Edo, 1836, and Yukinojo, a Kabuki actor specialising in female roles, recognises the magistrate and two merchants who were responsible for the death of his parents and allies with a mysterious bandit to eliminate them.
Coming after the partly animated Disney homage, Being Two Isn't Easy, this marked something of a change of pace for the ever-eclectic Kon Ichikawa. However, it wasn't an assignment of his own choosing, as he had been ordered to accept it by the Daiei studio following a string of commercial misfires.
It was the second filming of Otokichi Mikami's newpaper serial, although Teinosuke Kinugasa's three-part 1935 adaptation had also been condensed into a single feature in 1952. Kinugasa (who had himself been an onnagata or oyama) acted as an adviser behind the scenes. But his star, Kazuo Hasegawa (himself a former oyama), reprised the dual role had had played 28 years earlier and it speaks volumes for the 55 year-old's longevity and skill that he was even more effective in what was his 300th film than he had been in the original monochrome version. This is a film of constant contrast, with the clashes between artifice and reality, life and death, love and hate, stage and film, gentility and violence, and masculinity and femininity imparting a thematic richness that is complemented by visuals of such artistic depth and dexterity that they demand repeated viewings. The influence of classical Japanese prints, widescreen cinema, comic books, stage atmospherics and silent era special effects are all evident. But it's the way in which Ichikawa consistently disrupts the viewer's perspective (just as he aurally disconcerts with the jarring mix of jazz, folk music and exaggerated ambient sounds) that makes this so compelling. Of course, the whole conceit could have collapsed into a camp catastrophe. But the screenplay, (co-written by Ichikawa's wife, Natto Wada,) is so laced with irony that Hasegawa is able to play the piece as the pulp pantomime that it has always been considered by Japanese audieneces. Yet it remains a masterclass in both stage and screen techniques.
A masterclass in satirically nostalgic New Wave modernism.