John Coleman

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 795

[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.

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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 Ichikawa's films eases one into a firmer sense of Japan: he conveys more of that weird, polite, brutal, hierarchic society than the gentler Ozu or the Mizoguchi whose investment was so steadily in the past….

What is hard to make out is how much one likes the films for themselves as art devotedly drawn from life, and how much one's interest is attached by the very strangeness of the manners and humours on display. Early Ichikawas like Poo-San (1955), based on a popular comic-strip character, and A Billionaire (1954) really move off in all directions, flailing generally at social disorders of the day. The 'timid, honest' hero of the second one could be a kind of Nipponese Eddie Bracken….

If such fragmented tragi-comedies were truly representative of Ichikawa's body of work, then there would be no cause for an [Ichikawa film] season. But in 1954 he made The Heart as well. This is a patient exploration of a difficult situation: a husband with homosexual inclinations has married his wife mainly because the male friend he fancied was proposing to ask for her hand himself. The friend commits suicide: the husband lives down the years, a guilty recluse. A young student turns up, the husband takes to him as he had to his dead friend, it's to him that he entrusts his terrible secret before killing himself in turn. This sombre, devious stuff, drawn from a novel by Soseki Natsume, sounds more like book than film. What is so remarkable is the tact with which Ichikawa has transferred it to celluloid: he uses flashback effortlessly, his people's faces stand in for whole paragraphs, the technique—slow tracks, quick cuts—stays unobtrusive.

Sometimes, in fact, Ichikawa seems to be over-enamoured of technique…. In the cloying Being Two Isn't Easy (1962), a child's-eye view of the adult would, he allows himself a few moments of animation (a moon as banana and boat) which ring false in the context, much as his expressionist sets at the close of The Men of Tohoku do. It's the old trouble of effects drawing too much attention to themselves; the work they might be doing is supplanted by one's consciousness of them. I think the same criticism may fairly be levelled against the very beautiful Bonchi (1960)…. Some of the charming compositions and over-head shots here … invite applause rather than involvement. It's as if Ichikawa, who is known to sketch out his incidents and angles pretty thoroughly before shooting begins, were determined to prove how lovely, even appealing, the worst meannesses and horrors can be. He has a point, but I find it hard to accommodate. Fires on the Plain disturbed me by going, as it were, aesthetic about degradation. Even The Burmese Harp, the magnificent film which first brought Ichikawa to world attention, has its posed and picturesque irrelevancies….

[Yet Ichikawa] is far more than an illustrator, English-style. His range … is incredible: I don't see why he should resent being called eclectic. He emerges as a great, dark talent, capable of infusing an experience of childhood, a cold look at delinquency, a tale of old man's impotence, a study of matriarchy, a cartoon-strip chain of calamities, with his own unsettling brand of comic pessimism. He is probably Japan's severest clandestine critic.

John Coleman, "Ichikawa," in New Statesman (© 1966 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 72, No. 1848, August 12, 1966, p. 236.

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