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DVD Review: "An Actor's Revenge" (1963)

Title: An Actor’s Revenge

Genre: Drama

Director: Kon Ichikawa

Stars: Kazuo Hasegawa, Ganjirō Nakamura, and Ayako Wakao

Bias: With the word “revenge” in the title, I was really expecting an action movie.

Grade: B

In a Nutshell:

In 19th century Japan, Yukitarō (Kazuo Hasegawa)is an onnagata, an actor who plays female roles in kabuki plays. He’s a very popular performer, capable of bringing his audience to tears, but his current life is a far cry from his old one. As a boy, Yukitarō lived in the slums of Nagasaki, where his father was once a rich merchant. After both his parents commit suicide, Yukitarō is adopted by Kikunojō Nakamura (Chūsha Ichikawa), an actor who raises him to be an onnagata in the theater troupe he manages.

One night, during a performance in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Yukitarō recognizes a pair of faces he hasn’t seen in over twenty years: Lord Dobe (Ganjirō Nakamura) and Kawaguchiya (Saburō Date), two of the three men who ruined his parents and pushed them to suicide. Out for revenge, Yukitarō swears to himself to track all three men down to avenge his parents’ deaths.

Fortunately for Yukitarō, his old enemies don’t recognize them. They love his performance that night, and Dobe’s daughter Namiji (Ayako Wakao) is so enthralled by his acting that she falls in love with him. To infiltrate Dobe’s’ social circle, Yukitarō plans to woo and seduce Namiji, using her in his scheme to kill Dobe and his accomplices.

The Critique:

I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked this movie up. Criterion released it on DVD last month, and I’d seen a few of the director’s other movies, so I figured why not? While it’s not quite what I expected, it was certainly a pleasant surprise.

Revenge movies are a dime-a-dozen, but An Actor’s Revenge is a refreshing take on the genre, even more than fifty years after its release. It’s melodramatic, but intentionally absurd and campy. It’s gorgeously shot, with colorful, pop-art visuals, and set to a soundtrack that varies between traditional Japanese music and contemporary jazz pieces.

As befits a movie about a kabuki actor, it’s also very theatrical. Shot with Cinemascope, the film’s wide scenes look as though they’re happening on a stage. Some scenes are covered in darkness or fog, with the characters illuminated only by spotlights. Other times, characters launch into soliloquies, or a narrator comments on the story with a voice-over. Kazuo Hasegawa, a big star during the silent days of Japanese cinema, gives a great performance as well, doubling between two roles, the lead Yukitarō and a thief named Yamitarō.

To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix:

An Actor’s Revenge was released on Blu-ray and DVD on February 20, 2018. While the extras are a bit disappointing- just a booklet and two interviews- the film itself is definitely worth owning.

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