the CinemaScope screen with a painter’s eye, masking off areas of the screen and isolating images in the way that the kabuki curtain is used to mask off sections of the stage and hide entrances and exits. The main kabuki stage curtain is always drawn across, never lowered or raised, equivalent to a cinematic wipe or reveal. On rare occasions a drop curtain, revealing an unexpected new scene, is employed, with an effect similar to a jump-cut. Ichikawa parallels both effects, making cunning use of the sliding windows and doors of traditional Japanese houses to begin and end scenes. (Ian Breakwell 1995)

Colour and composition
The colours are vivid, made more so by the lighting and the sharp contrast afforded by the pools of black. Linda Ehrlich relates Ichikawa’s approach, utilising his background in animation, to the school of ‘creative printing’ or sosaku hanga. This movement, dating from the period immediately following the First World War, was an attempt to revitalise woodblock printing following the general demise of ukiyo-e, the popular form of printmaking in the 19th century. Sosaku hanga differed from the earlier form of printing in the way it promoted the skill of the artist as against the commercial value of the image. These artists were both looking ‘outwards’ for new, ‘modern’, techniques and inwards in order to explore traditional forms. They were ‘playful’ in the way in which they managed this contradiction.

It isn’t difficult to see the connection between sosaku hanga and An Actor’s Revenge. Ehrlich refers to the ‘uncluttered line’ of woodblock prints and we could add the bold colours. She also coins the paradoxical terms ‘stylised realism’ and ‘naturalistic spectacle’ to describe the distinctive power of both the 19th century kabuki theatre and An Actor’s Revenge.

Finally, notice that the ‘playfulness’ of Ichikawa extends to the film’s music, which features a mix of traditional Japanese music (such as the playing of the shamsen, the stringed instrument used by a geisha to accompany her singing), conventional 20th century orchestral music and what one critic has described as ‘lounge jazz’ – anachronistic music signalling the 1960s.

Ian Breakwell (1995) An Actor’s Revenge, London: bfi
Linda C. Ehrlich (1994) ‘Playing with Form: Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge and the “Creative Print”’ in Ehrlich and Desser Eds, Cinematic Landscapes, Austin: University of Texas Press

(Notes from a 2004 course, updated.)

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