Film Criticism / Film History / Film Theory / Gay History / Gay Studies / Gender Studies / Queer Cinema Japan

Queer Cinema Japan: An Actors Revenge

Queer Cinema Japan is a Continuing Series on Cinema Homosexualis.

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(雪之丞変化) An Actors Revenge, sometimes known in English as Revenge of a Kabuki Actor,  was a film of little significance when it was produced in 1963. Director Kon Ichikawa was forced to direct it by the powers that be at Daiei Studios after a string of artistic flops (128). Based on a newspaper serial by Mikami Otokichi, An Actors Revenge was already a well known, adapted property that had long been in the public conscience, and one could hardly call the film produced a punishment for Ichikawa, who is obviously delighted by the boundless freedom he exhibits under the confines of a melodramatic soap opera of old Japan. Artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein would enter the public conscience in the early sixties with the advent of Pop art, and in a way, Ichikawa proves his 1963 film as a contemporary of the movement, making what one could call one of greatest pieces of true pop art Cinema ever produced. Awash in wild, vivid colors that seem to come to life from the torrid silkscreens and woodblock prints of the Edo Period. No other film seems to pop off the screen like An Actors Revenge, and looks like no Japanese film before, or after.

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An Actors Revenge comes from a unique, and long tradition of Queer sub-text almost nonexistent in films from other cultures, and in fact comes from a culture of Queer ideology, thought and perception that is apart of Japan’s centuries long infrastructure. While Funeral Parade of Roses (1970) is considered Japan’s first film addressing homosexuality, the codes and constructs of sexuality in Japan are something that repeatedly shocked Western Missionaries venturing into Japan in the 1500’s, where there, they discovered a long ranging group of same sex unions in Middle Class society. But what the Westerners stumbled upon, and what still continues to confuse them, is the ethereal nature of homosexuality through out Japanese history and culture, often refusing to confine itself to one concrete term. The words for male homosexuality are seemingly endless in the lexicon of Japanese language. ‘male eros” (nanshoku); “the way of youths” (wakashudo)’ ‘”the way of men (nano); “the beautiful way” (bido); and “the secret way” (hido) (1). In the time period of An Actors Revenge, which would more than likely fall into the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), Male Homosexuality in particular, was ‘formally organized in such institutions as samurai mansions, Buddhist monasteries, and male brothels linked to the kabuki theatre’ and was ‘a salient feature of mainstream culture’ ‘celebrated in popular art and culture’ (1). The hero, or heroine of our film, Yukinojo, is a kabuki actor known as an Onnagata, a male performing only female roles. Kabuki, being a theatrical tradition that banished all women from performing on stage, became a hotbed for same sex prostitution throughout seventeenth and eighteenth century Japan, where a burgeoning middle class made up the theaters audience, an audience experiencing the restrictions of European influence, hungering for loud, colorful performances by entirely male casts that became more and more flamboyant over time.  However, western influence appears again in Japan throughout the centuries and the complicated infrastructure of Japanese sexuality comes under fire, consequences the country still suffers into the 21st century with an occupation of American forces that are stationed there to this day. With this history in context, we are forced to look at the inevitable Western influence on human sexuality in Japan, with the colonialist attitude that eventually changes the shift of sexual perception in Modern Japan, where confining terms eventually lead to a bittersweet relationship toward homosexuality in Japan for the 20th and 21st centuries.

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The word ‘homosexuality’ is what stops us in our tracks with a culture such as Japan’s, and a film like An Actors Revenge. Curiously, no male same sex love occurs through any of the content of the film, though Yukinojo is clearly a cross dressing actor who defies gender conformity by refusing to leave his female guise and wiles, his own sexuality never truly addressed, perhaps bringing on the notion that Yukinojo is a human above the confines of labeled sexuality. Ichikawa plays with the audience, particularly a Japanese audiences ideas of sexuality and its many deceptive labels by never revealing Yukinojo’s own sexual desires and feelings, let along self identified gender, though using a cross dressed character. McLelland states that ‘The prominence of cross-dressed individuals featured in the media means that cross-dressing is the main paradigm Japanese people have for understanding non-normative sexualities’ (5). the films original title, ‘Yukinojo Henge’ (雪之丞変化) translates roughly  as ‘The Many Guises of Yukinojo’. What deceptively appears here, for a westerner, is the notion that his role as an ‘onnagata’, the female, is merely a disguise, a sleight of hand used for trickery. One synopsis on the film site Fandango even ventures to describe the plot as ‘an ‘onnagata’, traveling to Edo in feminine disguise’. Why would one venture to call an ambiguous gender a mere disguise? One might at first, call Yukinojo a drag queen superhero. Like Zaotochi or Yojimbo, Yukinojo can throw a sword and beat samurai better than Toshiro Mifune, and then some, never once taking off an elegant kimono or platform shoes, but to even call the gender neutral Yukinojo a drag queen is confounding. Throughout the film, we are never shown any particular scene where Yukinojo takes off a wig, reveals his male physique or identifies himself as first and foremost, a male. The only times the question of his  gender are even addressed are by those around him, of whose reactions Yukinojo never publicly addresses, denies or comments upon. In fact, the ‘guises’ in the title of Yukinojo Henge are the frequent disguises Yukinojo uses in his act of revenge against those who were responsible for his parents death in the town of Edo, where Yukinojo appears as his parents ghost in one of his final acts of atonement and the fact that the actor portraying Yukinojo, Kasuo Hasegawa, plays the dual role of Yamitaro, a “butch” Robin-Hood like thief who steals from the rich and gives to the poor.

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Even more curious, are the sexual relationships that make up the films plot. An elaborate part of Yukinojo’s plot for revenge is the seduction of Namiji (Ayako Wakao), the powerful Merchants daughter who holds the precarious, but powerful role of the Shogun’s courtesan. Namiji has fallen madly in love with Yukinojo and intends to leave her powerful position for his love. The scenes between Namiji and Yukinojo are indeed, given the same tenderness and melodrama of any standard romantic tear-jerker from the west. But a central part of Yukinojo’s revenge, and a central part to understanding the films sexual codings, is that we are uncertain if Namiji is falling in love with our hero/heroine as a man, or a woman, or as a person who has combined both sexes. Another woman, Ohatsu, a thief who proves one of the central characters of the films sub-plot, has confessed her love for Yukinojo, though admitting to her partner in crime in the beginning of the film that she finds the ‘part-man, part-woman’ ‘creepy’, eventually falling for him, though it angers her. In the Western Lexicon of language (that ultimately limits us in our addressing of the films sexuality), we are forced to call the sexual underlinings of the film ‘queer’. We, as viewers are forced to put into question what the sexual nature of Namiji and Ohatsu’s attraction to Yukinojo. Though one might venture to call their attraction to the feminine Yukinojo lesbionic, Japanese cultures denial of lesbianism is altogether notoriously difficult. A term for ‘lesbian’ in the Japanese language was for centuries, nonexistent. Not until the late 20th and early 21st century was ‘the term ‘doseiai’…used for both male and female same-sex love when the loan word rezubian was introduced, sometimes abbreviated to ‘rezu’, and nowadays ‘daiku’ (dyke) though these may all hold negative connotations (1). The thief Ohatsu defiantly proclaims herself a lover of men, and is infuriated by the love she feels for Yukinojo, asking who ‘could love such a half man, half woman? Ohatsu cannot be easily called a lesbian, and even the powerful people who consist of the family unit around the innocent Namiji address Yukinojo as an ‘actor’ and not an ‘actress’ that she has fallen foolishly in love with. Women’s desire in Classic Japanese film, is indeed an inherently curious subject matter that is almost never addressed unless one excepts the ever power, money hungry prostitutes in Post war melodramas such as Suzuki’s  Gate of Flesh (1964) or Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame (1956). One wonders if the only real lesbianism that can be read in An Actors Revenge is through Yukinojo being, after all, a man who identifies as a woman. Regardless, the boundaries of gender being obliterated throughout the narrative is what makes the film undeniably ‘queer’ and in the lexicon of Japanese film, utterly refreshing.

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Does An Actors Revenge inherent ‘queerness’ lend itself to what one could call an inherent ‘queer’ narrative? Here the films undeniable Western influences come curiously into play. Richie writes that ‘the film was seen by the director (Ichikawa) and his wife Natto Wada (who adapted the scenario) as “so bad as to be good” and further states that the film was ‘Appreciated shortly after its release into the Western concepts of “camp” and pop art (129). Though an inherently Japanese story in a traditionalist sense, An Actors Revenge’s stunning originality comes form its western influences.’There’s a lot of Disney in me’ (38) proclaimed Ichikawa frequently throughout interviews when asked about his directorial style and influences. While Breakwell compares Ichikawa’s admiration of Disney to ‘a way comparable to a painter or novelist’s autonomy (38) Ichikawa reinvigorates a tired melodrama with facets of western narrative, visual devices reminiscent of Disney’s animated films, going as far as to look like an animated film come vividly to life. It is surprising, even for a western viewer unfamiliar with Japanese cinema, how relatively easy it is to immerse oneself into the plot. One would have to have a hard of stone to not surrender to the beguiling, flashy colors of Ichikawa’s universe created in An Actors Revenge. Each character is instantly familiar due to the strict color coding used throughout. Yukinojo is almost always dressed in a shade of violet, Ohatsu the thief is always clothed in a coy robin eggs blue, Namiji, Yukinojo’s innocent victim, is bathed in hues of virginal snow white. The films plot, taking place on large theatrical sets that remind one of two dimensional drawings, seems to unfold with animated precision. Like many of Disney’s early animated features such as Pinocchio (1940) or Cinderella (1950), the plot does not seem to carry on entirely around the main characters decisions and eventual quest, but by the subplots characters that help carry the narrative fourth. The thieves that make up the films subplots such as Ohatusu, her unwitting boyfriend and the brave Yamitaro almost remind one of Cinderella’s mice or the mischievous fox and cat that lure Pinocchio from the well-trod path. What Ichikawa has inherently achieved, is introducing a story filled with the complexities and intricacies that once made up the labyrinth of queer sexuality in Ancient Japanese narrative, art, theatre and culture by inadvertently presenting it through a western narrative structure. Ichikawa has taken the interactions of east and west, presenting perhaps, the best of both worlds, presenting what could only be called, one of world cinema’s greatest treasures. One trailer at the films release proclaims that Ichikawa ‘challenges samurai cinema for the first time.’ Ichikawa, whether he realized it or not, challenged all cinema with one of its most uncompromising works.

Works Cited:

Breakwell, Ian . An Actors Revenge . 1st . London : British Film Institute , 1996 . Print.

Nygren, Scott. “Inscribing the subject: The Melodramatization of Gender in An Actors Revenge .” Trans. Array Melodrama and Asian Cinema . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2006 . 127-129 . Print.

P. Leupp , Gary . “Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan.” Trans. Array. 1st University of California Press , 1997 . Print.

J. McLelland, Mark . Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities. London : Routledge, 2000 . Print.

Naicker, Ramona . “Lesbian Invisibility in Japan .” LinguaLift . 15 Jun 2012: n. page. Web. 8 Apr. 2013. <http://japanese.lingualift.com/blog/lesbianism-in-japan/&gt;.

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