Amorphous, shadow-cloaked exterior shots and border-free wide-angle panoramas set a uniquely cinematic stage for riveting 1963 melodrama An Actor’s Revenge (newly restored). These visually limitless compositions suggest an expansive prison that kabuki actor Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) often literally disappears into as he carries out his long-gestating plan to ruin fair-weather financial partners Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), Kawaguchiya (Saburo Date), and Hiromiya (Eijiro Yanagi), the rice merchants who drove Yukinojo’s parents to kill themselves.
An Actor’s Revenge‘s ink-black aesthetic is periodically punctuated by artificial-looking props and flat set demarcations: In a playful early scene, the rope that two bumbling policemen use to capture Heima (Eiji Funakoshi), a bandit swordsman, launches at viewers and diagonally cuts the film’s otherwise blank visual field in two.
Yukinojo imagines everyone, including Heima and Dobe’s daughter Namiji (Ayako Wakao), as a supporting player in his bleak narrative. But all of these supplementary characters have enough agency to take control of Yukinojo’s story, like when two-bit thief Yamitaro (also Hasegawa) insists that “[I] can choose to become either a hero or a villain.” Likewise, when Dobe produces a ruby-colored glass of poison at film’s end, his twitchy facial tics (filmed in ever-tightening close-ups) make it hard to tell whether he will drink the beverage or offer it to Yukinojo.
But while Yukinojo’s story is perpetually complicated by secondary subplots, his black mood predominates over the style of An Actor’s Revenge, a light-swallowing miasma that only momentarily subsides when characters enter the confines of cramped private rooms. Beyond those finite walls waits a vast stage, and a night without end.
An Actor’s Revenge
Directed by Kon Ichikawa
October 17, Japan Society