An Actor's Revenge
A uniquely prolific and chameleonic figure of world cinema, Kon Ichikawa delivered a burst of stylistic bravado with this intricate tale of betrayal and retribution. Set in the cloistered world of nineteenth-century kabuki theater, the film charts a female impersonator’s attempts to avenge the deaths of his parents, who were driven to insanity and suicide by a trio of corrupt men. Ichikawa takes the conventions of melodrama and turns them on their head, bringing the hero’s fractured psyche to life in boldly experimental widescreen compositions infused with kaleidoscopic color, pop-art influences, and meticulous choreography. Anchored by a magnificently androgynous performance by Kazuo Hasegawa, reprising a role he had played on-screen three decades earlier, An Actor’s Revenge is an eye-popping examination of how the illusions of art intersect with life.
The Criterion Collection presents Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 4K restoration performed by Kadokawa Corporation, scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
The image is, somewhat surprisingly, rather dark throughout, a lot of sequences just about completely drenched in black. But the black levels look really good, deep and inky, lending nicely to the film’s use of shadows in just about every scene. But despite the dark look of the film there are some bright pops of colour to be found, including strong yellows, reds, purples, and even turquoise.
Detail levels look great a lot of the time, though there is some distortion on edges of the screen (more than likely an effect from the anamorphic lenses) blurring things a little. But grain is rendered well and the image always looks like a film. I also didn’t pinpoint any severe damage, the restoration cleaning up things nicely. It’s a very pleasing looking image.
(As a note the English subtitles for the opening credits play out before the actual Japanese in-film credits show up, I assume because there is a lot of dialogue spoken over the actual credit sequence that needs translation.)
The film is accompanied by a lossless 1.0 PCM mono track. It sounds fine but it is a product of its age. Voices and music sound a bit flat but still easy to hear. There is an audible hiss that gets louder here and there but there were no other significant flaws and the track is clean otherwise.
Criterion gives the film a modest but still decent special edition, starting things out with a fairly significant 58-minute interview with director Kon Ichikawa, filmed in 1999 and conducted for the Directors Guild of Japan by Yuki Mori. The conversation pretty much covers his whole career so there isn’t a lot of time to focus on any particular film, with Tokyo Olympiad being the only film that gets any real coverage. But they talk about each important period of his life, from his jumping around between studios (Toho, Nikkatsu, Daiei, and so on) and then that brief period where he teamed up with directors Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Masaki Kobayashi with an aim of the four to make films together (at least in running ideas by each other), calling themselves “The Four Horseman.” Outside of Dodes’ka-den nothing really came from it (and even that was pretty much all Kurosawa). He also talks about how his animation background played into things, mentioning that Disney’s Silly Symphonies are actually what drove him into the industry. It’s admittedly a fairly stale interview in terms of set-up (I think it tries to liven things up by changing up the background every once in a while) but Ichikawa has enough stories to share to keep it interesting.
Tony Rayns then talks for 13-minutes about the film and its look, but most interestingly he gets into the film’s rather interesting production history. It was a project started by the Daiei studio to commemorate actor Kazuo Hasegawa’s 300th film role. Oddly, though, they randomly chose to remake one Hasegawa’s previous films, a 1935 silent film with the title of Yukinojo henge, which seemed extremely outdated for the 60s where studios were pushing out more youth oriented films. Rayns explains how this fact, how the film was not appropriate for the period, led to Ichikawa’s stylistic choices, which pay homage not only to Kabuki Theater, but also payed tribute to silent cinema. It’s short but a great overview of the film.
The release also comes with a booklet (an actual booklet) featuring a great analysis of the film by Michael Sragow. But the real gem of the booklet (and the release) is a reprint of a short 1955 article by Kon Ichikawa about being won over by CinemaScope. This last addition was an especially nice touch.
In all it isn’t packed, and yes, I wish Rayns could have provided a commentary, but between the two interviews and the booklet the features prove quite rewarding.
It sports a really strong visual presentation and a handful of rewarding features. It comes highly recommended.