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Sword Play: An Actor's Revenge vs Your Average Zatoichi Movie

  Kazuo Hasegawa and Shintaro Katsu were huge stars in Japanese cinema, but of different generations, and one of them was more identified with a single character than the other. By the time Hasegawa had been recruited to recreate one of his most beloved silent roles in An Actor's Revenge, Katsu was well into his series of Zatoichi movies, tales of a wandering swordsman who happened to be blind. It is interesting to compare these with Hasegawa's An Actor's Revenge, for they had a lot in common: both stars had a gimmick that enriched their portrayal, both were playing men forced into action by tragedy, and both often found themselves in stylised situations.

An Actor's Revenge of 1962 was created by director Kon Ichikawa, initially against his wishes as he wanted to be setting out on his own projects, not updating some dusty old item of kabuki theatre for a leading man making his supposedly three hundredth movie. In truth, Hasegawa was noticeably long in the tooth to be returning to this role, so Ichikawa opted for an approach that made it clear he was well aware how artificial all this was, and crafted, well, a deeply artificial production. Time after time the film called attention to the fact this was shot on obvious sets, that it was blatantly Hasegawa playing the title part and that of a wandering, roguish thief, and that it was perfectly fine to have a giggle while watching: a bizarre experience for sure.

But it was often, in that constantly taking a step back to reveal more of the falseness of the story and its arrangement, visually striking, from the opening where the protagonist Yukinojo is acting out the kabuki role of a tragic heroine on a snowy stage, right to the marvellous final image of him gradually disappearing in a field of grasses flowing in the breeze. In between, we were asked to believe Hasegawa was so convincing as a beautiful woman that he is much desired by female and male alike, despite looking like what he was, a fifty-five-year-old man in drag, and not a Danny La Rue or RuPaul either. Not only that, but this guise enabled him to gain access to the noblemen he had targeted for that titular vengeance, for those three have driven his parents to suicide.

It seemed Yukinojo was irresistible to all and sundry, and if you came to this with a serious mindset you may be wondering if the film was having some secret in-joke at your expense. Should you come to it regarding its artifice as the point, then you would have a lot better time of it as the hero (heroine?) sharpened his blade in anticipation of using it on the villains, even as he pondered his growing lack of enthusiasm for the revenge that had become his sole impetus for the passage through life. All that said, it may be arch but it wasn't some knee-slapping spoof of incredible hilarity, it was somehow too remote for that even as Ichikawa examined the constructions inherent in the old, old story it was putting across. But was An Actor's Revenge unique in its methods?

Japanese Samurai movies were in effect that country's equivalent of Westerns, though there were Japanese Westerns too, but for a more indigenous idea of what the general public there wanted from a night out at the pictures, a Zatoichi movie was a good place to start. There were twenty-six of these, and all starred Shintaro Katsu (Takeshi Kitano appeared in a late after the fact revival in the early twenty-first century). They generally followed a formula where the title character would show up in some village somewhere in nineteenth century Japan and find there was something badly amiss there, then do his level best to use his sharp wits and sharper sword to right wrongs, before setting off on his eternal journey once again.

Sort of like what Bill Bixby would do in The Incredible Hulk television series of the seventies, though Zatoichi predated that by a couple of decades; nevertheless, they both had their superpowers that were employed sparingly. In Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967), where Katsu by then enjoyed creative control, he wandered into one of those villages to discover exploited peasants, and unusually for him took a whole year to sort out who was doing what to whom. In An Actor's Revenge, the actual swordfighting took up a very small amount of the drama, and so it was in many Zatoichi efforts, keeping their powder dry for the most impact, though saying that, there was a lot more enthusiasm to seeing Katsu abruptly dispatch the foes than there had been in Ichikawa's work.

In Zatoichi at the Fire Festival (1970), where he didn't go to a fire festival, there was an interesting item of casting in Pîtâ, or Peter as he was otherwise known, the effeminate Japanese actor who could have given Hasegawa a run for his money in female impersonation, an interesting aspect of homosexuality in the series - our hero is nearly seduced by his new, younger pal, who keeps insisting he wants to be a man, until it turns out he really does want to be a man and makes a bid to murder the swordsman. But they eventually become friends and Zatoichi gives him a few words of wisdom, probably because Pîtâ was such a popular performer so it would not have been cool for the protagonist to start with the slice and dice to get the better of him.

Yukinojo was the source of much fascination in An Actor's Revenge, both from women and men, possibly homosexual in the case of the latter but equally out of a huge curiosity about having such a novelty in their midst. If anything, the women were more captivated than the men, though not because they wished to "turn" the kabuki actor, more because they coveted his exoticism and wished to own him emotionally. However, he is too wrapped up in his quest for justice to pay much attention to that kind of affection, controlling as it may be, and winds up banished to legend status, sadly rendering him an untouchable figure as illustrated by that final shot, one which was not alien to the Zatoichi movies as Katsu would walk off into the countryside for his next adventure.

The second last of the original run of Katsu's most famous franchise was either the best of them, or the worst, depending on your tolerance for how grim a much-admired character who had become part of the furniture in Japanese cinema could get. Zatoichi in Desperation (1972) saw the hero much-abused here - this was the entry where he suffered apparently career-ending injuries both as swordsman and masseur, though he was back for the finale, Zatoichi's Conspiracy, the following year, not to mention an almost hundred-episode television series in the mid-to-late seventies that proved just as popular. But here the sins of the past, and how they translate to the present, proved a popular theme, just as they had in the Ichikawa arthouse favourite of ten years previous.

In addition to the common theme, Zatoichi in Desperation was the most stylised of the series, moving towards an appeal to be taken seriously as something like An Actor's Revenge had been by taking the material with the utmost seriousness, including scenes nothing less than disturbing, especially to fans, and keeping the imagery as stark as possible. Most likely you'll prefer the Ichikawa approach, since there was the saving grace of humour to be gleaned, but the contrast showed the vast array of swordplay works from Japan - Akira Kurosawa may have made the most celebrated of these internationally with Seven Samurai, but historical adventures never went out of fashion, Takashi Miike for example creating a swordsman movie as his hundredth effort with Blade of the Immortal. Whichever, the variety contained in these period pieces leave An Actor's Revenge vital to judge the others against.

[An Actor's Revenge has been released on Blu-ray from the BFI, a special edition that includes an audio commentary from Asian expert Tony Rayns, Nagisa Oshima's hour-long 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, and a collection of short newsreel items from Japan. There's also a booklet to round off a must-have package for the film's fans.]
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018