By Daniel Gronsky.
An Actor’s Revenge(Yukinojo Henge, 1963) is one of director Ichikawa Kon’s more infrequently remarked upon films. Despite the exceptional quality of the film, An Actor’s Revenge is often passed over in favor of examining Ichikawa’s earlier, more popular works, such as Conflagration (Enjo, 1958), Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959), or Harp of Burma (Biruma no Tategoto, 1956). This is not to say that An Actor’s Revenge has gone entirely without remark. Indeed, several notable scholars have seen fit to comment upon the film. However, more often than not these comments focus heavily, if not exclusively, on the film’s spectacular use of theatrical elements.
Upon the initial viewing of the film, these are indeed the visual components most likely to draw one’s attention. They are unquestionably essential to the film’s overall aesthetic, and dominate the composition of the frame in many cases. However, while these elements are well worth discussing, doing so often draws attention away from many of the film’s more delicate underpinnings. Although theater elements play an important role in visually establishing the key themes at work in the film, Ichikawa and Kobayashi Setsuo, his cinematographer, also rely heavily upon fundamental cinematic techniques such as framing and lighting to accomplish this goal. Unfortunately, the fact that the currently existing body of criticism regarding An Actor’s Revenge remains tightly concentrated on the use of theater in the film leads to both a lack of comment and a lack of understanding regarding the manner in which these more basic elements of formal design express the film’s core ideas of loneliness and disconnection.
An Actor’s Revenge is the story of Yukinojo, a famous and popular onnagata – a male kabuki actor who specializes in playing female roles, both on and off the stage. Yukinojo secretly seeks revenge against a corrupt magistrate, Sansai, and two merchants, Hiromiya and Kawaguchiya, who conspired to cause the ruination of his father’s business and ultimately the suicides of both his parents. He is aided in this effort by his teacher, Kikunojo, and by several thieves – particularly Yamitaro (who is played by Hasegawa Kazuo, the same actor who portrays Yukinojo). To effect his revenge, Yukinojo seduces Namiji, the Sansai’s daughter and a concubine of the shogun. In doing so, he is able to cause her father to fall out of favor with the shogun. Meanwhile, he plays the two merchants against each other, resulting in Kawaguchiya being murdered by Hiromiya. Hiromiya then kidnaps Namiji in order to use her against Sansai, but she accidentally kills him while trying to escape. The shock of this causes Namiji to fall prey to illness, and ultimately die as well. Although saddened by this, because Namiji was not part of his revenge, Yukinojo uses Namiji’s death to claim his revenge on Sansai. After presenting Sansai with the corpse of his daughter, Yukinojo reveals his true identity and then persuades Sansai to drink poison and die. Having taken his vengeance, Yukinojo holds one final performance on the kabuki stage, and then disappears into obscurity.
As I said, several notable scholars have indeed referenced An Actor’s Revenge in their works. Noël Burch refers to the film in his seminal work, To the Distant Observer, but limits his remarks concerning An Actor’s Revenge to its relationship to traditional stagecraft. Primarily his concern is with how the film incorporates shifts between different levels of ‘realism’ through stylistic changes, such as the scene where Namiji moves through the frame in a thick fog, which eventually lifts to reveal a painted backdrop depicting fog. Burch’s comments regarding the film are brief, and end with the assertion that An Actor’s Revenge is a conjunction between the objective ‘Brechtianism’ of the traditional stage and the influence of modern (at the time) cinematic and theater techniques (290). Although it is clear that Burch intends for his remarks to be made primarily in service to his own claims regarding the intersections of film and theater, it is also equally clear that his remarks do little to advance the understanding of An Actor’s Revenge as a discrete work, and fail to take into account the role other elements play in the total construction of the film.
Pre-eminent Japanese film scholar Donald Richie has also commented upon the film on multiple occasions, but, like Burch, has elected to confine his discussion of the film to either the general visual tone of the film, or a discussion of the adaptation of the film by Ichikawa’s longtime screenwriter (and wife) Wada Natto. In Japanese Cinema, Richie refers to An Actor’s Revenge as the most successful of all the Ichikawa/Wada collaborations, but only discusses the film in terms of its use of conventions from the stage and early Japanese cinema. Richie does refer to the film as a ‘concentrated example of [Ichikawa’s graphic] style’, but is brief in describing what this might consist of and fails entirely to elaborate on what this means to the overall construction of An Actor’s Revenge (60). Richie is more effusive regarding the film in his book A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, but still prefers to focus on the same elements of the film as before. Specifically, Richie comments that, ‘The resulting film is a tour de force of great virtuosity in which the director deliberately scrambled stage and screen, tried every color experiment he could think of, and created one of the most visually entertaining films of the decade’ (157). Richie’s comments here are almost as stage-specific as Burch’s, and again fail to identify other, more fundamental elements at work in the film’s visual presentation.
These comments from both Burch and Richie were with regards to the film inside of a larger discussion of either Japanese cinema in general or the works of Ichikawa Kon in specific. Other scholars have attempted a more focused approach to An Actor’s Revenge. Scott Nygren has written an essay, ‘Inscribing the Subject: The Melodramatization of Gender in An Actor’s Revenge’, which discusses the question of gender identity and construction in the film, but the focus of his argument is once again almost wholly focused on the film’s use of theatrical elements. Linda Ehrlich’s essay, ‘Playing with Form: Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge and the “Creative Print”’, collected in the same volume as Nygren’s essay, analyzes the film as an extension of certain concepts originating from within Japan’s print-art movements. This is an extraordinarily novel approach to the film, but like Nygren she supports her claims primarily by analyzing the film’s use of kabuki theater elements, although she also examines the effects of casting actor Hasegawa Kazuo in a duel role. Ehrlich, like the other scholars mentioned, remains focused on the use of stage elements, and her essay even goes so far as to assert that the dramatic elements of the film are ‘primarily a pretense for a grand visual and theatrical display ‘(Quandt, 279).
Possibly the most heavily concentrated study of An Actor’s Revenge has been contributed by Keiko McDonald, who devoted an entire chapter of her book Japanese Classical Theater in Films to an analysis of the film. Given the focus of the book, it is absolutely unsurprising that her analysis is once again primarily focused on the use of kabuki theater elements. McDonald, however, also makes a point of comparing the use of kabuki with the use of several Western-style cinematic techniques. She calls particular attention to the use of close-ups and crosscutting as examples of foreign innovations at work, but perhaps the most interesting observation she makes about Western visual techniques is her note regarding the use of Russian-style montage. McDonald makes a thorough and convincing assessment of the similarities between a scene depicting a peasant revolt against rice farmers and the use of montage and subtitles in early Russian films (156). While her concerns are centered on the use of theater elements, as were those of the other scholars mentioned, McDonald is one of very few to address the role played by the more subtle visual components of the film.
As this survey of the available literature shows, the body of works regarding An Actor’s Revenge is currently quite limited, not merely in terms of the overall number of scholars who have examined it, but more specifically in terms of the lines of inquiry with which they have selected to address the film. By limiting the discourse around the film in such a fashion, it makes it increasingly difficult to expand the understanding of this film. An Actor’s Revenge is a powerful artistic work, and every effort should be made to derive greater insights from it. We should not be content with merely retreading the already thoroughly exhausted analysis of the film’s use of stagecraft. Other narrative and visual components of the film have much to offer, and invite an equally high degree of scrutiny.
As I said before, the core ideas of the film as expressed by the narrative are disconnection and loneliness. These are not new themes to Ichikawa, and indeed feature prominently in many of his best-known works. Many have noted that one of the few unifying patterns found throughout Ichikawa’s films is the use of protagonists who are depicted as isolated or alienated; outsiders who struggle against a variety of rigid systems. In fact, the appearance of a lone figure shot long against a vast and uncaring landscape has become something of a signature image in his films, appearing in several of his works, perhaps most notably (and recurring most frequently) in Harp of Burma (Quandt, 3). While Ichikawa’s eclectic subject matter can make it difficult to make definitive statements regarding his use of these themes, critics generally agree that these outsiders do not seek to change or accept the systems they struggle against, but rather simply seek to escape them (Allyn, 23). As will be explored later, Yukinojo is a character very much in the same vein.
The story’s protagonist, however, is not the only character who is affected by this sense of being disconnected. Ichikawa and Kobayashi carefully construct the frames of this film to demonstrate the ultimate sense of alienation experienced by virtually every principal character. They do this with a variety of fundamental techniques, the simplest and most effective of which is basic blocking and mise-en-scène composition. In fact, the very first image we see in the film is laid out in such a way as to invoke the feeling of isolation. The film irises open to reveal Yukinojo performing on stage. He is posed against a painted backdrop of a desolate, snow-covered countryside. Above and below the stage is only darkness. The camera begins to pull out, and eventually the musicians accompanying the performance, as well as the show’s audience become visible. However, at this point, Yukinojo is now far distant in the frame, making him seem even more distant and alone. The musicians are equally small, and crowded together in a single corner. As for the audience, they are presented facing the stage, with their backs to the camera. Furthermore, the theater is darkened, and while Yukinojo is moving, the audience is stationary. This makes the presence of the audience almost illusory, and creates the sense that Yukinojo is physically alone in the frame despite their presence.
The film also ends in a very similar fashion. Following the completion of Yukinojo’s revenge, he undertakes one final kabuki performance and then fades into obscurity. To underscore this, the film relates this narrative information to us while we are shown an image of Yukinojo standing in a field of tall grass. As more information is revealed to us, Yukinojo gradually sinks deeper and deeper into the frame, eventually becoming so small that he is virtually invisible inside of the frame. Ichikawa here once again recreates his iconic shot of the protagonist made small against the landscape. Although alone and forlorn, Yukinojo never fully disappears from the shot before the film fades to black. Rather than choosing to end Yukinojo’s isolation through a metaphorical death or absence, Ichikawa prefers to linger on it, driving home the concept that Yukinojo is thoroughly and eternally disconnected from all other characters within the universe of his film. By bookending his film with these two sequences, Ichikawa creates a protagonist who both comes into and leaves his world alone, never truly being connected in a meaningful way to any of the other characters despite the deep levels of attraction, respect, and even love they repeatedly show to him.
Yukinojo is not the only individual in the film characterized in such a manner. Ichikawa also utilizes this same device to demonstrate alienation in the thief Yamitaro; however, in doing so he manages to illustrate that isolation is interpreted very differently by these characters. In his second appearance in the film, Yamitaro is patrolling the grounds outside of the Sansai estate, planning to rob it. The wall of the estate is composed of horizontal lines and a repeating diamond pattern, which emerges in the foreground on the left and flows right into the distance. Above and below the wall is complete darkness, a void without any detail indicating sky or land. Yamitaro emerges from the left foreground, and walks along the wall with his back to the camera. As soon as he exits the frame on the right side, the camera cuts and the frame reorients so that the wall is set in the background, running flush from left to right. Yamitaro continues to walk along the wall until he reaches the center of the frame, and then he stops. Here the camera lingers, with Yamitaro picked out against the endlessly repeating wall with literally nothing above or below him. He appears to be the only person, indeed the only thing at all, in the entire universe. In contradiction to this extreme vision of desolation, however, Yamitaro is singing, and musing to himself about the money he will soon be stealing.
This makes a powerful statement regarding not only the dissociation the character has with the world around him, but also the way in which Yamitaro perceives this disconnection. In short, he simply does not care. While the visual composition of the frame demonstrates that Yamitaro is physically alone in the world, his dialogue demonstrates that he is also mentally divorced from what would be considered traditional social interaction. Not only does his song show his contentment in the face of his isolation, but when he begins openly admitting his intention to rob Sansai, he exhibits a basic lack of concern regarding fitting into society or obeying its laws. He is content to live as an outcast, and furthermore his open proclamations of intent show that he has no fear for any repercussions that this may bring about. While Yukinojo is depicted as lamenting in his isolation, Yamitaro is instead shown to be defiant. Ichikawa masterfully demonstrates that while alienation may be a common theme for the characters in this film, it need not be experienced by them in an identical fashion.
It is with good reason that Ichikawa would choose to explore these two specific characters through the same visual device. As was mentioned earlier, Yukinojo and Yamitaro are in fact portrayed by the same actor, Hasegawa Kazuo. Because of this, we can interpret them to be two facets of a singular entity. This creates an interesting meta-textual dynamic. Despite the fact that Yamitaro deeply invests himself in Yukinojo and his quest for revenge, there is only one instance in the film in which they directly interact with one another. After Yamitaro observes Yukinojo fending off an attacker, he comes to his aid. Beginning with Yamitaro’s first words to Yukinojo and ending when the police come to arrest Yamitaro, this sequence is composed of 12 shots, only two of which place the characters face to face in a way which demonstrates that both figures are indeed Hasegawa Kazuo. By restricting the interaction between the two, Ichikawa creates an environment which literally closes the individual off from himself. His constituent elements are prevented from fully engaging with each other, and all aid or support which one attempts to give the other is thus forced to be accomplished through indirect avenues. This means that despite the fact that Yamitaro repeatedly demonstrates a desire to assist Yukinojo, it is a foregone conclusion that any actual connection between them will be thwarted. Disconnection as a theme is so pervasive in this film that it does not stop at isolating characters from one another; it attempts to dissociate the very composite elements of the individual.
While sparse frames and doubling are perhaps the most notable techniques Ichikawa used to demonstrate isolation and disconnection in both Yukinojo and Yamitaro, basic mise-en-scène composition was his tool of choice for the film’s other characters. Specifically, what we see when observing the general motifs which occur in the layouts of individual sequences is a heavy use of horizontal and vertical lines to create tightly clustered spaces. Gordon Gow took note of this in a 1973 article for the journal Film and Filming, pointing out the way the frame is frequently divided into rectangular segments of various sizes (Allyn, 150). However, the use of intra-frame divisions is so recurring that it calls for an in-depth analysis.
These divisions are far more than a mere aesthetic choice. They constantly serve to illustrate a deep disconnect between the characters in each scene, one that is often simultaneously articulated through the film’s dialogue. Although a film’s visual components are often used to impart additional information beyond that which is provided by the narrative, in An Actor’s Revenge these components are primarily used as a way to underscore the narrative. For instance, in her first appearance, Ohatsu, one of the film’s many thieves, is conversing with her accomplice. While at first the two of them are packed close together inside of a theater’s audience, the sequence quickly moves outside. There, the two are framed in close against a backdrop of multicolored vertical banners. While their close proximity would initially indicate a comfortable familiarity with one another, the dialogue quickly reveals that Ohatsu looks down on her accomplice as an incompetent, and he finds her charmless and coarse. Visually, this is reflected by the way the banners form vertical divisions between and around them, creating distinct spaces which they are careful not to traverse.
The importance of staying within these physical boundaries is even more pronounced when we see Yukinojo’s enemies interacting with one another. When Namiji becomes lovesick over Yukinojo and refuses to return to the Shogun, Sansai holds Kawaguchiya responsible, as he was the one who first introduced the two. Kawaguchiya is summoned to Sansai’s estate for an audience. Here the terrain is rigidly marked out into precise rectangles by the tatami mats on the floor and the decorative screens which surround the room. Both men occupy carefully divided rectangular areas, and at first are also separated by the cutting of the camera. When Kawaguchiya enters the room, he remains on the mat which sits directly in front of the doorway, and is himself framed vertically by it. Sansai sits upon a small cushion, and is also tightly framed on either side by a tapestry. As Sansai begins to reproach Kawaguchiya, Kawaguchiya begins begging for forgiveness and crosses one tatami mat closer to him. Sansai continues his verbal assault, and Kawaguchiya again moves forward, placing him at a dividing screen which separates the doorway area from the main portion of the room. This, however, earns Kawaguchiya an even sharper rebuke and a stern glare at daring to cross this threshold. As the camera’s point of view shifts to a profile shot which encompasses both men, Kawaguchiya bows low and slowly recedes to his previous position. Although the camera perspective has changed, both Sansai and Kawaguchiya are still perfectly framed within individual rectangular spaces. At this point, Sansai’s tone softens, and he begins giving Kawaguchiya advice for his business dealings. Seemingly reconciled, Kawaguchiya once again moves forward, this time passing the dividing screen completely, but stopping exactly one tatami mat further into the room, placing his hands on the ground exactly where this mat meets the one in front of Sansai.
The crossing of boundaries in this scene mirrors the tone of the two characters’ discussion. It is abundantly clear from the dialogue that the intention of this scene is to demonstrate a rift between the two characters and Kawaguchiya’s desire to reconcile, which is reflected in the physical divisions between them and Kawaguchiya’s willingness to cross them. However, the crossing of barriers is not desirable in An Actor’s Revenge, and as such Kawaguchiya efforts only bring him more scorn. It is not until he steps back into his assigned place that reconciliation can begin to take place, but even then Kawaguchiya clearly fails to internalize this lesson. His last act in the scene is to once again transgress his boundaries, again moving closer to (but yet, still clearly divided from) Sansai. While some barriers are crossed by Kawaguchiya, disconnection is maintained.
When Kawaguchiya comes to confront Hiromiya, whose business practices have ruined him, Kawaguchiya once again shows that barriers mean little to him (perhaps this accounts for the fact that he is the first to perish as a result of Yukinojo’s revenge). When he first appears in the scene, he is fully encapsulated within a rectangular section of wall. However, he quickly marches forward, and here the camera rotates in order to once again restrain him within two vertical lines of a nearby screen. Before long, Kawaguchiya becomes violent and attacks Hiromiya. The two struggle, and are periodically framed within the same rectangular division. However, Hiromiya ultimately triumphs, and throws Kawaguchiya down a flight of stairs and out of the frame entirely. Hiromiya is then framed tightly within the opening at the top of the stairs, and then as the frame cuts he is shown at the top of the stairs, again tightly framed within a rectangular section of wall.
Barriers become so important to the construction of the film that the trespassing of these boundaries seems to occur only with great difficulty. Here we see Hiromiya and Kawaguchiya at last occupying the same screen division, but rather than indicating connectedness between two characters, it instead shows a complete breakdown of interpersonal relations. Sharing the same space is here seen to be so undesirable that doing so is only possible as a result of a physical clash. Victory in this fight means once again restoring the previous demarcations, and returning to a state of visible isolation. It becomes clear that physical closeness does not demonstrate social connectedness here; quite the opposite, in fact. Order breaks down in the face of it, and even isolation seems superior to the chaos it creates. Disconnectedness is the preferred, natural state in An Actor’s Revenge, and its violation clearly will not be tolerated by the film.
These boundaries are able to function in this way only due to Ichikawa’s unusually cloistered construction of the film’s general mise-en-scène. Every sequence in the film is constructed with a preponderance of bold vertical and horizontal lines, creating a noticeably claustrophobic environment. When the frame is constructed in this way, it becomes hard to see the screen as a unified whole rather than a series of disconnected portions, which makes it virtually impossible even for two ostensibly close characters to actively share the same space in a given moment. This construction, however, never gives the impression of being artificial or arbitrary. The natural period constructs, such as the tatami mats and decorative screens mentioned earlier, create environments which feel authentic to the period and the story being told while at the same time building the necessary mood and visual sense of separation needed for the deeper thematic motifs.
For another example of this, one need look no further than the first meeting of Yukinojo and Namiji. In this sequence, the mats once again come into play, creating distinct rectangular separations for each of them, while a small screen in the background and the basic construction of the walls of the room itself create a series of natural vertical divisions between the two. The closest Yukinojo and Namiji come to sharing the same physical space is when Namiji pours a drink for them. The drink occupies its own space between the two, and both are nevertheless not only hesitant to cross this boundary but also quick to retreat to their own spaces. Eventually, both become brave enough to touch one another, but the camera itself is quick to intervene, cutting into separate reaction shots for Yukinojo and Namiji. This once again prevents them from sharing space for any length of time. No matter what sweet words are exchanged between the two, visually we are left with little doubt as to formation of any genuine closeness between them.
In addition to the divisive use of vertical and horizontal lines in the mise-en-scène, Ichikawa utilizes one additional fundamental element to demonstrate the essential alienation of the characters in this film: the lighting. While skillful use of lighting is essential to proper construction of the frame in any film, An Actor’s Revenge takes lighting to extremes in order to demonstrate isolation. To begin with, the film contains several sequences where characters are picked out against what is literally an empty void, and this is accomplished primarily by carefully lighting the characters in such a way as to illuminate them but not their surroundings. This is the case in the sequence where Yukinojo first meets Yamitaro, which was described previously, as well as for most of the film’s action sequences. Here, the same sense of spacial distance created by geometric lines in other scenes is recreated by using light to create separate spaces for each character. Unlike the sequences which use geometric lines for divisions, these sequences are used less to demonstrate disconnection between characters who might otherwise be thought of as closely linked, and more to evince the fundamental sense of alienation each character feels. Generally speaking, Ichikawa will only use one form of separation or the other in a sequence, in order to concentrate on exhibiting the sense of detachment in a specific manner. However, there are several scenes in the film where both techniques are employed in order to underscore one another.
The best example of this actually occurs quite early in the film. In a flashback sequence, Yukinojo receives his final lesson from his fencing instructor. His instructor presents him with a scroll supposedly containing secret teachings, but one of Yukinojo’s rival pupils is so jealous of this honor that he steals the scroll. Yukinojo’s teacher reveals that the scroll is in fact blank, and that its purpose is to make one realize that the ultimate secrets of the school cannot be written down, but must be experienced. Through his theft, Yukinojo’s rival has lost everything, and gained nothing. Here, the narrative evinces a lack of connections between characters, demonstrating the difficulty of forming them and the ease with which any fledgling bonds are severed.
Because of this, the scene needs to visually convey both the essential state of isolation in which the characters naturally exist as well as the pre-existing divisions between them. It does this, of course, by combining the two techniques which illustrate these different types of isolation. Basic geometric barriers exist within this scene as in the others, separating all three characters from one another, while the lighting creates an additional level of separation. While each character, and much of the background, is distinctly lit, a shroud of darkness envelops the immediate area surrounding each character. The overall effect not only gives the impression of boundaries between each of the characters present, it also makes the spaces they each occupy seem physically distanced from one another as well. These characters are not only caged by their environments, these cages are themselves set adrift in a void, cut off from all other spaces, inhabited or otherwise.
Although the theatrical elements of An Actor’s Revenge remain endlessly fascinating, it quickly becomes quite clear how basic techniques in the film visually establish the core ideas of isolation and disconnection. While it is indeed tempting to discuss at length the bold and innovative use of the theater in this film, the fact is that this discussion has already been held at length by some of the most influential minds in the field. What is truly needed in a discussion of An Actor’s Revenge is additional study of the fundamental means by which this film operates. Although I have endeavored to give a sense of this, by no means is my analysis to be considered exhaustive. Considering how vital examination of the fundamental cinematic techniques is in understanding the complete visual context of the film, one must come to the conclusion that these elements are deeply in need of further scrutiny. The dearth of study here is so systemic that it threatens to reduce the perception of An Actor’s Revenge in the eyes of critics, rendering it a minor film in Ichikawa’s oeuvre rather than allowing it to be rightly recognized as one of his best. For this reason, it is incumbent upon any who evince interest in this film to more closely examine the role elementary film making practices play in constructing the fundamental themes of isolation and disconnection.
Daniel Gronsky is an assistant professor in English at Lincoln College of New England in Southington, CT, USA.
Allyn, John. Kon Ichikawa: A Guide to References and ResourcesG.K. Hall and Company. Boston, 1985.
McDonald, Keiko. Japanese Classical Theatre in FilmsAssociated University Presses, Inc. Cranbury, New Jersey, 1994.
Quandt, James. Kon Ichikawa. Toronto International Film Festival Group. Toronto, 2001.
Richie, Donald. Japanese CinemaOxford University Press, 1990.
Richie, Donald. A Hundred Years of Japanese FilmKodansha International. New York, 2005.