Kon gone

kabuki monster 

Kon Ichikawa just died this week, aged 92. A good age, admittedly.

He directed on of my all-time favourite movies, maybe even a Top Ten contender — AN ACTOR’S REVENGE. My big regret is that AAR’s lack of commercial success in Japan prevented Ichikawa from working in that heightened, theatrical mode again — arguably his TOKYO OLYMPIAD shares some of the same qualities, and Ichikawa undoubtedly made other great films, FIRES ON THE PLAIN for one, but AAR is sui generis, as they say in Japan. The kabuki scenes have the same delirious fusion of reality and fantasy (the performer’s vision is transfigured by the theatrical experience, conjuring a whole imaginary world for them) as THE RED SHOES. And in Ichikawa’s film, the theatrical elements escape the stage and wantonly transform the supposedly “real” scenes. Also, it’s part film noir, part revenger’s tragedy, part samurai saga, with a dementedly romantic jazz score and a transvestite hero.

Made to celebrate star Kazuo Hasegawa’s 300th film appearance, and to punish Ichikawa for previous uncommercial films, the movie is the perfect example of a filmmaker triumphing over difficult conditions (admittedly with the aid of considerable funds). Hasegawa was clearly too old and heavy-set to play the lead role (which he had created in a 1935 serial version), but Ichikawa encourages us to overlook his protagonist’s Steiger-like burliness by stylising EVERYTHING (and also casting Hasegawa as a devil-may-care bandit). Everybody else in the film finds Hasegawa stunning and convincing as a woman (including the other Hasegawa!) so we have little choice but to go along with it — not quite believing, but indulging the storyteller as we do in the early stages of a play. We know the stage isn’t really a battlefield or a palace, but we make believe. Once the film has us doing that, it can have its way with us utterly.

Ichikawa pulls off something that’s widely presumed to be impossible.

An Actor Prepares

If only there were more movies like this. I’m not a huge Peter Brook fan, but i admit he’s onto something when he says that just because the standard way of staging a play is to have actors impersonate characters and act out scenes, that needn’t be the only solution. Anything that tells the story to the audience is acceptable (and you might not even have a story!) AN ACTOR’S REVENGE tells its story with breathtaking beauty, but isn’t concerned about believability at all, except in a psychological sense. I don’t even think it’s THAT extreme an approach, but it’s light-years beyond anything in mainstream cinema.

the cotton is high

This end sequence seems to be referenced in Terence Malick’s THE NEW WORLD!

sanjuro

I think I might toast the Great Man by running THE BURMESE HARP for the first time.

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4 Responses to “Kon gone”

  1. The thing is there were a great many version of An Actor’s Revenge made in Japan. Ichikawa’s is the only one to have any impact in the West — for obvious reasons.

    Hae you seen his Topo Gigio film?

  2. No, I only just heard about the puppet film when I was researching this. Have you?

  3. Sadly I haven’t. I’m not sure if it was ever distributed in the U.S.

  4. It seems to have come at a point when Ichikawa’s career was winding down, at the end of its first spurt. He got going again, but doesn’t appear to have recaptured his former powers — but I haven’t seen any of his later work.

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