Monday, 6 June 2011

An Actor's Revenge

The frustration that thinking about adaptation induces is closely aligned to its temptations. Whatever the rigour of your training in literary or film studies it’s likely that, in unguarded moments, you’re to be found making comments on a film’s faithfulness or value compared to its ‘original’ and source. At the same time, though, without resurrecting some sort of full-blown structuralist model to account for the ‘deep structure’ of story-units behind this or that particular instance of narration (and, I know, none of you want that), it’s hard to get a sense of just how this faithfulness so-called might ever be practiced. The difficulty is compounded when you try on Dudley Andrew’s famous terms - adaptation as borrowing, intersecting or transforming - for conceptual sizing: even to find the terms with which one might distinguish the one from the other is a task which feels as difficult as it does hopeless. Adaptation is such a dominant practice in film production today that to ignore it - or consign the kind of questions viewers ask when traveling under the sign of fidelity to theoretical irrelevancy - seems self-defeating. What move to make next is far from obvious; if, though, like me, you’re drawn to these moments of translation and adaptation, there’s little choice but to let the worrying take hold.

Two stimulating bundles of thought suggest ways out of this dilemma. A recent piece by Dudley Andrew on the “economies of adaptation” offers an image of adaptation as energy, productivity:

Adaptation may be the humming motor of uncontrollable textual proliferation - the horizational spread of a title, an author, an idea from medium to medium, language to language - but it can also function as an antidote or alternative. For if the vertical line that anchors it to the bedrock of its source remains intact, a contemporary film can draw away from the system, submerging its audience in a different sensibility and set of values. That chain bears the troubled name ‘fidelity.’ (32)

Andre Bazin, over sixty years ago, offered a way to read film adaptation as “digest”, with far-reaching, and still underdeveloped theoretical consequences:

All things considered, it’s possible to imagine that we are moving toward a reign of the adaptation in which the notion of the unity of the work of art, if not the very notion of the author himself, will be destroyed. If the film that was made of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1940; dir. Lewis Milestone) had been successful (it could have been so, and far more easily than the adaptation of the same author’s Grapes of Wrath), the (literary?) critic of the year 2050 would find not a novel out of which a play and a film had been ‘made’, but rather a single work reflected through three art forms, an artistic pyramid with three sides, all equal in the eyes of the critic. The ‘work’ would then be only an ideal point at the top of this figure, which itself is an ideal construct. The chronological precedence of one part over another would not be an aesthetic criterion. (6)

Colin MacCabe - through whom I discovered Bazin’s article - develops this claim to argue for the idea that source text and film can from an “ideal construct” against which to read either of its manifestations as Bazin’s “fundamental insight.”

The notion of an “ideal construct” - shades of the implied author and reader of an older narratology! - fascinates me, and offers itself as a useful way to account for all those remakes and reworkings of perfectly decent older films that manage to mystify the Western viewer of NHK. The dozen or so Godzillas Toho dutifully churns out are good examples here; any one of those much-scorned Japanese historical dramas might as well be another.

Ichikawa Kon’s masterpiece An Actor’s Revenge (雪之丞変化 1963) manages to add extra - and delightful - complications into any conversation about adaptation and fidelity. I won’t reveal too much of the story in case you haven’t seen it (yet!); suffice it here to make clear that there’s enough in the way of vengeance, fighting, corruption and betrayal for a good evening’s reconfirmation of our total depravity.

What Ichikawa adapted is a more complicated question than it might at first seem: created to celebrate actor Hasegawa Kazuo’s 300th screen appearance, An Actor’s Revenge adapts the earlier Yukinojo the Phantom (1935), with Hasegawa playing an onnagata (female impersonator) kabuki actor seeking revenge in both films. Further complications: Hasegawa had built a stage reputation for himself as an onnagata before he moved into cinema, and the earlier film being adapted was itself an adaptation of a newspaper serial. Further re-workings have followed, both in opera and, in 2008, in another film version.

So far, so much in the tradition of complexity and borrowing adaptation brings along with itself; my interests in An Actor’s Revenge were provoked not so much by details or gestures to ‘fidelity’ at the level of story, but, rather, by more flagrant signs of their absence at the level of narrative discourse. Ichikawa plays up the filmic and cinematic by intense, dazzling experiments in colour. These stand as evidence, along with so much else, of what we’ve lost with the end of technicolor’s hegemony, and remind us that, for all the importance of kabuki and theatre at the level of story, the fact we’re watching a film, and the demands film makes in the narrative discourse, aren’t going to be self-effacingly minimized or obscured. Donald Richie’s Hundred Years of Japanese Film claims the clash of these two levels may in fact have been liberating:

The Yukinojo project also offered possibilities within the vast, uncharted realm of kitsch. Wada [who wrote the screenplay] found the original scenario so bad it was good, and kept almost everything. The resulting film is a tour de force of great virtuosity in which the director scrambled stage and screen, tried every colour experiment he could think of, and created one of the most visually entertaining films of the decade.

Is scrambling an altogether appropriate verb for indicating the sort of aesthetic work Ichikawa engaged in, though? The kabuki details are, to be sure, handled particularly neatly. Performances by Yukinojo (Hasegawa) act as narrative frames and stand as quite complex mise en abyme, while a certain stillness or stylized, ‘phrased’ acting reminds you of mornings spent in Kabuki theatres.

Those details, intensely pleasurable and intellectually provocative as they are in themselves, seem to me less important, though, than the frame breaking or well-nigh Formalist and estranging techniques Ichikawa deploys in bringing theatre and film into collision. There is, for starters, the matter of casting: Hasegawa plays both the onnagata Yukinojo and the Robin Hoodish Yamitaro the Thief, a doubling of a kind perfectly normal on the stage but disorienting in its matter of factness on screen. John Berra sees this as Ichikawa utilizing “every theatrical device at his disposal to enliven [the] narrative”, but isn’t the opposite energy at work? Don't the very theatricality of these devices point away from the theatre, towards the particular promise and energy of the world of film? Most striking, as evidence or example in that quarrel, is Hasegawa’s own body; revisiting a role he’d played close to 30 years previously, he’s a surprisingly plump, double-chinned, middle-aged and hairy figure to inspire, as he does, virtually suicidal love from Dobe’s beautiful daughter. Then there’s the camp sensibility (queer Japan yet again!) flaunting the conventions and laying bare the devices of theatre in front of the steady gaze of film. Namiji and Yukinojo’s chastely sexy love scenes, to my mind the best minutes in the whole film, even allowing for the audacity and glamour of the fighting, seem to send up both themselves, and their theatrical set of references.

What purpose behind these alienation devices? MacCabe reads high modernism as “in part a reaction to the new medium of film,” after which we see that “this new medium of film produces a new kind of adaptation.” Adaptation as reaction: we’re dealing with another case, perhaps, in which the relations of discourse are of the nature of warfare. An Actor’s Revenge has theatrical elements, naturally; these, though, against what some commentators may detect in them, serve an anti-theatrical purpose.

Fredric Jameson remarks of adaptation that

Only allegory can, I think, to justice to this unparalled historical situation, and I want to propose that individual works, either as external adaptations or as internal echo chambers of the various media, be grasped as allegories of their never-ending and unresolvable struggles for primacy. The novel, even when written for adaptation by film, necessarily wishes the latter’s eclipse and death, and seeks to demonstrate the debility of a medium that has to rely on a liteary ‘original.’ But at one and the same time film believe that its triumphant incorporation of the literary and linguistic hypotext into itself, in a generic cannibalism or anthropophagy, sufficiently enacts its primacy in the visual age (itself blissfully unaware of its stealthily approaching digital rivals). Such is the deeper allegorical sense of the encounters recorded here. (232)

An Actor’s Revenge could, finally, then, be read as a form of vengeance and historical triumphalism over the very form of acting and theatricality it seems so lovingly to represent and chronicle. Kabuki functions here in the same way as African artifacts displayed in a Victorian-era London study: they’re signs of film’s colonizing project, evidence of the claims film makes for its capacity to represent, mannerisms marking out the limits of a particular historical period.

Theatre in this film - both at the level of narrative discourse and, within the story, as detail, something for us to ponder whilst watching others watching - makes an anti-theatrical claim, standing as a rebuke to all those irritating moments in theatre criticism when we’re told in pious tones that theatre can’t be recreated out of its moment or context. Look, Ichikawa announces with all those flourishes of colour, and here it is again!

Given the cultural and political values supporting them, there’s no wishing away the questions of adaptation, fidelity and ‘truth to the spirit’. This isn’t to suggest that they’re questions that can be answered, though, or, following Bazin’s insight, that they make all that much sense as questions in themselves. Ichikawa’s genius in An Actor’s Revenge lies in his realization that, with adaptation as with so much else, attack is often the best, if not the only defense: the film version can live, in this logic, only after consuming the life of its rival in theatre.


MacCabe, Jameson, and Andrews’ comments are all from their chapters in the splendid new collection Colin MacCabe, Kathleen Murray and Rick Warner (eds.), True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity (Oxford University Press, 2011). I’ve also been reading Linda Hutcheon’s Theory of Adaptation (Routledge, 2006); after many years of relative silence on the question in the Anglophone world at least, adaptation is becoming a live topic once more.

I took some details of An Actor’s Revenge from John Berra’s essay “Vengeance is Mine: Authorship and Identity in Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge”, included with the MadMan DVD release of the film.

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