Kon Ichikawa 1915–
Japanese director, screenwriter, and cartoonist.
Ichikawa is one of Japan's best-known filmmakers. His films are highly regarded because of their beautiful color and architecture. The characters in his films often exhibit some sort of abnormal behavior; leading some critics to label his works "bizarre comedies." However, Ichikawa is very serious about his filmmaking, and uses comedy primarily as a means of social satire.
Ichikawa was a cartoonist before he began making films, and his first film, A Girl at Dojo Temple (1946), reflects his early career. The film, a puppet version of a Kabuki play, was banned because its script had not been submitted to authorities for approval. Undaunted, Ichikawa continued to make films, including Pu-san (Mr. Poo), a satirical look at Japanese life, based on a popular cartoon character. In 1956, Ichikawa made The Burmese Harp, a war film which attracted international attention. Ichikawa's subsequent films have been fairly well received. Although Kagi (Odd Obsession) has been dismissed by some critics for its unrealistic plot and crude humor, and Nobi (Fires on the Plain) has been termed "physically repulsive" because of its scenes of violence and cannibalism, these films have found supporters who realize the importance of such unusual aspects to Ichikawa's themes.
Ichikawa's most important films are Alone on the Pacific, An Actor's Revenge, and Tokyo Olympiad. These films show man struggling not only with nature or with others, but with himself, in order to attain a goal. The importance of these films lies in the mixture of humor and pathos involved in the character's journey toward fulfillment of his personal goal. Just as important is Ichikawa's filmic technique. He records events as they happen, without editorializing or being subjective, and allows the struggle for victory to develop naturally into a significant climax. These films solidified Ichikawa's growing international reputation.
The wide range of subject matter in Ichikawa's films shows that he is as adept at handling "serious" topics as he is at satire. Ichikawa works with his wife, Natto Wada, on the scripts for most of his films, and he admits that her influence is the major reason that he has adapted many literary works for the screen. Ichikawa shows both the light and the dark sides of human nature, but viewers often find his films depressing. He admits that he would like to be more optimistic in his art, but he films what he sees: "I look around for some kind of humanism, but I never seem to find it."
What [The Burmese Harp] says is perhaps this: There are certain men who take it upon themselves to live unselfishly as far as they can, perhaps because it gives purpose to their actions. To do this takes internal and external courage. Contact with peaceful eternity follows the realization that all selfish endeavour achieves nothing….
The harp is symbolic from the start. But at the start the symbolism is crude and sentimental. This is not only justifiable, but also right. For here, things are represented as they appear to the Universal Private. He reminisces. To him the harp represents brief rests and that incentive to continue, a more enduring peace. It represents the pains a clever friend will go to, to provide a little home comfort a long way from home. (p. 27)
The Burmese Harp works on three levels. The situation is seen from three points of view: that of the Universal Private (all the men of that and any other platoon), that of a captain, and that of a developing saint. The three are unified by the overlapping of experiences and characterization. The captain is halfway between plain man and saint. He is a gentleman warrior by vocation. He understands Mizushima, but is not himself of saintly calibre. The presentation of three points of view creates an illusion of three-dimensional reality. Mizushima's ascent in the hierarchy of understanding, from a plain man with a difference to a saint, is...
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The visuals [in Conflagration (Enjo, 1958) are] superb. For practically the first time CinemaScope was here used intelligently and creatively; and the textures captured in black and white were—even for Japan—beyond compare. Particularly impressive was the use of architecture. Ichikawa … would situate their action at the far left, for example, balancing it with architectural detail which, as one scene followed the other, perfectly re-created the temple atmosphere…. [Such] set-ups served primarily to emphasise the meaning of the scene. Though aesthetically prodigal, the film never exploited aestheticism for its own sake.
Just as beautiful and just as disturbing was The Key (Kagi, 1959), at present tentatively titled Obsession…. If Conflagration equated beauty and love and sex with destruction, The Key equated sex with illness, sex with medicine, sex with death. The film … examines the sex life of a middle-aged Kyoto couple and parallels this with the premarital activities of their daughter and her young doctor fiancé.
But the picture, like the novel, is only superficially interested in who goes to bed with whom and sacrifices and melodramatic possibilities by making each member of the quartet perfectly aware of what the others are doing. (pp. 78-9)
Sex is almost palpable in the film…. [The] screen is cluttered with hypodermic needles, catheters, sex rejuvenation machines, unmade beds, loosely flung...
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The comédie noire may be going out of fashion. When [Odd Obsession] was shown at Cannes in 1960 only the Japanese visitors thought it funny, and their laughter was written off as being eccentric, or at best ill-mannered. Only later did the grudging admission appear that perhaps it was a comedy after all, of a very stylish sort, and the jury gave it a prize. Unfortunately …, American audiences are proving as dense as the fashionable group at Cannes. They simply do not know that, or when, they are to laugh. This is puzzling, because it is not only an exceedingly well-made film, but also vastly entertaining, in a grisly sort of way. (p. 53)
[Odd Obsession] is concerned to show but not to "deal in" the prurience of the old man who is a bit of a voyeur—even with his own wife (he takes pictures of her asleep in the nude). It does not try to encourage voyeurism in its audience.
Drama sometimes deals with special cases. This is a special case. The sensualities of its characters are shown blandly, with humor rather than with any pornographic intention. Of course these sensualities are bizarre and exist in a hot-house atmosphere where there seems none of our usual concern with scruple.
This leads to some extremely well-written scenes…. Ichikawa never plays for obvious laughs, and is apparently content to draw us into his characters so that we can discover this absurdity….
[Odd Obsession is much less obvious than the novel on which it is based]. The film does not replace the literary device [of the diary] with a visual one; it uses its time to concentrate on the extremely bizarre situations which it develops. If it does this so subtly as to confuse, this is a pity, because it is finally as comedy that this film should be judged and enjoyed. (p. 54)
Colin Young, "Film Reviews in General Release: 'Odd Obsession'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1962 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. 15, No. 2, Winter, 1961–62, pp. 53-4.
[In Odd Obsession, Ichikawa] attains the purity of style for which he strove. The domestic courtesies are observed. Voices are rarely raised. Dawn whitens beyond the bamboos. The photography, with its dull purples and mauves, has an elegiac warmth; and the characters' cold, bleak, sexual frustrations are gazed on with so detached and reticent an eye that before they can become contemptible they attract our compassion. Cynical as it is, the film has a certain reverence and humility before the mysteriousness of people's feelings.
Twice only does it offend Western sensibilities: once with—a classic clanger, this—a quick cut from the youngsters kissing, to railway goods-trucks' automatic couplings banging together, and on to piston-rods, whistles, the lot. The idea of mechanical callousness is conveyed so abruptly that the symbol seems merely humourless. The final double poisoning may offend our ideas of dramatic decorum—but, after all, if we really want to understand Japanese art, and the Japanese mind, we will have to sharply modify those ideas sooner or later anyway.
The smooth impassivity of the acting is quite eerie. Medical details—about blood pressure, cerebral hemiplegia—are stated with placid detail…. Typical of the film's quiet, cryptic poetry is a cut from a close-up of the daughter, with lipstick, to a close-up of her mother, whose face is made up like a Noh mask, pallid and grey. The film never seemed inspired, and those who are embarrassed by the subject matter are unlikely to get anything from it at all. Others will sense its solidity and tenderness, and respect an unusual, if minor, film. (p. 34)
Raymond Durgnat, "'Odd Obsession'" (© copyright Raymond Durgnat 1962; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 8, No. 5, February, 1962, pp. 33-4.
In the case of Kon Ichikawa our knowledge is confined to four films: The Burmese Harp, Conflagration, Odd Obsessions and Fires on the Plain, only one of which suggests his former preoccupation with bizarre comedy; yet together they reveal a highly contemporary artist tormented by a particularly fiery private hell. Perhaps it is symptomatic that two of the films are concerned with war: as with other Japanese directors of his generation …, memories of the war and the shattering implications of the defeat were inevitably carried over into the post-war period. Certainly, Fires on the Plain … recalls the conflict with ferocious immediacy: no film has recorded the physical and mental degradation of...
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Never have I seen a more grisly and physically repulsive film than "Fires on the Plain."… So purposely putrid is it, so full of degradation and death as it recounts the harrowing experiences of a Japanese army straggler in Leyte toward the end of World War II, that I doubt if anyone can sit through it without becoming a little bit ill and losing appetite for the next meal. That's how horrible it is.
To note this is a tribute to its maker, for it is perfectly obvious to me that Kon Ichikawa, the director, intended it to be a brutally realistic contemplation of one aspect of war. Plainly he wanted the spectator not only to see but to feel the progressively worse degradation of a sick soldier cast off...
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Kon Ichikawa's Alone On the Pacific starts out from what might be the heroic story of a Japanese boy's solo crossing of the Pacific in a small yacht, but as Ichikawa tells it, what emerges is not so much the heroism as the boy's pleasure in getting away from parents, friends, and the trappings of civilisation….
Ichikawa uses his flashbacks beautifully to point his theme. Typical is the one in which the boy quarrels with his father (who wants him to go to university), and storms angrily out of the house; Ichikawa cuts to a tranquil long shot of the yacht becalmed in a sunny sea, before returning to the action on the yacht itself. At the same time, his cunning balance between comedy and drama...
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Enjo [is] a beautifully made and moving film….
Its construction, far from being slack, is an intricate nest of flashbacks…. The procedure is not in the least original (there is an obvious and close parallel with [Welles's] Citizen Kane), but Ichikawa handles it so deftly that it seems neither artificial nor confusing, and in the end it proves to be justified.
Ichikawa tries a little too hard to squeeze significance out of the characters surrounding Goichi. Some of them are types (though not, to Western eyes, stereotypes), unchanging from scene to scene….
Most of the flaws in the construction and characters of Enjo are neutralized by the...
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[In Tokyo Olympiad] Ichikawa has made a document of such yielding warmth and variety, of "play" and candor, of "eye" rather than "I," of the heroic in defeat rather than triumph, and triumph shared, as to provide the documentary a new classic.
Tokyo Olympiad is a "classic" in at least three ways. First … a human document. Ichikawa has shots (and one feels the director behind the photography) of human faces that would satisfy and delight a Cartier-Bresson. The faces touch every continent, every age, and virtually the whole gamut of human emotion….
Secondly, Ichikawa gives the event, the Olympics, more stature than, in fact, it has—by showing what is most human...
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Near the beginning of Kon Ichikawa's film of the Tokyo Olympic Games [Tokyo Olympiad 1965], a great iron builder's weight is seen crashing into a half-demolished building as the Olympic Stadium begins to grow. The tone is set: this is to be a film about violent physical activity; though not quite a hymn to straining muscles and national pride. Sport for me, Ichikawa seems to say, comprises graceful bodies in motion plus a kind of bizarre unnaturalness almost akin to vaudeville and the circus. And it is to Ichikawa's credit that he manages to alternate these concepts without any obvious changing of gears, looking at the events with a hundred camera eyes which seem like one, and always seeking the involving,...
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[Awkward], idiotic incidents are characteristic of the films of Kon Ichikawa [and] provide a sort of subliminal signature. They erupt in the tremendous decorum of Japanese manners, rather like small volcanoes, threatening stability, poise, elegance. Their effect is as strange and thunderous as more celebrated items (the cannibalism in Fires on the Plain, for instance), because they endanger a whole traditional code…. Ichikawa is too Japanese not to be preoccupied with the forms of his country, but a part of him appears to be concerned with sending them up…. [In the unpleasant film Punishment Room] Ichikawa looks as if he admires the causeless rebels. In a way, one can hardly blame him: their elders...
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First impressions can be misleading, and there is something very wrong with the image of Kon Ichikawa arrived at mainly by way of The Burmese Harp , Conflagration  and Fires on the Plain —as a man obsessed by human suffering and expressing his pity through a series of long, slow, painful, humanistic affirmations. Ichikawa is obsessed by suffering all right, but he is not a humanist in any modern sense of the word…. [The] humanistic definition imposes much too narrow limits, and could only grapple with a film like The Key  by sweeping its almost mockingly flippant final sequence tidily away under the carpet as "silly"….
[The Ichikawa hero] is...
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The reconstruction of a single-handed voyage from Osaka to San Francisco … seems an unlikely choice for anything but a formal doumentary film. As one might expect, however, Ichikawa's Alone on the Pacific … makes a far richer meal of it than this. In his hands, the inevitable flashbacks to the early difficulties undergone on land by the would-be voyager, Horie, become as vital to the film's theme as is the struggle with the sea itself. The impersonal resistance of the Pacific, in fact, is shown to be a relatively manageable challenge….
Ichikawa is concerned here, as usual, with the fine distinction between individualism and self-centredness. Without belittling his hero's achievement, he...
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Despite its period setting An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge) seems to have been an exception to some [generalizations on Japanese cinema]. Even among the more sympathetic reviews in this country a predominant impression was one of remoteness…. The reluctance expressed by some people about taking the film on its own terms might almost have resulted from the conviction that the life of the sexually ambiguous actor in the early nineteenth century was a phenomenon of modern Japan—that familiarity was necessary for understanding. Whereas strangeness is part of what Ichikawrity saw in it too, however local the history. If his treatment of this strange hero and his predicament is sympathetic, then that is the...
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With The Wanderers [Matatabi], happily, the evident need for an internationally saleable gimmick had led Ichikawa to a … congenial model in the Hong Kong kung-fu phenomenon, from which he borrows not the 'martial art' itself, but the blandly invincible hero and the nonstop string of gymnastically stylised fights. The notion of a battle in which hordes are formally defeated without a blow being noticeably struck obviously appeals to Ichikawa's sense of the absurd; and he battens gleefully on to the formula, with swords flashing and striking apparently of their own volition out of the darkness as in An Actor's Revenge, and punctuating shots of spurting blood now and again indicating that even...
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There is no obvious claim to depth or originality in Kon Ichikawa's 1973 film, The Wanderers (Matatabi). Set in rural Japan in the turbulent years of the early nineteenth century, it draws on many elements of the samurai film. But its total effect is much more: comic, elegant, mordant, heartbreaking, breath-taking. It's easy to appreciate the technical mastery behind the film—an almost flawless sense of timing and imagery. It's less easy to see just how this criss-cross of moods attains such cumulative power….
In a directorial career that spans more than a quarter of a century and some fifty films, Ichikawa has shifted unpredictably between stylization and naturalism and between gravity...
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After [Masaki Koboyashi's] The Human Condition, the two most important Japanese films about the Second World War were Kon Ichikawa's The Harp of Burma and Fires on the Plain…. In making two such different films on the same subject—the horrors of war experienced by besieged and abandoned Japanese soldiers—Ichikawa reveals his own lack of a consistent point of view or personal commitment. Ichikawa's anti-war films are the opposite of Kobayashi's, whose films may be more didactic but reveal a much more coherent and persuasive understanding of history.
Ichikawa's anti-war works are far less intellectually serious than The Human Condition. They take their coloration from...
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It is almost impossible to cite an American director who has aged as gracefully in his idiosyncrasies as Ichikawa over the last three decades. It is also difficult to name a local director who parallels his many permutations of style. Ichikawa's films slide between clinical realism and wry observation of human foibles. There is a chilling haughtiness in his work, yet sometimes he plays to the pit with a low buffoonery that is almost beyond the American sensibility. He is not a classicist so much as an eclectic who has adapted serious literature, popular best sellers, and original material to his own purposes….
Ichikawa, in his 1958 Conflagration, predated the passionate atavism of...
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