5.0 out of 5 stars Seduction, revenge and art
The theatricality of Kabuki is always prevalent in Japanese film. Sometimes it is overt, as in the Kabuki-play adaptation Ashura. Sometimes it isn’t so obvious, as in the Kabuki-trained movements of Inou Rie as Sadako in Ring. But it is always there.
“Revenge of a Kabuki Actor” (Original title “Yukinojo Henge” or “Yukinojo’s Transformation”) clearly draws from this traditional Japanese theater explicitly. Not only does the story revolve around a Kabuki actor, an onnagata meaning a male who plays female roles, but also the imagery and style are also heavily Kabuki-influence. Some might still have a hard time with the subject matter. Hasegawa was much younger when he originated the role, and it might be difficult to see why a young and beautiful girl would fall for a 55-year old “drag queen”, but that is historically accurate. The onnagata, thought to be the perfect blend of male and female, were often the target of young women’s affection.
On top of that, “Revenge of a Kabuki Actor” is actually a re-make of an older 1935 film. This version was created as a celebration of the 300th movie of legendary actor Hasegawa Kazuo. Hasegawa, recipient of the Shiju-hosho, or “Medal of Honor with the Purple Ribbon” that is the highest honor the Japanese government can bestow upon one of its citizens, began as a Kabuki actor. Transferring to films, he played the dual-roles of Yukinojo and the bandit Yamitaro in the original “Yukinojo Henge”, which proved popular enough to spawn several sequels. As a tribute to him, Ichikawa directed Hasegawa in this re-make of one of his most famous films.
Fortunately, your guide through this world is grandmaster Ichikawa Kon, one of the “Four Knights” of Japanese cinema, along with Kurosawa Akira, Kobayashi Masaki and Kinoshiita Keisuke. In the hands of a less-competent director, this much history and tradition packed into a film might prove too much of a barrier to viewers not steeped in the subjects. However, as shown in his classic documentary Tokyo Olympiad and war film Burmese Harp, Ichikawa can pull the human element out of almost anything.
Working with Hasegawa, Ichikawa weaves a multi-layered and complex story of a cloth so beautiful it is heart-breaking. He works with traditional Japanese imagery and colors, coming away with a moving painting. This is a true work of art. Ichikawa also puts his imprint on the story. I wouldn’t want to give too much away, but the ending is classic, and perfect.