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 and Mizoguchi nor the heroic aspiration typical of Kurosawa, they surpass most of the comparable films of their time. Thematically, Mr. Pu is superior to anything in the American Marty school; and, stylistically, Conflagration is on par with Bergman's work in Wild Strawberries.
In Ichikawa's other films, however, such as An Actor's Revenge (1963) and I Am a Cat (1975), there are some disturbing signs of a falling off. With lesser material, he tends to stifle nuance and ambiguity through facile reaction shots, and he sometimes indulges in sensationalistic montage that has little to do with narrative or mood. Nevertheless, there is a direct link between Mr. Pu and I Am a Cat … through Ichikawa's uncanny identification with fumbling, ineffectual anti-heroes. But the residue of good will seems depreciated in the latter film. Still, I suspect that [Ichikawa's films will provide an] unsettling introduction to one of the world's most volatile film stylists.
Tom Allen, "Ichiban Ichikawa-San" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXII, No. 50, December 12, 1977, p. 49.