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...
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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...
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[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...
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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 an army in retreat with such obsessive zeal. And yet, as we follow the tubercular Private Tamura, an outcast from his unit, in his terrible journey across the Filippino plains, Ichikawa maintains such a rigour and discipline that the physical horrors appear inevitable and quite without gratuitous sensationalism….
[Harsh] realism is reflected in the characterisation. No cheerful, comic soldiery here; the Japanese army is shown as sly, greedy, treacherous and uneasy about the consequences of surrender and defeat. This laying bare of a national psychosis stems, of course, from the original novel…. The adaptation, by Natto Wada (Ichikawa's wife) is extraordinarily faithful to the original except in one important...
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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 in an alien land, released from the discipline of a shattered unit, compelled to forage for himself, bereft of the power of decision, with only an animal instinct to survive.
And he has made these sensations so graphic, so shockingly vivid and real through the slow accumulation of details that are almost too hideous to describe, that when he finally drags his starving hero to a confrontation with the ultimate shame—that of eating the flesh of another human—one is actually almost numbed to that horror….
Mr. Ichikawa's camera is relentless in revealing such things as wounds that ooze blood, piled-up dead bodies, teeth dropping from the hero's head because of malnutrition and a soldier killing a...
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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 makes the same point. Where most directors might have tended to establish the comedy first, just to make sure, before getting to the serious stuff (almost certainly falling into false heroics as a result), Ichikawa keeps his comedy mostly for the second half. (p. 10)
Unlike Ichikawa's other studies in obsession, in which one feels that the hero is progressing towards self-realisation at the centre of his obsession—the piles of unburied war dead in The Burmese Harp, the burning of the temple in Conflagration, the last refuge of cannibalism in Fires On the Plain—here one feels that the boy's progress is away from the San Francisco he so ardently desires to reach. For San Francisco, like Osaka,...
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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 film's sheer visual integrity…. The photography is designed not for virtuosity but for aptness. The compositions within the side Daieiscope format are balanced without seeming calculated. The lighting of the interiors is often low-key without melodramatically pitting pools of light against black shadows. With its directness and control, the visual treatment of Enjo reflects the obsessive integrity of Goichi himself—yet also, from time to time, it reveals Goichi's pent-up emotions through some breath-taking images. (p. 43)
The film's most unusual images are, not surprisingly, of fire. In the flashback of the father's funeral, his coffin is set on a pyre on a beach. There is a close-up of the coffin as its sides...
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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 about it, constantly implying man's world. I doubt if anyone would otherwise have realized such meaning in such a spectacle. Where [Leni] Riefenstahl glories to the physical machine of man [in her Olympiad] Ichikawa lets the image tell the sense and senselessness of human effort. As Donald Richie has pointed out already—to his own surprise—the film is unbelievable funny…. Ichikawa sees the humor of the rhythms of the walking-race, the craziness of a cycling race whose crowded racers can see each other only contestantwise and not the magnificent countryside through which they hurry. Or the brilliant shot of the crowd seen through the blue of speeding cyclists. (p. 39)
Ichikawa needs almost no...
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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, close-up view.
Such is the sustained beauty of the filming that it is tempting to stop and make a catalogue of exceptional moments, or relish the way Ichikawa has made the torch carrying sequence seem 'directed' as in a story film, culminating in the great shot of planes weaving the Olympic emblem in a sky spattered with pigeons and with the symbolic flame blazing in the foreground. His unit seemed to have everything, notably a marvellous range of telephoto lenses; but all the technical know-how and equipment in the world need a master to control them, and a close look at individual sequences shows that Ichikawa's genius lies in the strict selectivity of the material…. [True] to the great Japanese film tradition, Ichikawa is...
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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 are so feeble and venal, and presumably that's his point.
The same film proffers a fine instance or two of Ichikawa's peculiar home-brew of comedy and tragedy. Rape conventionally offends, but the tough kid's arm shakes terribly as he pours out a drugged drink for his prey; and when he and his chum hump the girls back to a flat, the lift has broken down. Reluctantly one comes round to the Ichikawan view: one thing at a time. The preliminaries here are funny, even if the outcome is to be sordid. I haven't seen Kagi … since I rather dismissively reviewed it in these columns, but I suspect I'd find more in this 'essay in oriental damaroidery'—my former phrase—today. A more extended acquaintance with...
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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 essentially an outsider, a man struggling to escape from the world in which he lives, rather than to change it or even accept it as he finds it. He may seem to take the sins of the world on his shoulders, but less to atone for them than to protect himself. (p. 185)
[Ichikawa's work often recalls the relish for the horrors of physical decay which marked the Jacobean dramatists. In Ichikawa relish and pain] go hand in hand. It is a landscape of anarchism, dissolution and decay from which the heroes of The Burmese Harp, Conflagration and Fires on the Plain recoil in anguish, and which recurs throughout Ichikawa's work wherever his raw material is sympathetic (and sometimes where it is not). In these three films,...
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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 affectionately emphasises Horie's clumsy and boorish qualities…. (p. 145)
[Horie's] journey is across weaknesses and doubts—and at its close the voyager reclines exhausted in an upholstered armchair against a wall of blazing, clinical whiteness. Clear links, then, with for example Fires on the Plain and An Actor's Revenge, although neither the doomed, tottering soldier and his resistance to cannibalism, nor the sensitive Yuki and his tragic resignation to the need for murder, have the robust resilience of the introspective sailor who seems indestructible even when swamped by the fiercest of typhoons. Of all Ichikawa's self-questioning heroes, Horie always manages to look as if he'll produce the right...
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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 point. (p. 4)
Critics seemed to discuss the idiosyncratic visual style of the Revenge only as a curious decorative adjunct to the story, whereas I would rather say it is the key to the film and in a way part of its theme…. What is inescapable in the Revenge is its self-consciously spectacular appearance and structure full of tricks and jokes and all in stylishly rich and flamboyant colour. It is also under the kind of total control by the director one associates with an animated cartoon. (p. 5)
The thematic as distinct from stylistic importance of theatre is of course explicit, and deserves careful attention. The film presumably derived the idea of play upon play from the novel [on which it...
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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 games have their consequences. (pp. 55-6)
With its gradual revelation of formalities to be observed, and the minutely calculated variations in the levels of hospitality offered in different houses (as well as assorted social reactions from the guests), this whole opening segment is vintage Ichikawa. Then follows a rather statutory but pleasing flurry of action—one battle taking place in a closed room, another in a mist-swathed field at dawn—since the toseinin must fight for their host, if required, after accepting his hospitality: a curious mixture of hieratic Japanese gestures and Hong Kong knockabout, of comic-strip formality and bloody brutality in which, as the narrator observes, the main point is to cross...
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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 and off-beat humor, often incorporating both opposites in the same film. Unlike other well-known Japanese directors such as Ozu, Kurosawa, and even the much younger Oshima, Ichikawa cannot be associated with a single dominant tone. (p. 16)
Any simple curve in Ichikawa's development can be abstracted only from a zigzag of continual explorations. He has always been willing to take chances, to try out new mixtures of stylization and naturalism, of gravity and humor, in percentages that run almost the whole range from zero to one hundred.
There is also a less elusive continuity in Ichikawa's work. Nearly all of his films can be found to revolve around a recurring set of themes…. Many of Ichikawa's...
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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 the novels from which they are adapted and from the personalities of both Ichikawa and his screenwriter wife, Natto Wada. Ichikawa has always willfully insisted that the ideas expressed in his films are of no particular consequence. We are apt, therefore, to discover among his works, ostensibly dealing with the same subject, inconsistencies of philosophy. Ichikawa's uneasiness with value judgments has led to his fondness for making films about athletic events such as Tokyo Olympiad (1965), Youth, and a segment of the international production about the Munich Olympic games, Visions of Eight (1972). As Ichikawa says at the end of Youth, seemingly speaking of highschool baseball tournaments but actually revealing as...
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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 Equus, yet he had the fine, discreet sense to stay close to the original author, Mishima…. Ichikawa did not employ realism to pierce the hidden mysteries of fanatic pathology. He knew the worth of stylization….
Mr. Pu, adapted from a popular comic strip, is a revelation. It is a true celebration of losers in the dog-eat-dog world of post-War Japan. There is no obeisance to the sentimental redemption of a happy ending, Ichikawa trains a Hogarthian eye on hard times among the genteel poor; and if any director has ever been ebullient about the wolves shearing the meek of the world, it is he….
While [Conflagration and Mr. Pu] evidence neither the arc of transcendency achieved by Ozu...
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