Kon Ichikawa

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Joan Mellen

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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 well his aesthetic credo, "the thing is the game itself, not who wins." What his films "say" is of less concern to Ichikawa than the way it is said, a philosophy that has sometimes led him to make films, like Youth itself, magnificent in their technique, but shallow and devoid of any serious content. Thus we can find among Ichikawa's oeuvre the lyrical Harp of Burma, a sentimental if often beautiful whitewash of the Japanese presence in Southeast Asia, and the fiercely expressionistic Fires on the Plain, a film unrelenting in its criticism of the Japanese army and bitter in its denunciation of official imperviousness toward the sick and wounded during the last days of the war. (pp. 189-90)

In contrast to the paeans of Ozu are Kon Ichikawa's biting assessments of the Japanese family's suffocating, insidious emasculation of the individual. Of all Japanese directors, Ichikawa affects the most aesthetic distance from his subject matter. But much more than in anti-war films like The Harp of Burma or Fires on the Plain are the characters in Ichikawa's films about the Japanese family treated as though they were insects beneath a clinician's microscope. Ichikawa would anatomize that sanctified institution of the family as if, by observing its workings as he would the tentacles of an insect, he could free us all of its deadly grasp. In Ichikawa's bitter satires about the Japanese family there is rarely a character wholesome enough to be entrusted with the director's point of view…. Stifled by the family, Ichikawa's people fall into two categories; they are either weak and puerile or strong and domineering. Both types are treated as equally repulsive. For Ichikawa, in the best and most honest of his films, the Japanese family seems to possess a particular capacity to cultivate the most unsavory qualities of human nature. (p. 331)

[The] Japanese family is viewed by Ichikawa as a nurturer of madness and a cultivator of the dark places of the human soul. Repression—politely if inaccurately termed enryo , or "reserve," and justified by Japanese as permitting the emotional privacy of the other—also breeds its opposite, as Ichikawa well knows. The more circumscribed expected behavior becomes, the more likely it is to produce its opposite: actions violent, perverse, meaningless, and destructive, both...

(This entire section contains 1590 words.)

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of the self and of others. In the finest of Ichikawa's "home dramas" the family closes in unrelentingly on the individual. (p. 332)

In Bonchi Ichikawa focuses on a matriarchal family, through which he observes the absurdities of the family system in general. In particular, in Bonchi Ichikawa finds the Japanese family plagued by an egomaniacal drive, above all other considerations, to perpetuate itself. The leaders of this family, a grandmother and her daughter, a mother, demand of their one scion, who happens, unfortunately for him, to be a male, that as soon as he reaches manhood he marry and produce a daughter. This reversal of traditional expectations, in which sons are demanded with no less hysteria, allows Ichikawa with sly humor equally to satirize the absurdity of the patriarchy in Japan. In Bonchi a granddaughter must be produced so that power in the family can be continued through the female line. The husband of this daughter would be adopted into the family, the couple living within the matrilineal household. But Ichikawa's real point is that the institution of the family, whether dominated by men or women, places its own survival ahead of the needs and feelings of individuals. (p. 335)

In Ten Dark Women (Kuroi Junin no Onna, 1961) Ichikawa again attacks the myth of the supportive Japanese family, this time in a black comedy about a married man who has nine mistresses. The women eventually form an alliance against this weak man, who has proven to be so capable of using them all. They band together, plotting his murder, and gather at a party where his wife, in the presence of all, will shoot him. She, however, plans only to pretend to kill him so as to keep him exclusively for herself, a game to which he, knowing himself defeated, assents. Ichikawa and screenwriter Natto Wada thus satirize and condemn the unlimited prerogatives afforded the Japanese male. Part of their argument is that the Japanese man, having been emasculated precisely by his unlimited sexual license, is now unworthy of the privileges afforded him by male-chauvinist Japanese society. (p. 338)

In Ichikawa's films there is the pervasive sense that most things will remain forever unknowable, impenetrable to our inquiries. Particularly mystifying is the attraction between men and women. Ichikawa would no more think of asking why the ten women want this man than he would how the old grandmother in Bonchi became the kind of person who would be willing to go to any lengths of cruelty. And for Ichikawa, knowing the origins of our motives—even if we could—would not help us because we cannot change anyway. The miseries of the Japanese family appear to be so much more endemic in his films than in those of any other Japanese director because of Ichikawa's predilection to see both social life and human nature as immutable. Such a view allows him brilliantly to explore the perversities nurtured by obsessional personalities, like the daughter in Younger Brother or Mizoguchi in Conflagration, although it sometimes considerably weakens the range of his art.

Because Ichikawa is so skeptical about the viability of our holding for long any convictions at all, he refuses to confine himself exclusively to the role of opponent of the Japanese family system. Thus could the same director also make a semisentimental, pro-family film like Being Two [Years Old] Isn't Easy (Watashi wa Nisai, 1962). Ichikawa has termed this film his "hymn to life," created "in the hope of making a little imprint on my heart," indicating that, although it may contain some satiric elements, in this film he is also offering positive values in which he personally believes. The endorsement of the family in Being Two Isn't Easy reflects, Ichikawa says, his own point of view.

Actually, Being Two Isn't Easy is an uneven film reflecting an ambivalence within Ichikawa regarding the Japanese family…. The first part brilliantly and satirically exposes how children's personalities are distorted by parents' imposing on them their own needs, a theme perfectly in keeping with the entire Ichikawa canon. But instead of sustaining this point of view, in the second half of the film Ichikawa moves toward an endorsement of family life. By the end, Ichikawa is exalting the sanctities inherent in the family through the love of the child for his now-dead grandmother, a love which is so elevated in this film that it allows the baby to form his first connection with the outside world and even, Ichikawa implies, makes it possible for him psychically to grow up to be a man. (pp. 338-40)

In Being Two Isn't Easy Ichikawa locates value in the natural processes of life and in the links of love between the generations. The family is revealed to provide life-giving, essential strengths in exchange for the freedoms it necessarily and inevitably extracts from us, freedoms we would have lost anyway through living in the world as it is. Not only is it unavoidable that we grow up within the nuclear family, but this institution allows us love and continuity available nowhere else.

We thus leave Ichikawa with the family intact. That, albeit with reservations, he returns to an institution he so bitterly satirized in films like The Key, Bonchi and Younger Brother—that he so contradicts himself—is not, however, an unusual quality in directors of his generation and older. These artists, while recognizing its abuses of the individual, have ultimately found it impossible to conceive of Japan without the family at its center. Being Two Isn't Easy brings Ichikawa close to the spirit of Ozu, who also approaches the family with a full understanding of how it limits us. The argument of this film, as of so many of Ozu's, is that the enrichment the family provides far outweighs any limitations it may impose. (p. 342)

Joan Mellen, in her The Waves at Genji's Door: Japan through Its Cinema (copyright © 1976 by Joan Mellen; reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, a Division of Random House, Inc.), Pantheon Books, 1976, 463 p.


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Tom Allen