Thursday, January 04, 2018

The Porthole of Vengeance

The logic of revenge operates in a very simple world, stripped of complexity, reduced to the extremes of cause and effect. For 1963's An Actor's Revenge (雪之丞変化, "Yukinojo's costume change"), director Kon Ichikawa brilliantly captures this idea visually by employing minimal, very focused lighting. Also a showcase for veteran actor Kazuo Hasegawa (whose three hundredth performance this was), this is a fascinatingly stylish film.

Hasegawa plays two roles--the main character, a kabuki actor named Yukinojo, and a thief named Yamitaro who acts as a sort of chorus for most of the film, commenting on events but not taking part. His presence almost seems entirely for the purpose of showing off Hasegawa's virtuosity, though this is also relevant to the film's story.

Yukinojo plays female roles and even off stage he naturally uses the mannerisms and speaking patterns associated with women in traditional Japanese culture. This doesn't stop two women from falling in love with him, including a tomboy thief (Fujiko Yamamoto) who speaks in a stereotypically masculine, gangster fashion, adding an interesting layer to a scene where she attempts to woo him.

The other woman in love with Yukinojo is Namiji (Ayako Wakao), the sheltered daughter of Lord Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura). It's Lord Dobe whom Yukinojo wants revenge against, along with two other influential men who are responsible for the deaths of Yukinojo's parents. But, as Yukinojo explains to his teacher in martial arts, killing his enemies would not be adequate revenge. Although misusing the innocent Namiji grieves him, he knows that only by seducing her and taking her away could he hope to cause something approaching the amount of pain he considers appropriate. Yamitaro, listening in from where he's hidden on the roof, observes that only an actor would conceive of such a dramatic revenge, and laughs.

It's here that Hasegawa playing both Yukinojo and Yamitaro takes on a new resonance. Yamitaro says something that seems like a keen insight into Yukinojo--and he says he feels a peculiar connexion to the actor--but when this insight comes conspicuously from a performance in a world possibly belonging to this single actor entity it gives the impression of an echo chamber. The weirdly shadowed lighting adds further to this impression of a world doggedly created to have very specific meanings.

The outdoor scenes are particularly striking in the dominance of shadow. In film's first scene, Yukinojo is performing on stage and we see things from his point of view. A bright white sky and ground blend together as snow (the first character in Yukinojo's name means snow) in 360 degrees. Only a small hole opens in it to show Yukinojo the Dobe family seated in the audience.

It's a nice way of conveying an impression of an actor completely enveloped in his own world. By contrast, the "real" outdoor scenes are small isolated spots of light in darkness.

The film's stock characters of honourable thieves and tragic lovers take on a weird, dreamlike significance due to this visual style of perspective. There's something subtly, deliriously disorienting about it.

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