Saturday, June 30, 2012

Revenge is Best Served Weird

Film: Yukinojo Henge (An Actor’s Revenge/Revenge of a Kabuki Actor)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Every now and then, I am confronted with a film that leaves me nowhere to begin and not really sure where to go. Such a film is Kon Ichikawa’s Yukinojo Henge (known as both An Actor’s Revenge and Revenge of a Kabuki Actor). As you might expect based on that second English title, this is a revenge picture. It’s not a difficult film to follow, but Ichikawa’s vision is a strange one, and I’ll do my best to make sense of it here.

The story behind this film is that Ichikawa was being punished by his production company for creating a few self-indulgent and money-losing films. To make up for this, he was told to direct Kazuo Hasegawa’s 300th film appearance, a remake of a film early from the actor’s career. The issue, of course, is that when Yukinojo Henge was first produced, the actor was a young man. For this version, he’d aged a good three decades.

Hasegawa plays Yukinojo Nakamura, a kabuki actor who plays women’s roles. He’s famous and known throughout Japan, so he causes something of a stir when his troupe appears in Edo. However, he has a reason for being there beyond appearing on the stage. Years earlier, a group of three men bankrupted his parents, both of whom eventually killed themselves. Yukinojo has arrived in Edo for revenge. His goal isn’t to simply kill these men, but to destroy them utterly.

That’s really the whole film. Everything that happens centers in some respect on furthering this revenge plot. And here’s where things get interesting. Evidently, Ichikawa understood that the film with this leading man was ridiculous on its face, so he didn’t even try. Instead, what happens is we get approaches intentional farce. See, here’s this middle-aged man who dresses as a woman constantly, whether on stage or not. He also affects a woman’s voice, but doesn’t do it very well. He sounds instead like a man trying to impersonate a woman. And yet, virtually all of the women in the film fall madly in love with him at first sight.

It’s almost as if Ichikawa knew that there was no way he could make this film without taking it somewhere completely different entirely. And that’s what he does. There are some very interesting uses of camera and the like early in the film. We see Yukinojo on stage with his enemies in the audience, and while he is acting, we hear his thoughts and see those same enemies on an inset. I’d have liked a lot more of this throughout the film, but it goes away quite early. However, Ichikawa doesn’t hold back with making it obvious that he’s creating something of a farce. He is obviously using sets throughout the film, almost staging the film as if it were a piece of Kabuki Theater, an interesting meta-moment that occurs throughout the film.

There are also a number of thieves running around in the film, one of whom is played by Hasegawa. The thieves become embroiled in these plots as well at various times. Additionally, Yukinojo has an enemy from many years before who has wound up in Edo and has decided to kill Yukinojo just as a matter of course. This is where we learn that on top of being a celebrated actor, Yuki is also a master swordsman. Yeah, I know. It’s pretty silly.

And yet, it all works on some level. Our actor is able to make his way into the houses of his rich and powerful enemies in a completely believable way. While he has low status as a stage actor, the fact that he is so celebrated makes him a hot commodity. Initially, he refuses all requests to meet with him, which eventually causes these rich and powerful men to invite him to their homes. While there, he begins to slowly spread rumors about the others, and even manages to force one of them to bring in rice shipments to stave off riots, which bankrupts another of the trio.

It’s all very convoluted, but not that difficult to follow. I will admit that I lost track of some of the characters at times and ended up putting the three enemies sort of in an “enemies” category and not really caring that much which was which. Of the thieves, only two are really important, and they aren’t that difficult to distinguish.

Yukinojo Henge is an odd film by any standards, but it’s one that is worth seeing simply for what it is—a sort of grand farce and (evidently) an extended middle finger from Ichikawa to his production house. It takes a special sort of talent to produce something this worthwhile and at the same time thumb your nose at the guys holding the purse strings.

Why to watch Yukinojo Henge: It’s a fun ride.
Why not to watch: It’s difficult to take very seriously.


  1. I just searched for a clip of this film and his voice is pretty...unique to say the least. However, I am interested in watching it since it seems so off the wall.

    1. It's interesting. That voice does get grating after awhile, though.

  2. I watched An Actor's Revenge (1963) a couple of nights ago. It's pretty awesome! But then, I'm always a sucker for classic Japanese movies.

    A little bit of Roger Corman and Vincent Price (an actor getting his revenge on the people who ruined his father) a little John Waters (the actor getting revenge is a female impersonator in Kabuki theater ... and looks a little bit like the Japanese counterpart of Divine) and a lot of Japanese Kabuki culture.

    I love Japanese cinema and I love it that the List has so many Japanese films I never heard of! I have about 150 films left to go on the List, but only two Japanese films - Tokyo Olympiad and Gohatto (Taboo).

    1. I am a fan of Japanese film in many respects, but I often have trouble really getting into Kabuki. It's so disturbingly unusual and out of my normal wheelhouse that I'm always a little tense when watching it.