Wednesday, 27 March 2013


SOURCE: Wikipedia

* * * * * *

1963 - Japan (Daiei Studios)

DIRECTOR: Kon Ichikawa
SCRIPT: Natto Wada, Daisuke Itō
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Setsuo Kobayashi
MUSIC: Masao YakiTamekichi Mochizuki

     Like most proper gaijins, since I've seen a couple of Kurosawa films, went through manga and anime phase in my youth, and at least once in my lifetime bought a pack sushi from Tesco, I consider myself a bit of an expert on Japan. I mean, we've all seen Tom Cruise being the samuraiest of the samurai and we've made jokes about the size of Japanese men's... well, nevermind that, right? Okay, I'm kidding. I have done a bit more than that. I did try to learn Japanese for a little while and I did do some post-diploma Oriental studies. Which (combined) achieved only as much as making me painfully aware how ignorant in this field I had been before and how not much wiser I have become after. So, not an expert then. Still, I had just enough background to know where to go to start digging and believe me, dig you should, because the more you know, the more you will appreciate this unusual and strangely beautiful film. Or just read on. After all, I've done all the hard work already.

It's not a big secret, what AN ACTOR'S REVENGE primarily is about. It's about an actor. And his revenge. No points for guessing that much, Sherlock. But at least I don't need to worry about spoilers that much.
Let's start with a few words about the setting and the background. The action takes place in the year 1836, which places it firmly in the Edo Period, the era in the history of Japan we, the Westerners, know best as the classic times of the samurai. Or for those of us, who like to reference reality to the things we watch, we could place it right between the Shōgun and The Last Samurai. It is not a coincidence that so many Japanese period stories are placed within that time-span. Edo (or Tokugawa) period is a two centuries long era in Japanese history when the country was ruled by shogunate instead of the emperor and the boarders have been closed to Europeans and Amercians (the trade with the white devils had been reduced to minimum and unauthorised landing on Japanese shores was punishable by death). During that time Japan underwent some great political and social changes. The majority of the samurai lost their lands and became paid retainers of the daimyo, the powerful feudal lords. After periods of unrest and wars, the new balance of power brought Japan peace and stability and these, in turn, had impact on culture, education and of course art which, in result (there's much more to it, of course, but for those yearning details, the Wikipedia article is always a good place to start), brings us to the kabuki theatre. Since the early XVII century kabuki became an all-male theatre with men playing both male and female roles. The main character of AN ACTOR'S REVENGE is an onnagata (or oyama) - a male actor playing female roles. In the period portrayed in the film such artists were usually hugely popular and respected, both by the male and female audience and quite often they would also become an object of attraction for both men and women. It might seem a bit strange to start with, but then again, we only need to remember this character to realise that the gap between times and cultures is not always as wide as it would seem. Still, the transformation of Kazuo Hasegawa on the screen is nothing short of mind blowing. Since it was normal for the onnagata to remain 'in character' even outside the stage, we see Yukinojō in full make-up and female clothes all the time. Add to this the voice, mannerisms and movement, and even the female language (okay, that's for the specialists, but it is there) and you will find yourself constantly confused about the true gender of the character you look at. The quality of Hasegawa's acting is simply staggering and you start to appreciate it even more, when you realise that in this film he also plays another character (I'm not going to spoil the fun for you, but there's a little facial feature that gives the game away). Make no mistake, at first it all might look weird and culturally distant to us, Western savages, but this, by all means, is acting at the highest world level, encompassing both skill in the Japanese traditional form, and modern day acting (as of the 60s, of course). That duality is also prevalent in the whole of the film. On the surface, you could not possibly imagine anything more Japanese. Stark, theatrical sets and decorations, expressive, exaggerated acting, the story firmly set within the intricacies and cultural strangeness of historical Japan, all that gives AN ACTOR'S REVENGE its initial exotic, if not even slightly daunting, feel. Scratch the veneer though, and right underneath some European influences start to show. The soundtrack, for example, is far from traditional Japanese, unless during my subject studies someone forgot to mention jazz as one of the most important music genres of the XIX century Japan. The whole score, even when is not jazzy, simply sounds like it came out of a French or Italian film from that era. That alone would be enough to prove the European influence, but there is more. I think.

This whole big assumption might possibly be just a manifestation of my ignorance (which in this case, believe me, has got nothing to do with bliss, it's bloody damn frustrating), but I do get the feeling that the whole structure also bears a heavy stamp of European influence. While the founding idea is a) universal in its essence, and b) not unfamiliar to Japanese core repository of plots, to only bring up the famous story of the Forty-seven Ronin (a story Ichikawa also filmed in 1992), I still find it somehow leaning over, ever so slightly, onto the Western side. And speaking of the ronins, it would seem that Yukinojō plans his revenge in quite a similar fashion, taking up a new identity and slowly gaining the trust of people responsible for his family's tragedy. There's nothing strange or particular about the motifs then. But when it comes to the realisation, I can't help but feel (it's most likely Kurosawa's fault for me being biased here) that the Shakespearean ghost is very much lurking in the shadows. I'd go as far as to bring up antiquity even, although that might be indirect. After all,  our dear friend William was not entirely free of the Greek influence himself. The reviewer from the 1001 FILMS TO SEE BEFORE YOU DIE book compared the narrative of some of the characters to the speech bubbles in comics contributing them to Ichikawa's links with that visual art but the first thing that sprung to my mind was none other than Shakespearean drama and characters like Puck, who would both comment on and participate in the storyline. Am I reading too much into it? Maybe I was, if that was the only thing to hold onto but since we have some more indication about the European links, until proven wrong, I'm going to stand my ground here. If I'm right though, it would show Ichikawa's fantastic skill in marrying Japanese tradition and background with a perfect understanding of those coming from the West. It's an elusive art and I can't think of examples of any work that would successfully achieve a similar effect, but the other way round. No, Steven Seagal does not count. Oh, wait, I forgot Star Wars, silly me!*
Or maybe the similarities are, after all, much deeper and indeed, incidental? First, we need to remember that 1963 film is a remake (the original, a 1935 production also had Hasegawa in the leading role), which means that the story is not an original Ichikawa's creation. Also, contributing to the familiar feel of the story might be its setting. A lot of it is set within a kabuki theatre, which in Japan played similar role as the Shakespearean theatre in Europe, being a place where (for the first time in Japan's history) different social classes were present at the same shows. This potentially could evoke a sense of familiarity to some extent, with a comparable social and artistic profile, even if the societies in question represented such distant two cultures. Whichever way you have it, there's a benefit in it for us, gaijins - even if the setting is exotic, the story is definitely universal enough. The combination in any way seems to be just right.

And it's not much different when it comes to the visual side of the affair. Again, on the face of it, it is all so very Japanese. First of all, the film is so theatrical, that you'd be justified to question the very sense of still calling it a film. It's almost as it could be a kabuki play itself, just filmed to be accessible through cinema. Theatricality of it goes so far, that not only the weapons remain shiny despite their proper use, but even the sets feel so artificial, that many scenes are on the verge of being just make believe. That is the first impression. But then comes that time again, when questions start to rear their doubting heads. Is it just because of Ichikawa's background in animation, which would inevitably make him susceptible to the whole lore of manga, including its specific, graphic language, or is it in fact, an artist's tribute to expressionism? A coincidence or a method? I guess, the answers to those questions are actually well known and I'm trying to pry a door that's not just unlocked but actually wide open, but hey, I'm not an expert, I just watch stuff and try to make my own sense of it all. It results in a very focused, minimalist, almost symbolic style which helps (or leaves us with no other option, to be honest) the viewer to concentrate on the essence of the scene, without any distractions, trimming off everything that's superfluous, unnecessary. Zen and kabuki in one basket? Who knows, after all contrast and paradoxes are a part of Japanese heritage. Whether it's marrying home-grown and foreign religions or being one of the most traditional and at the same time most modern societies in the world, the Japanese are used to that. It's actually a part of being Japanese, in fact. 

So after all that deliberation I arrive at the conclusion that I'm still just as ignorant as I ever was. There might be a tribute to the European traditions hidden in the AN ACTOR'S REVENGE, there might be not. The similarities could as well be deliberate as coincidental. Everything is still as open for interpretation as it was before I even started analysing. But then again, is that a bad thing? Ichikawa seems to leave that door open but at the same time he does it without sacrificing any of the integrity of the story. On one hand we have a game of deceit, layers of fake personalities and theatrical mystification fighting for supremacy with the real life, which ultimately makes Yukinojō question his quest for revenge in the face of the sacrifices he has to make on the way, pushes him to the verge of madness. And on the other we have a story that in its essence is quite simple, it can be described in just a few sentences. Ah, yet again, the perfect marriage of two opposites, the paradox harnessed. It takes an incredibly skilled, broad-minded artist to be able to navigate such treacherous seas and come out of it victorious. And for that I award Ichikawa-san five stars and a fond place in my heart. He won't feel alone there, Kuroswa-san has been living there for quite a while already.

* I know I'm running into a risk of preaching to the converted, but just for the sake of making a point... First, have a look here. Skip forward to 1:01 and try to answer without hesitation: Lucas or Kurosawa? And how about this guy? Or should we maybe have a look here and here as well?

Get it on AMAZON

Previously on 1001 FILMS TO SEE AND NOT DIE: Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos), Alejandro Amenabar, 1997
Next on the list: The Actress (Yuen Ling-Yuk) - Stanley Kwan, 1992
And after that: Adam's Rib - George Cukor, 1949

No comments:

Post a Comment