A man playing a beautiful woman playing a love scene with a beautiful woman may seem confusing. It may seem odder when the man playing the beautiful woman is also the actor playing a resourceful, ironic chief of bandits who shares several scenes with himself playing the beautiful woman. It may seem odder still that the actor was 55 years old, one of Japan's acting treasures, and carries off both roles with complete aplomb. And he should. Kazuo Hasegawa played the same roles in the first filming of Yukinojo Henge 28 years earlier.
Stay with this 1963 movie by Kon Ichikawa and you'll find yourself immersed in a story of revenge, humor and clever style that is not only odd but engrossing and amusing. The story is set in 1830's Edo in the world of Kabuki where highly trained male actors, onnagata, play women's roles. By law they must maintain the pretense in manner and dress in private life as well as in public. Yukinojo Nakamura (Kazuo Hasegawa) is a famous onnagata. During a performance he spots the businessmen who, 20 years earlier in Nagasaki, drove his parents to suicide. He was 11 then. Revenge has been his goal ever since. One of the men has a beautiful young daughter, Namiji, who falls madly in love with Yukinojo, as women often did with onnagata. She is pledged to the shogun, and she will be the lever for Yukinojo's revenge. But then there is Ohatsu, a beautiful pickpocket with a lovely face, an impertinent manner and a vocabulary that can make men blush. She falls in love with Yukinojo, too. And there is her boss, the master thief Yamitaro (also played by Kazuo Hasegawa). Yukinojo is calm, sad and remorseless, with a husky falsetto voice and walking with tiny steps. Yamitaro is athletic, confident and even impish, with a growl of a voice. Soon Ohatsu and Yamitaro will be urging Yukinojo on. Adding to the questionable amusement, Yukinojo, Namiji and Ohatsu are all virgins, with Namiji and Ohatsu eager for Yukinojo, so arousing in expensive kimono with his falsetto, to cure their situation,
All of this is conducted by Kon Ichikawa using one of the most stylish, sly mixes of movie making I've ever seen. There are flashbacks, voice-overs, confidences shared in whispers, a slashing sword fight or two, a ghost, elaborate Kabuki performances, a realistic rice riot and visuals that move within a reality as carefully constructed as the Kabuki sets. That's not to mention the jazzy riff that moves in now and then with Yamitaro and a corny melodic line worthy of Fifties' Hollywood. I'm almost sure Kon Ichikawa uses it deliberately. You're never sure how this stylized movie of many movements is going to end. Kon Ichikawa pulls it all together in a fine film that will probably puzzle some but should delight most. Just remember two things: Revenge is real and the innocent can pay. And that Ohatsu realizes Yamitaro has possibilities...he looks a little like Yukinojo.
Central to the story and to the delight of the movie is Kazuo Hasegawa. To cast it in Western terms, think of Russell Crowe not only playing Bud White but also, in a blonde wig and a low- cut, sheer white dress, Lynn Bracken. Well, that's probably a step too far. Hasegawa, at 55 and not denying middle age with a slight, soft double chin, is not only persuasive in both parts, but persuasive with the two completely differentiated sets of characteristics. He was a huge theater and movie star for years in Japan and, early in his career, trained as a Kabuki actor. Part of the humor of the movie, as well as the appreciation that comes from watching talent and skill, is Kon Ichikawa moving quickly from one scene with Hasegawa as Yukinojo to the next with Hasegawa as Yamitaro.
Revenge of a Kabuki Actor (Yukinojo Henge) may or not be a classic. Still, it's strange and it's beautiful. Perhaps it's a strange, beautiful classic.