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Revenge of a Kabuki Actor

Note: this title is now out-of-print

Revenge of a Kabuki Actor Liner Notes

Kon ICHIKAWA (Director)

Born on November 20, 1915, in Ujiyamada, Mie Prefecture, Ichikawa first gained western recognition during the 1950s and 60s with several bleak films, particularly two acclaimed antiwar films, The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain.

Ichikawa began his career as a cartoonist, and collaborated with his wife, screenwriter Natto WADA, until 1965. His films are generally regarded as dark and bleak, interspersed with sparks of humanity, and he often intertwines comedy and tragedy within the same story. He also has a flair for technical expertise, irony, detachment, and a drive for realism across all genres. After Akira KUROSAWA's departure, no other Japanese director has come close to Ichikawa's level of recognition, the power of his films, and commercial success.

Ichikawa passed away on February 13, 2008. At age 91 (2006), he was still active as a director, completing a feature-length film, The Inugamis, and directing one segment of the Japanese fantasy, Ten Nights of Dream. Partly because of his eclectic style, which has produced incredibly varied but consistently magnificent films, Ichikawa has received almost 30 film awards, including but not limited to:

The Burmese Harp (1956) - WINNER Venice Film Festival San Giorgio Prize, NOMINEE US Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film.

Fires on the Plain (1959) WINNER Locarno Int. Film Fest.Golden Sail Award, WINNER Blue Ribbon Award Best Director, Best Cinematography.

Kagi (1960) - WINNER Cannes Film Fest. Jury Prize, WINNER Golden Globe Best Foreign Film, WINNER Blue Ribbon Award Best Director, NOMINEE Cannes Film Fest. Palme D'or.

Tokyo Olympiad (1965) - - WINNER Cannes Film Fest. Prize of the International Union of Film Critics Special Prize the Best Film for Youth, WINNER BAFTA Awards Flaherty Documentary Award, UN Award.

2000 RECIPIENT Berlin Int. Film Fest. Berlinale Camera Award.

2001 RECIPIENT Montreal World Film Fest. Life Achievement Award. 

Kazuo HASEGAWA (Yukinojo NAKAMURA, Yamitaro the Thief)

Born on February 27, 1908 and trained as a Kabuki actor from a young age, Kazuo became one of the biggest leading men in Japanese film history.

After signing with Shochiku Studios and making his film debut in 1927's Myotoboshi, Kazuo appeared in over 120 films over the next ten years and worked extensively with many of Japan's most prominent directors, including Teinosuke KINUGASA, Masahiro MAKINO, and Kunio WATANABE. At the end of the 1930s, he left Shochiku and signed with Toho Studios where he was cast as a romantic lead in several wartime romances.

Returning to his roots in 1942, Kazuo, along with the actress Isuzu YAMADA (Throne of Blood, Yojimbo), established the Shin Engi-za theater group. In 1948, the same year that Kazuo signed with Daiei Studios, Shin Engi-za began producing their own films.

Over the next 15 years at Daiei, Kazuo experienced his greatest success. He attained international recognition as the star of the 1953 film, Jigokumon (Gate of Hell), which not only won the best film at the Cannes Film Festival, but also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. A year later he starred as the doomed lover in Kenji MIZOGUCHI's Chikamatsu monogatari, one of the few Mizoguchi films seen outside of Japan during the director's lifetime.

After his final two films in 1963, Revenge of a Kabuki Actor and Edo mujo, he left film and concentrated on stage work. In 1965, he was awarded the Shiju-hosho (Order of the Purple Ribbon), given to a person meritorious in the field of art and science.

His crowning achievement came in 1984 when he was presented with the Kokumin Eiyo sho (National Merit Award). The award, given to individuals in various fields such as sports, entertainment and art, has only been bestowed to 15 people, including one other actor (Kiyoshi ATSUMI, from the Tora-san series), and is one of the most highly-regarded decorations in Japan.

He died on April 6, 1984, leaving behind a library of 301 film appearances spanning over five decades. 

Shintaro KATSU (Hojin the Priest)

Shintaro, originally born Toshio OKUMRA, was born November 29, 1931. Nicknamed Katsu-shin, he was a very prolific actor, but also a singer, producer, and director. Beginning with his first film in 1955, Bara ikutabika, Shintaro appeared in over 100 films in six decades, and along with Raizo ICHIKAWA, was one of Daiei Studios top stars during Japan's golden age of filmmaking. His most famous role is, of course, Zatoichi the blind swordsman, whom he played in 25 separate movies between 1962 and 1973. In 1989, he starred in and directed the 26th film, and then reprised the role in four seasons of a Zatoichi television series.

Shintaro founded Katsu Productions when Daiei Studios closed, and produced several great films, including the Lone Wolf & Cub series which starred his older brother Tomisaburo WAKAYAMA.

He died of pharyngael cancer on June 21, 1997 at the age of 65. Known for his love of alcohol and cigarettes, in his last few years Katsu-shin spent increasing amounts of time in the hospital, only to be seen lighting up cigars at press conferences held to announce his recovery. Two days after his death, five thousand people attended his memorial service at a Tokyo Temple. 

Raizo ICHIKAWA (Hirutaro the Thief)

Raizo was born August 29, 1931 in Kyoto, Japan, and had a highly successful film career in mostly period dramas, however his roles as Ishikawa GOEMON in the Shinobi no Mono film series and the nihilistic samurai Nemuri KYOSHIRO in the Sleepy Eyes of Death films catapulted him to true stardom.

Appearing in over 150 films, Raizo worked with legendary directors Kenji MIZOGUCHI, Kon ICHIKAWA, Kenji MISUMI, and Teinosuke KINUGAWA, and also co-starred with Shintaro KATSU (Zatoichi) in at least a dozen features. During his 15 year career he worked exclusively for the Daiei Motion Picture Company, and, along with Shintaro, was one of the studio's top box-office draws.

His romantic presence garnered him legions of female and male fans, and earned him the nickname of the “Japanese James Dean.” He died of cancer on July 17, 1969, at the young age of 37, cutting short what would have been an even more brilliant career.

Within two years of his death, Daiei, one of the five biggest studios in Japan, went bankrupt.

Raizo's awards include:

1958 Blue Ribbon Award - Best Actor (Enjo)

1958 Kinema Junpo Award - Best Actor (Enjo)

1967 Kinema Junpo Award - Best Actor (The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka) 

Ayako WAKAO (Namiji)

Born November 8, 1933, Ayako has appeared in over 100 films and won a handful of Best Actress awards.

During the 50s and 60s, she starred alongside Daiei's most famous actors in many of the studios biggest movies, including 20 films from maverick director Yasuzo MASUMURA. Her most prestigious appearance came as Kayo in Yasujiro OZU's 1959 classic Ukigusa (Floating Weeds).

After two films in the early 1970s (Zatoichi meets Yojimbo, Tora-sans' Shattered Romance), she took a break from filmmaking to devote more time to her family. Her most recent film in 2005, Haru no Yuki (Spring Snow), was nominated for nine awards from the Japanese Academy. 

Fujiko YAMAMOTO (Ohatsu)

Born December 11, 1931, the beautiful Fujiko won the first annual Miss Japan in 1950 and went on to become one of Daiei Studios most familiar faces. Appearing in over 50 films throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the two-time award-winning actress co-starred with Raizo ICHIKAWA on 17 films and another 14 films with her Kabuki Actor co-star Kazuo HASEGAWA. Her last film appearance was the title role in Shiro TOYODA's 1963 film, Yushu heiya (Madame Aki). 

A Daiei Motion Picture Company Film

Originally founded in 1942, Daiei went bankrupt in 1971 and was bought by the Tokuma Shoten Publishing Company. In 2002, Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Company purchased Daiei and Kadokawa-Daiei Motion Picture Company was formed. After another merger in 2006, the company is now known as Kadokawa Pictures Inc. 

Yukinojya Henge -- Revenge of a Kabuki Actor

The literal translation of the title is Yukinojo's Transformation. It has also been referred to as An Actor's Revenge (UK Release).

Adapted from a newspaper serial by Otokichi MIKAMI, the story was first filmed by Teinosuke KINUGASA in 1935 and starred Hasegawa in the title role (under the stage name, Chojiro HAYASHI).

Yukinojya Henge has been made into a film on four other occasions (1939, 1954, 1957, 1959) and a TV movie three other times (1959, 1970, 2008). 


Oyama (or onnagata) are male actors who play female roles, a long-standing tradition in Kabuki theater. Before the Meiji Restoration (1868), oyama were required to stay in character and dress as women, even during their private lives. 


It's an old tradition for enthusiastic audience members (omuko) to cheer their favorite actor upon entrances or at crucial moments during a performance by shouting out things at various times. These appreciative shouts are known as kakegoe. Anyone who's been to a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show knows just what we mean. 


The most common kakegoe are yago, the “house names” which are often yelled at Kabuki actors during play performances. All Kabuki actors have not only a stage name but also a house name, which they share with other members of the same acting house, or “ya.” The major yago are Korai-ya, Matsushima-ya, Narikoma-ya, Otowa-ya, etc. In the film, the yells are not always scripted, so they're hard to hear in some casesthe more so because some of the house names seem to be fabricated (and some not). 

Emperor Ninko (1800-1846)

Emperor Ninko, the 120th emperor of Japan, would have been emperor during the time the film took place. He reigned from 1817-1846. 

Tokugawa Ienari (1773-1841)

Although his appearance is brief in the film, TOKUGAWA Ienari is one of most well-known shoguns in Japanese history. The adopted son of TOKYGAWA Ieharu (10th shogun), he held the position of shogun for 51 years (1786-1837), longer than any other shogun. During his reign, he fathered at least 55 children by 40 different women and kept a harem of over 900 women. This “nuclear family” was common, as it helped maintain the family lineage and tighten bonds with Daimyo.

However, due to the massive budget needed to support his huge family and events, such as the Tempo Famine (1832-1837), which is briefly mentioned in the film, the Tokugawa Shogunate eventually began to crumble. 

Film Notes 

“Hey, Muku. We're done here. Let's go.”

Muku's character name is “Mukuinu,” which means “shaggy dog.” He's the low man on the totem pole, and therefore refers to Ohatsu as “big sister,” which in this case means “chick who's higher on the gang's totem pole than I am.” 

“Why the hell would Ichimura-za bring in a Kansai actor?”

Ichimura-za was one of the three official Kabuki theaters in Edo (present-day Tokyo).

Kansai (aka Kinki) is one of five regions of Honshu (the main island of Japan), and contains the cities of Kyoto and Osaka.

During the Edo period, Kamigata (Kansai) Kabuki and Edo Kabuki were the two pillars of theatre in Japan. As the cultural center gradually shifted from Kansai to Edo, Kansai Kabuki experienced many ups and downs.

Today, there is still a rivalry between the two areas of Japan. 

“Then there's Yamitaro, Cowbird Boy, Ghostly Oryu, Otoki the Silk Spider, First-Song-of-the-Warbler Shimoani, the Fugitive Priest, Sumie the Widow, Narukami Ohime, and Densuke the Cuckoo.”

These are all fictitious “famous thieves” of Edo. Yamitaro and the Fugitive Priest actually appear in the movie.

“Cowbird Boy (Kagonuke Kozo)” is almost certainly a riff on Nezumi Kozo, known as “Rat Boy” or “The Rat,” an actual famous Edo thief. Cowbird is not a literal translation of “kagonuke”; literally it sounds like “bird escaping a cage,” but with different kanji that refers to a type of fraud theft where you crash an event or infiltrate a business establishment, accept money/gifts etc. as if you belong there, then skedaddle. The same word can also refer to an Edo-era acrobatic trick where the performer passes through a “bottomless basket.” The name was translated as Cowbird Boy because cowbirds are parasitic birds which lay eggs in other birds' nestsso the baby bird essentially “crashes the party” and fraudulently receives food from the mother bird of that nest even though it's not supposed to be there. Thus, “Cowbird Boy” keeps the bird imagery while pointing to a very similar type of theft.

The other names may also be allusions to persons real or fictitious. Since they sound crazier as Makuinu goes down the list, they may well just be random, and not allusions to anything at all. “Narukami Ohime” is untranslated because Narukami as spelled in the script is the name of a priest in a kabuki play. Interestingly, Narukami was a male priest seduced by a princess, but the thief in question is female and the name “Ohime” means “princess.” It's the kind of bizarre Kabuki reference where you're not even sure if there's a punchline. 

“Oh, and there's some guy named Hirutaro.”

The “yami” in Yamitaro (the name of the thief Ohatsu respects) means “darkness.” The name Hirutaro is in direct contrast, with “hiru” meaning “daytime.” 

“Master, you have often said that the Dokuso Tenshin School has no secret teachings or esoteric arts to pass down..”

“Dokuso Tenshin” literally means “creative[self-created] zenith.” 

“Thanks to you, I had to leave Osaka and make a fresh start in Edo.”

The Silk Road, a trade route which connected East and West Asia and allowed for the transport of goods, led to Osaka and slowly built Sakai City (located in southern Osaka) into a thriving international port. Due to its role in distributing goods, Osaka has earned the nickname “The Kitchen of the Nation.”

The distance between Osaka and Edo (Tokyo) is 402 km (250 miles). 

“Now, it's no good freezing at the critical moment! You looked like you'd lost all will to fight.”

When Yamitaro says this, he addresses Yukinojo as “tayuu,” a title for a male actor of female roles. This is only significant insofar as it reveals that he knows exactly what kind of person he saved. 

“This ruby from Holland it's the very color of blood.”

On April 19th, 1600, a Dutch ship landed on Oita Prefecture (located on Kyushu Island in southern Japan), and marked the beginning of a trading relationship between Japan and the Netherlands. The first Dutch trading post was set up in 1609 and moved to Nagasaki in 1641. During Japanese seclusion, trade occurred on a small scale with China, Korea, Okinawa and Ainu (a Hokkaido tribe), however a larger amount of trade occurred with the Dutch. Nagasaki became the center of Holland Studies, where Japanese scholars learned about astronomy, botany, chemistry, geography, mathematics, medicine, pharmacology, and physics. In 1992, a theme park was created in Nagasaki which was modeled on Holland and the year 2000 was designated “Nagasaki-Holland Year,” marking the 400th anniversary of the relationship between the two nations. 

“You spotted that right away and planned to gain her confidence by acting as their go-between and use her influence in the Shogun's inner household to obtain contracts to supply the government with your products!”

The word for the Shogun's inner household, “o-oku,” literally means “the inner palace,” and is basically a harem where the Shogun's wives, concubines and maids live. Access of other men was limited and the positions of the women (no pun intended) depended upon their opportunity to sleep with the Shogun and bear his children. As mentioned above, the Shogun was definitely a man for whom variety was the spice of life. 

“We'll both be happier if the world doesn't know about us.”

Yamitaro is singing the beginning of an actual period song. 

“He has just met me, but Kawaguchi-ya is incautious because I'm “just an actor.” He assumes I am nothing more than a child prostitute grown old.”

In the Edo period, young Kabuki actors who played female roles often sold their sexual favors to older men who patronized the theater. So Kawaguchi-ya assumes Yukinojo is an aging “professional homosexual,” so to speak. 

“If you think that over, I think you'll see that it will do you no harm to forget your usual morals, just for tonight.”

We have decided to include much of Kawaguchi-ya's speech in the translation because it was in the original Japanese script, even though it was not all audible. 

“If that is truly how you feel, I shall forswear my profession and pledge myself to you.”

Here, Yukinojo literally says, “I shall cut my finger and my hair.” Cutting one's finger indicates a willingness to swear something in blood, and a Japanese prostitute during the Edo era would cut off the bulk of her hair to pledge to a customer that she wanted to leave the business and give herself over to him for life. 

“Unlike me, those two are very cautious, and have never permitted outsiders from other provinces to get close to them.”

In this era of Japan's history, “Japan” was not a strongly unified nation and the whole concept of national/provincial borders was radically different than it is today. A person from another province, or in some cases, even another nearby town, would be considered an outsider, and thus untrustworthy. 

“It's a curiosity from those European traders.”

There was a certain amount of trade between Japan and Europemainly Spain and Portugalduring this time period. The term Hiromi-ya uses to describe the traders, “nanban torai,” literally means “barbarians from southern European nations” and in this context refers to anyone from that general area of the world (around the Iberian Peninsula). However, the term “nanban,” can also refer to the southern islands of Japan, parts of southern Asia, or anything unusual from foreign nations. 

“Did you buy it in Nagasaki?”

From 1641 to 1855, Japan's contact with the outside world was limited to Nagasaki, as it was the only harbor that permitted foreign ships to enter under the isolationist policies of the Tokugawa Shogunate. During this time, Nagasaki thrived as a diverse port city, importing many Dutch products that were assimilated into Japanese culture. 

“They say ‘Even Hiromi-ya is just a merchant. He can only think in terms of short-term profit and probably can't undertake anything on a grand scale’.”

The mercantile class in this era were looked upon as “common-folk.” Hiromi-ya was viewed as having no vision with regard to business dealings and lumped into the same category with all other common-folk who sell wares. 

“They said you didn't deal just in marine produce. You've also bought up millions of koku of rice in the southwest provinces.”

A koku is a historical unit of measurement applied to rice. It is traditionally known as the amount of rice needed to feed one man for one year, and is equal to 180.39 liters or 47.67 gallons. 

“Even the walls have ears.”

Note that this letter is not in Ohatsu's normal speaking style, but is very formal as a mysterious letter should be. (In fact, all letters in this period were formal, a tradition that remains strong to this day.) 

“Is some pale-faced Kabuki actor too much for you?!”

The Japanese phrasing is actually more insulting because it's literally “female-role Kabuki actor.” It would be equivalent to saying, “You got your hands full with some pale-faced cross-dresser?!” 

“Oh ho, unlike those stage-fights in the theater district, battles with real swords are actually fun to watch!”

Literally, Ohatsu says “those stage fights in Saruwaka-cho.” During the Edo period all the Kabuki houses, previously scattered around Edo, were concentrated in one area by government decree. That area was Saruwaka-cho (inside the Asakusa ward of Tokyo). So in context, someone referring to Saruwaka-cho like this would be analogous to how “Broadway” in New York City describes the theater district. 

“I went to my old nursemaid for aid and I have made my way to a tiny house behind Denzuin Temple in Koishikawa.”

Koishikawa is located in the Bunkyo ward of Tokyo. The Denzuin Temple was built in 1603 by Tokugawa Ieyasu as the final resting place for his mother and eventually became the family grave of the Tokugawa Shogunate family. 

“Amida Buddha, lead us to the Pure Land.”

Amitabha is a celestial buddha and the principal deity of Pure Land Buddhism. According to one sutra, he was once a monk named Dharmakara who resolved to become a buddha by writing 48 vows. These vows, widely known throughout China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan, are a blueprint for becoming a buddha and what to expect once a person is reborn as one.

The mantra (or nembutsu) of “Namu Amida-bu, Namu Amida-bu...” (literally “I revere Amida Buddha”) heard by the priest is directly related to Dharmakara's 18th vow that states: “any being in any universe desiring to be born into Amitabha's Pure Land and calling his name even as few as 10 times will be guaranteed rebirth there.” 

“He got what he deserved. So now you've taken care of two of them.”

Here, Yamitaro literally uses the phrase, “Karmic retribution.” 

“Oh, Lady Namiji, please do not be bound to this world by hatred of me. Let your spirit pass on in peace.”

In Japanese mythology, if someone's spirit harbors too much regret or hatred for a worldly person or situation, they can't pass on to heaven/Nirvana and may instead become bound to the earthly world as vengeful spirits who know no peace. Yukinojo doesn't want this fate for Lady Namiji because it's painful and she doesn't deserve it. (In other words, he's not saying, “Don't haunt me because I don't want to be haunted”; he's saying “Don't haunt me because haunting me will be painful for you.”) 

“I have no reason to hide now! In truth, I am the daughter of Emperor Taira-no-masakado: Taki-yasha!”

Although it is tough to determine if this from an actual Kabuki play, there are two famous plays which feature these lines:

Shinobiyoru Koi wa Kusemono - A play that revolves around the life of Taki-yasha, daughter of Taira-no-Masakado. Masakado was a historical figure who conquered several provinces and declared himself Emperor in the 10th century. The quote, “I am the daughter of Emperor Taira-no-masakado: Taki-yasha!,” actually appears in this play.

Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura - This play contains the line “I have no reason to hide now!” and is followed by the revelation that the character is really someone with a different name (Taira-no-Masakado) and a particular lineage. The revelation is then followed by the “Can it be so?!” response.

A Japanese text of Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura can be found here:

“This is what they mean by 'it's darkest beneath the lamp.'”

Ohatsu refers to a Japanese proverb that means,“We don’t see what's right in front of us.” 

“Boss, have a drink.”

Here, Ohatsu refers to Yamitaro as “oyabun,” which is a term of respect; she is acknowledging him as the king of thieves.