So this was….strange.
In this Japanese period piece, Yukitarō (Kazuo Hasegawa) is an actor in a kabuki troupe. Yukitarō joined the troupe as a child, after his parents were driven to kill themselves thanks to the machinations of three other noblemen. But all this time Yukitarō has been plotting his revenge – and now that the troupe is in Edo, where the three men now live, Yukitarō decides it’s time to act. But one of the men now has a daughter, Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto), who becomes infatuated with Yukitarō; he exploits her affections to get close to her father and facilitate his plan.
So there were some confusing bits about this – some of which was simply culture shock. Kabuki actors use stage names, some of which are handed down like a title – so for a good part of the film some characters were addressing Yukitarō by his stage name of “Yukinojō” instead. And to make things even more confusing, Hasegawa was playing a dual role in this film – sometimes appearing as “Yamitarō”, a petty thief who occasionally commented on the proceedings as a sort of Greek chorus. The similarities between the names “Yukitarō” and “Yamitarō”, combined with both characters having the same face, did cause me to lose my way a bit, especially since sometimes people called Yukitarō something else entirely. I confess that I finally gave up on keeping the names straight and started thinking of Yukitarō as “Effeminate Revenge Guy” instead.
And Hasegawa did indeed play Yukitarō in an effeminate way most of the film. But there’s precedent for that – at this time, women were not allowed to act, so some men like Yukitarō became onnagata, or men who specifically play womens’ roles.
Here’s where we go into a really deep dive into the culture shock – and where things really get interesting, and where I started appreciating the film more after the fact. I’d learned a bit about kabuki in college theater history classes – all I could remember was that it started out as an all-female art form, started by a temple priestess who organized skits for the fun of it in a dried-up Kyoto riverbed. Kabuki soon expanded to include performers of both genders, and it became a big attraction in Japan’s various red-light districts – which annoyed the moral-authority nobility, who sneered at the often saucy content and at the mixing-and-mingling of different social classes in the audience. Many of the actresses had side gigs as prostitutes, and some developed very passonate fandoms. In an effort to rein things in, women were banned from performing kabuki in 1629.
But that just lead to the rise of onnagata as a thing in kabuki, with particularly androgynous-looking young men taking on women’s roles (and some even taking on the same prostitution and fan followings the women had done). When the emperor banned onnagata in 1642, that just lead to a lot of kabuki plays about homosexual romances. That ban on onnagata was lifted in 1644, and authorities tried a different approach – requiring all kabuki actors, regardless of their roles, to wear the traditional adult male chonmage hairstyle with the shaved crown. Onnagata still found a way to work with this – donning a small purple kerchief known as a murasaki bōshi to cover the shaved spot. This gender-bending signifier went on to develop an erotic power all its own, of course; and soon after, the moral authorities gave up much of their policing and let onnagata do what they wanted.
There are a handful of scenes where Yamitarō indeed wears this kind of purple kerchief. And overall – the more I refreshed my memory about kabuki, the more it felt like the movie was itself echoing kabuki’s style. Hasegawa occasionally gives us Yamitarō’s inner thoughts in a breathy voiceover; or, he’ll narrate things in Yamitarō’s gruffer, bawdier patter instead. There’s a lengthy sequence where Yamitarō is trying to walk home through the streets of Edo at night and is stopped by two other robbers – instead of staging this in a street set, the actors are in a pitch-black set, with no other scenery. Other shots use equally-minimal staging, which to me looked much like the minimalist sets of a kabuki performance. There’s also a heightened-reality feel to a good deal of the plot, also befitting kabuki.
So, yes – this one was strange. But that’s fitting – as my theater professor told me so many years ago, the very word kabuki means “strange theater”.