Despite its period setting An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge) seems to have been an exception to some [generalizations on Japanese cinema]. Even among the more sympathetic reviews in this country a predominant impression was one of remoteness…. The reluctance expressed by some people about taking the film on its own terms might almost have resulted from the conviction that the life of the sexually ambiguous actor in the early nineteenth century was a phenomenon of modern Japan—that familiarity was necessary for understanding. Whereas strangeness is part of what Ichikawrity saw in it too, however local the history. If his treatment of this strange hero and his predicament is sympathetic, then that is the point. (p. 4)
Critics seemed to discuss the idiosyncratic visual style of the Revenge only as a curious decorative adjunct to the story, whereas I would rather say it is the key to the film and in a way part of its theme…. What is inescapable in the Revenge is its self-consciously spectacular appearance and structure full of tricks and jokes and all in stylishly rich and flamboyant colour. It is also under the kind of total control by the director one associates with an animated cartoon. (p. 5)
The thematic as distinct from stylistic importance of theatre is of course explicit, and deserves careful attention. The film presumably derived the idea of play upon play from the novel [on which it is based], or the book can have supplied very little. To begin with, the whole story of revenge, love and suicide is the kind of melodrama that was the staple of Kabuki. Then the structure of the film narrative isolates Yuki's plot as if in a play. The film opens with people discussing the new company arrived from Osaka. Then comes Yukinojo's first appearance, on stage as a woman, staggering pitifully through falling snow. As she falls we cease to hear the weird intonations of the Kabuki performer, and the sound-track refocuses on the actor's inner voice as he sees (and so do we in the inset) the murderers of his parents in the audience, and begins his plot. Throughout this sequence Ichikawa adjusts the relative 'reality' of the actor's two situations. If anything, the stage snow looks more like real snow at those moments when we are hearing from the actor's own inner self. We are surely to see Yuki's stage role here as related to his real one, but concentrating deceptively on his lonely suffering rather than on his unnerving capabilities as a righter of wrong. It is the kind of scene the Lady Namiji is to play for real later on. It ends with the entrance of an old man along the gangway that runs at stage level through the audience in Kabuki theatres. But as if to underline the real importance of what is passing on stage, Ichikawa here blots out from the picture the audience we should otherwise see. The great striped curtain is pulled across the stage, neatly filling the cinemascope screen to the sound of applause. (pp. 9-11)
Some problems in the film's style remain. Perhaps it is only the usual concession of period films to modernity that allows Namiji and Ohatsu a decidedly twentieth-century, even 'Hollywood-Japanese' look. More important is the music. To talk in terms of Japanese and Western here may be inappropriate since it is clear that what we think of as Western-style music is just as familiar to a Japanese. Having acknowledged this, there is no simpler way to describe the film's music than to say there are two or three kinds: some traditional-sounding...
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Japanese (of the kind useful for underlining action); some a kind of cool jazz gently backing the secret exploits of Yuki and the thieves; and some lush, sentimental, orchestral strings reserved for the scenes between Yuki and Namiji. It is the last kind that presents a difficulty. When Yuki is clearly putting on an act for the girl, the presence of that music is ironic. Later, when Yuki gives less away to the audience, it might be logical to suppose that the same music is meant to tell us he is still faking. But that seems over simple, especially since the music, however mushy, only derives a clear meaning from the context. We are left with the same love scene but without the explanation this time. The difficulties experienced by directors who want to control the amount and kind of music in their films are familiar, so that all this which looks so deliberate could be accidental after all, but if so it is out of character with the rest. (p. 13)
Critics' phrases such as 'The Skull Beneath the Skin' and 'cutting a little nearer the bone that one expects' look like responses to the layered world of the Revenge where games are played with expectations. But it seems ill-advised to abstract a 'meaning' where the form and very material of the film are so much involved. It is as much as anything a brilliant and funny entertainment. The relativity of the real and the staged, of actor and role, is expressive of the many uncertainties of sympathy and obligation, but that is not the only reason for its presence. The actor's dilemmas, although pointed up by his doubleness, are hardly simplified by it. One might say our interest is in watching a man coping with difficulties, some inside and some outside himself, which are reflected for us in the very presentation of the story. (pp. 14-15)
David Williams, "'An Actor's Revenge'," in Screen (© The Society for Education in Film and Television 1970), Vol. 11, No. 2, March-April, 1970, pp. 3-15.