Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Yukinojo Henge (An Actor’s Revenge)

My spontaneous reaction to this 1963 film by Kon Ichikawa is that is very different to any other Japanese movie I’ve have seen, but as fascinating as the works of Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse. The film is really ‘different’ not only as a film but also because the story it tells.

Tells the story of female impersonator Yukinojo Nakamura that works with a Kabuki troupe that arrives to Edo where Yukinojo is finally able to implement his revenge against three greedy man that ruined his family while he was a little kid. Honestly is a simple story but the way that is presented makes it one of the most complex stories I have seen lately, as the mise-en-scene, the performances and the director style makes a simple tale to become outstandingly complex, mesmerizing and very interesting.

According to what I have been reading, Kabuki female impersonators (onnagta) used to dress as women even when they were not in the stage; so in this movie you have Yukinojo always dressed as a woman with the most beautiful kimonos you can imagine. She truly looks like a woman (with some masculine facial features) and the character attracts other women that instantly fall in love with him (or her?). In the translation Yukinojo is called “half man, half woman” by the woman thief, Ohatsu, that falls for her/him. By the way, Ohatsu is called a ‘man hater’, but nevertheless she falls for Yukinojo.

Yukinojo in the beginning because of the revenge machinations seduces very beautiful Namiji, the daughter of Dobe a powerful man in Edo and one of the objects of his revenge; but in the end is willing to accept that she’s an innocent bystander. So you are able to watch what looks like two women in tender seduction and tormented romance.

The movie was sort of a ‘punishment’ given to Ichikawa because previous films failure to achieve commercial success and it’s a remake of a 1935 film by Teinousuke Kinugasa of the same name in Japanese but with a different translation as it is called Yukinojo Revenge. In the original film actor Kazuo Hasegawa plays Yukinojo, Yamitaro the Thief and Yukinojo’s mother. In Ichikawa film the same actor plays Yukinojo (always a woman) and Yamitaro (always a man). So, this adds another layer to the film that makes it quite playful because you have one Yamitaro monologue where the character really is saying that he is a good actor! But also makes it look like mirror characters with clearly plural intertextuality as James Quandt calls it in his book, Kon Ichikawa, that if you feel like reading some excerpts regarding this movie go here.

But what really blew my mind is the film as a film. With very few exceptions, the film had outdoor scenes that purposely look like unrealistic outdoors or like Kabuki stage montages. The end product is fascinating especially when the film is in cinemascope and takes all the possible advantages of the then new technique in many scenes, like when Yamitaro is ‘captured’ by a rope that you just see it goes into infinite dark. Also the lighting is very stage alike, which allows great dramatization of moments and playful kind of ‘silly’ sword fights. Some serious cinema historians consider his theater-to-cinema style to be a precursor inspiration to future anime/manga. One hallucinating extra is the eclectic use of background music that includes traditional kabuki accompaniment, folk music, jazz, and avant-garde ambient sounds. Amazing style that has all the elements of a disaster and only in Ichikawa hands became not only outstandingly beautiful to watch but also flawlessly cinematic art. Bravo!

The movie is the winner of the Best Art Direction at the 1964 Mainichi Film Concours and truly deserves the award and more.

Yes, I’m very impressed by this film that came as a total surprise as I found it while doing the research for the lesbian cinema project and had the great opportunity to find it in a friend’s collection. I’m really torn to assign this movie the lesbian label, as while watching the movie even when I saw a woman with another woman, I knew it was a man! But well, the movie is so interesting, different and fascinating that I will assign the label so perhaps some of you readers decide to give it a try, but definitively is not your regular lesbian interest movie.

If you feel like reading more about the movie I suggest you check this article in the Senses of Cinema site.

I imagine that most of you serious cinema and Japanese cinema lovers have already seen this movie that is one of Ichikawa most famous films in the west. But if you have not, I strongly suggest you consider it as a must be seen.

Big Enjoy!!!

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