An Actor’s Revenge (1963)

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“This woman’s suspicious.”

“That’s not a woman.”

It takes a great performer to pull off a movie like An Actor’s Revenge. Kazuo Hasegawa seems as capable as any, with the film marking his 300th completed movie amidst after a career of acclaim. Hasegawa also played the same leading role 30 years prior. The part, of course, is Yukinojo: an actor-samurai out for bloody revenge. In this part, Hasegawa displays powerful showmanship, deep sensitivity, and a satisfying zeal for blood that drives a beautifully crafted film.

We open on an intense scene of kabuki theatre. Yukinojo graces the stage playing a leading female role. Like many great actors of his day, Yukinojo projects femininity on and off the stage. Through his wardrobe and mannerisms, Yukinojo creates the constant illusion of a timid woman. But behind closed doors, Yukinojo is plotting the death of three corrupt noblemen responsible for the death of his parents. Stopping at nothing to exact his vengeance, Yukinojo wins the heart of the beautiful young Namiji (Ayako Wakao) to get closer to his targets and claim his revenge.

The film examines gender roles as if it were a work of Shakespeare. Characters drift in and out of their chosen gendered disguise both literally and figuratively. Yukinojo wears the veil of a sensitive female to disarm his enemies, harnessing his masculinity to deliver the killing blow. Other characters revel in gender fluidity, such as the master thief Ohatsu whom other characters view as maculine for her deception and swordsmanship. Some characters, such as the ingenue Namiji or the stocky noblemen, seem firmly planted in their gender, and this lack of fluidity costs them greatly. An Actor’s Revenge offers a world where survival mandates a mastery of disguise and the ability to perceive the disguises of others.

More generally, the idea of performance is woven into every piece of the narrative. Yukinojo uses scripted theatre to charm others and gain influence, then performs the role of polite and harmless to build interpersonal relationships. When Namiji fails to see through this disguise and falls in love with the fake Yukinojo, we sympathize with her passion and are forced to weigh the cost of deception as a means to vengeance. We also see other characters performing. The thieves of the night are obsessed with their legacy, performing for passersby seeking reputation among the town. The film is littered with fakery, often with direct asides to the audience in the form of narration, a further nod to the Shakespearean nature of the film.

Director Kon Ichikawa shoots the film in a way to highlight these themes. The widescreen format was new to Ichikawa midway through his career, and although he was originally skeptical, the film shows a mastery of the proscenium-like aspect ratio. The film is melodramatic and intentionally “meta” to imitate the artifice of theatre. Characters are often filmed straight-on, especially in more theatrical scenes (lying, courting, and trickery). For more intimate scenes, however, the movie feels more like a movie. Dim lighting accompanies Yukinojo as he strikes down his victims. Scenes at nighttime seem more personal, breaking down the characters and revealing their pathos. By day, the movie is a melodrama. By night, it is a tragedy.

An Actor’s Revenge is a clever reflection of the stage. It is presentational, procedural, and often familiar. But under the surface lies a deeply emotional quest for vengeance. Hasegawa brings incredible depth to the leading role, and it makes for an entrancing, layered piece of cinema.

Films Left to Watch: 823

About Travis

I'm a software engineer reviewing a bunch of movies.
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