Kon Ichikawa

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Tom Milne

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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 [1956], Conflagration [1958] and Fires on the Plain [1959]—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 [1959] 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, Ichikawa's involvement with the anguish is too deep to allow him to draw back, to set his sense of the futility of his characters' struggles to escape their dilemma in a proper perspective; but in his more characteristic, and perhaps greater films—The Key, The Revenge of Yukinojo, and (in a slightly different way) The Heart—the anguish and the mockery are inextricably mingled….

Even more than The Key, The Revenge of Yukinojo (1963) conjures up the aura of the Jacobeans, with a grisly revenge plot, comic sub-plot and ironic final twist which might have flowed entire from the pen of either [John] Webster or [Cyril] Tourneur. The actor Yukinojo, a female impersonator, is in a way the perfect Ichikawa hero. As a female impersonator …, he has withdrawn from his proper place in society; but when he is forced by convention to revenge his parents, who were driven to madness and ruin by a triumvirate of scheming businessmen when he was a mere child, he is called upon to reassume a place he can no longer fill. Ichikawa plays happily, and brillantly, with the paradox of the twittering, trembling hero who suddenly sheds his disguise to close with his enemy, delicately and victoriously parrying the latter's sword-thrusts with a tiny dagger….

Visually, the film is one of Ichikawa's most striking successes, obviously owing much to Kabuki, but also oddly reminiscent of modern-style Elizabethan staging in its use of bare stages, black drapes and simple structural shapes to allow the director to indulge his favourite composition of a single figure picked out against some architectural detail. Most of the extraordinarily effective exteriors look unashamedly stagey, perfectly calculated to evoke the sort of no-man's-land between two worlds in which the main action takes place…. (p. 186)

One would have thought that [Bonchi (1960), a] story of a young man oppressed by a society in which women wield the power and demand daughters, while he can only produce sons from a variety of wives and mistresses, would have appealed strongly to [Ichikawa]. Yet the film is lackadaisically done, with a stylish but flabby central stretch. The beginning is scathingly brilliant…. Though...

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beautifully designed and constructed, the film as a whole somehow betrays a lack of involvement.

The same thing is true of Her Brother (1960) and Punishment Room (1956), the first a rather weepy tale of a spinsterish girl whose adored younger brother dies of tuberculosis, the second a cut-to-pattern addition to Japan's juvenile delinquency cycle. Her Brother is extremely good of its kind, Punishment Room is less so, though containing some brilliant sequences which lift it out of the rut…. In both cases Ichikawa contrives to turn the principal character into one of his typical outsiders: the girl in Her Brother being cut off from pursuing her own life and marrying by her singleminded devotion to her wayward brother, the young delinquent of Punishment Room by his anarchic refusal to admit that he belongs either to society or to its outlaws. By Ichikawa standards, however, they are undistinguished works, although here and there one does find welcome flashes of his avid mockery….

Superficially, both [Poo-San (1953) and A Billionaire (1954)] bear out Ichikawa's early reputation as the Japanese Frank Capra. Their heroes are simple, honest, little men, and the timid tax-collector of A Billionaire even wages a single-handed war against tax evasion, pitting his naïve honesty against national cunning. The difference is that this humble tax-collector, and the ineffectual mathematics teacher of Poo-San, also live under the shadow of their dread of war….

It is easy to trace a direct line of descent from A Billionaire and Poo-San to The Key and The Revenge of Yukinojo. The other, more lyrical, more "socially responsible" line descending from the trio of war films, seems to end up a curious byway with Hakai (The Sin, 1962). Here, Ichikawa delves into Hollywood problem picture territory with a story, set in 1904, of a pariah boy who is a member of Japan's outcast tribe, and whose tribulations are an exact replica of those experienced by the Negro who passes for white…. What makes the film so distinctive is Ichikawa's style, which lifts the film on to the same plane of brooding torment as Dostoievsky's novels…. (p. 188)

Ichikawa keeps so tight a grip on his narrative that it never sags until the boy reaches the point of no return, and must discover himself or be discovered. In a protractedly tearful sequence, he confesses before the assembled children in his class, and it isn't long before everybody in the room is weeping in an agony of pity, remorse and despair. Someone once remarked of Hemingway that, like all tough men, he leaned so far over back wards to avoid sentimentality that he fell head over heels right into it. Exactly the same is true of Ichikawa when he drops his guard of mockery to become completely solemn….

Perhaps, though, it is simply a question of finding the right material; for his earlier The Heart (1955), another Dostoievsky subject of brooding torment, manages very successfully to avoid the trap of sentimentality. This, reduced to its essentials, is simply the story of a man who, obsessed by a sense of guilt for the death of his closest friend, gradually withdraws further and further into himself until he finally commits suicide…. If the film were not set in the years just before the First World War, one would be tempted to suggest that there hangs over it that shadow of nuclear destruction which is never far from Ichikawa's work. As it is, all the various strands of the film lead to the same point—the extinction of life…. (p. 189)

Tom Milne, "The Skill beneath the Skin," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1966 by The British Film Institute), Vol 35, No. 4, Autumn, 1966, pp. 185-89.


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