In 1958, director Keisuke Kinoshita released his masterpiece The Ballad of Narayama. Set in a Japanese mountain village in the 18th or 19th century (it’s difficult to say), Kinoshita’s film blends emotional realism with blatant kabuki theatrics – so blatant that, though seen only in silhouette, at times the sets can clearly be seen being rearranged, to transfer from one scene to another, as though we were watching a stage piece. Which of course on some level we are, except that usually when a movie wants to call our attention to its artificiality, it will do so in movie terms: the camera pulls back to show the crew, or the director steps into frame to coach an actor, and so on. But in The Ballad of Narayama, Kinoshita underlines the artificiality of an artform other than the one he’s at that moment engaged in. Or is he, etc. In any case, unusual as it is, The Ballad of Narayama is part of a tradition of using the devices of the theater to enhance whatever it is you happen to feel like enhancing in a film – the most recent (to my knowledge) and probably best-known example of this is Lars von Trier’s Brechtian Dogville, with its chalk-outline floorplans standing in for actual rooms and buildings.
This is all very interesting, to me anyway, though for some reason this device is less often used in films where it would make the most immediate sense; that is, films set in or around the theater world. I would argue that Birdman does this with its long takes, there being no cuts in live theater. It was also done, less grandly, in 1963 by Kinoshita’s more celebrated peer, Kon Ichikawa. His film An Actor’s Revenge, which has just been released on home video by Criterion, and a very odd film it is, is a revenge story starring Kazuo Hasegawa as Yukinojo, a kabuki actor who specializes in playing women. His specialty is such that even off-stage his effeminate on-stage manner persists – whether this is his natural self or a facet of the larger performance of his life, and much of his life is that, is unclear. Yukinojo’s growing fame catches the attention of the three men he has been seeking all of his life. They’re three wealthy rice merchants who, when Yukinojo was a boy in Nagasaki, betrayed and ruined his father, destroying his family and leading to the deaths of both his parents. As Yukinojo ingratiates himself to these men, he draws closest to Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), who, being the most powerful, we can safely assume is the worst of the bunch. While visiting Dobe, he helps the old man’s most cherished concubine, Namiji (Ayako Wakao), overcome a long illness, by the end of which she has fallen in love with him.
Yukinojo’s revenge plot continues to boil, and violence eventually ensues. It is, underneath everything, a rather pulpy affair. The script by Natto Wada, is based on an old Japanese newspaper serial, which must explain the inclusion of a colorful group of thieves led by Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto), who also falls in love with Yukinojo, and Yamitaro, a philosophical, noble, and evidently all-seeing crook also played, just to shake up the gender issues further, by Hasegawa. Neverthless, pulpy as its various pieces are, Lady Snowblood this ain’t. Most of the action scenes occur outdoors, and at night. At these moments, Ichikawa drops all the lights save those that would illuminate the primary actors, so that sword fights often occur against a background of pure black – a theater effect (also from the stage is the device of having the thief Yamitaro talking to the camera/audience). However, the fights themselves are cinematic, though they’re not shot as traditional movie action scenes. In one fight, we hardly see the participants; instead, Ichikawa’s camera focuses on close-ups of the blades clashing together. Other scenes of not just action, but any sort of physical exertion, employ similar shot choices. One scene of Ohatsu throwing a tantrum cuts to her feet pounding the floor. Another scene that shows a character scaling a wall cuts to close-ups of climbing hands, feet, and parts of the wall itself. This is all very Bressonian, in a film that, otherwise, decidedly isn’t.
This is fitting, as ultimately the components that make up An Actor’s Revenge are both all of a piece and somehow disparate. There is tragedy and regret, and the revenge is of a melancholy sort. The film is practically Victorian in its drama, but reminiscent of American Westerns in its final stoicism -- the film that the ending of An Actor’s Revenge most vividly calls to mind is Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which of course it predates by thirty years. It’s pulp with that form’s signature visceral impact largely drained out of it. It’s kabuki released from the stage.