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 yukata—all filmed by [Kazuo] Miyagawa in some of the most magnificently muted colour ever to reach the screen. Sex becomes so sordid, and is presented with such near-claustrophobic intensity, that one longs for outdoor scenes, anything to get away from that dark and keyholed and magnificently photographed house. Yet this quality accounts for the power of this very powerful film: the spectator is made a voyeur.
More, he is made a participant. Although all the principals know at least as much as the spectator, nothing is ever discussed, nothing is brought into the open; rather, everything is hidden, secreted away. The film becomes remarkably suggestive as one double meaning follows another, until finally it verges on prurience…
Yet, despite all this, The Key is never meretricious. Unlike other Japanese efforts, titillation is not the ultimate intention. Ichikawa is telling us something unpleasant, certainly, but none the less true: a new interpretation of the love-death theme, in which some of the most sordid of human actions are captured by means of the sheerest visual beauty.
Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959) is taken from the war novel by Shohei O-oka and is frankly concerned with death and with that last refuge of desire, cannibalism. It, too, says much more than a mere précis of the story-line might indicate. Again the film contributes a studied and controlled visual style—fully half of the picture is without dialogue—which, like all strong styles, creates a world of its own, one which forces our sympathy and enmeshes our emotions. That we experience no revulsion—and the major theme of the last third of the film is the eating of human flesh—is due entirely to the quality of the script …, to the director's honesty and to the at times appalling beauty of the images.
Few films have more lucidly reflected the daily horrors which make up the catastrophe of war….
Although these three films are not without flaws (Conflagration has some awkward scenes; The Key has a ridiculous ending; Fires on the Plain is paced so slowly that many have found it dull), they do represent an entirely new direction for the Japanese film. More important, they are perfectly valid emotional experiences in their own right. They unmistakably establish the 44-year-old Kon Ichikawa as one of Japan's finest directors. (p. 79)
Donald Richie, "Japan: The Younger Talents," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1960 by The British Film Institute) Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring, 1960, pp. 78-81.∗