An Actor’s Revenge: Kon Ichikawa’s phenomenal kabuki thriller

We sometimes talk of scene-stealers in the theatre. What might acting and thieving have in common? Performers demand attention while pickpockets evade it, but to excel at both you need to closely study human behaviour. In his 1962 movie An Actor’s Revenge, the director Kon Ichikawa presents the worlds of a touring kabuki theatre company and a group of thieves side by side. His masterstroke is casting Kazuo Hasegawa – in his 300th film appearance – in a dual role as both the troupe’s lead actor and a Robin Hood-style robber. As the former, he coolly steals the heart of an admirer in the audience.

In the opening scene, criminals are operating in the auditorium. They pluck riches from the spectators, while arguing about whether to stay until the end of the show. “This play’s too slow for me,” moans one thief. You couldn’t level that criticism at Ichikawa’s movie, one of cinema’s finest studies of theatre. It is a remake of a 1935 film with the same name, directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, in which Hasegawa (a kabuki actor turned box-office film star) had played the same roles.

Ichikawa’s version grips the audience immediately. In Edo (modern-day Tokyo), the kabuki company is presenting an elegant production in which snow falls on a stage lined with candles. Yukinojo (Hasegawa) is an acclaimed onnagata, a male actor who performs female roles. We hear the internal monologue of Yukinojo addressing his late father as, in the audience, he spies a magistrate and a merchant responsible for his parents’ death 20 years earlier. He has come to Edo for vengeance.

Yukinojo uses his performance, on-stage and off, to win the affection of the magistrate’s daughter (Ayako Wakao). He is mocked by others as weak and effeminate – both for being an actor and an onnagata – but uses this perception to his advantage in wreaking revenge. He also makes use of his vast knowledge of kabuki stagecraft, donning makeup and a fright wig to assume the guise of his father’s ghost when confronting one of the men. (The film’s Japanese title, Yukinojo Henge, describes him as a phantom and this captures something of its phantasmagorical style.) Later, he acts out his mother’s death as a shadow play to torment another of his enemies. One of the thieves mocks Yukinojo as being “neither man nor woman”; his features share a similarity with both parents, we are told, so it is as if he embodies each on their personal quests for retribution.

This is a dynamic, highly stylish thriller told with a striking palette but it forms a neat companion piece to a much more meditative, perhaps better-known film about another kabuki troupe, Yasujirō Ozu’s Floating Weeds, which was made three years earlier and shares two of the film’s supporting actors (Ganjirō Nakamura and Ayako Wakao). In both films, an actor arrives in town with family business on his mind. For Ozu’s hero, Komajuro, it is a reunion with a son who does not know his father’s identity. In Floating Weeds (itself a remake of an earlier film), the troupe’s production is a flop – some nights the actors outnumber the audience – and the company is rife with resentments. But Komajuro appreciates his role as the head of this dysfunctional theatrical family and the late scene in which the troupe disbands to pursue alternative careers is tinged with sadness. In Ichikawa’s film, the orphaned Yukinojo has been virtually adopted by a theatre family; the company’s actor-manager has become a father figure to him.

The troupe in An Actor’s Revenge may be more celebrated than in Ozu’s film, but Ichikawa also acknowledges the ever-precarious living of performers who are never quite sure what is round the corner. Instability is even inherent in the film’s style, which never fixes on one genre. Ichikawa frames some scenes tightly by using the lines of windows and doorways yet others seem to exist almost as if on an endless stage, with the characters surrounded by floating mist or darkness. The lighting techniques are often boldly theatrical and even in the scenes outside the theatre, it is common for conversations to be watched by an “audience” of onlooking characters.

The fluid, dreamlike nature of the narrative is mirrored in the delicate performance by Hasegawa as Yukinojo, which contrasts with his earthy, comical turn as the robber Yamitaro. Yukinojo is a figure as ethereal as theatre itself: in the unforgettable final scene he drifts away from his life on stage, leaving his audiences with the fading memories they have taken from his performances.