Friday, October 16, 2009

Revenge of a Kabuki Actor (1963)

Revenge of a Kabuki Actor is the English title; the Japanese title is Kikunojô henge 雪之丞変化, which translates to something like "Kikunojô Transformed." Kikunojô is the kabuki actor of the title, and he transforms himself in several ways over the course of the story.

So what I saw was the 1963 version, directed by Ichikawa Kon. The story has an interesting pedigree: although on film it feels about as Edo-rooted traditional as you can get, the Japanese modern novel it goes back to was itself based on The Avenging Twins by American adventure author Johnston McCulley. (This is all per Wikipedia.) You never can tell.

But as I say, the 1963 film version (which is all I've seen) feels about as old-fashioned Japanese as you can imagine. Wikipedia says it was the sixth film version of the story in less than thirty years, and yet it was an all-star Daiei production (Katsu Shintarô, Zatôichi himself, is in a bit part, and figures large on the poster - looking nothing like he does in the film). Meaning, I think, that the mandate was to celebrate the clichés, not challenge them.

Which Ichikawa does. The melodrama is handled straight, and so you get a stirring revenge tale, the tragic death of innocents, the well-deserved death of villains, dark secrets out of the past, spunky women and doomy men, romance and action.

Where Ichikawa allows himself to play is with the visuals. This is only a year before he'd make Tokyo Olympiad, one of the most exciting color spectacles in Japanese film; here he's a little more subtle, but just as sure-handed. We get sudden swathes of yellow or red filling the screen - not abstract or unreal as in Suzuki Seijun, carefully worked into the diegetic color-scheme, but still bravura, still startling. The color work is matched by playful compositions, bold use of shadows, thrilling camera work. As melodramatic as the story is, that's how playful the visual rendering of it is. Lovingly playful, I should add.

My favorite sequence is the opening. We see Yukinojô onstage (he's a female impersonator, and of course any serious account of this movie should deal with the awesomely ambiguous sexual undercurrents that connect him with thte other main characters: but this isn't a serious account), playing a dance scene in the snow. It's stage snow, and one of the nice things about the film is the way it shows details of mid-19th century kabuki staging that I hadn't seen before, such as the confetti used for snow, and the candles used as footlights. We start out seeing him and the stage from the audience's perspective, but then we see from his perspective, looking into the audience, and we focus in on a group of people who turn out to be the ones on whom he's sworn revenge. We enter his head and hear his thoughts as he recognizes them. But as this happens the stage morphs into a real snowscape - Yukinojô is so into his performance that it's as if he's really outside in a snowy forest, although at the same time he's looking at his enemies in the balcony seats. A nice nod to the intensity of an actor's concentration, and a great visual effect.

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