I have only seen two Ichikawa films before, but from what I have read in Donald Richie’s book on Japanese cinema Kon was very much an auteur and a bit of a maverick. So when he was told to remake a tearjerker from the late 1930’s you can understand why he took the material and made it into something interesting.
The film is about a Kabuki actor named Yukinojo who portrays female roles played by the famous Japanese stage and screen actor Kazuo Hasegawa. He sees in the audience the people who are responsible for the death of his parents and vows revenge. What follows is a combination of strange theatrics, camp, and wonderful perversion.
The last one is the most obvious. Look at the picture above. The girl on the right fell completely in love with Yukinojo after seeing him perform. He knows this so to get his revenge he is going manipulate her. In that scene Yukinojo, a 50ish man, dressed as a woman seduces a young girl. He does it again to another girl later as well. That should explain the third part completely.
The camp lies in every scene. Yukinojo sees the faces of his enemies in the audience at the beginning of the movie like Ralph Hinkley sees thing with his holographic vision in the TV show The Greatest American Hero. Yukinojo’s female voice couldn’t fool anyone, but seems to be accepted by all the characters in the story. Even when Yukinojo is supposed to turn evil, the waterworks get turned on almost to make fun of the fact that they were in the original story and that famous actor Hasegawa has to deliver it.
The theatrics are largely in the outside shots that are more artificial than Douglas Sirk and they are meant to remind you of watching a play. I’ve included an example below:
The problem with the film is that while Ichikawa is doing all this fun stuff he is neglecting to keep us in touch with the story enough so that we don’t get lost. This turns out to be a pretty big issue which is why I can only say it’s worth a look.