Kon Ichikawa

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Tom Milne

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With The Wanderers [Matatabi], happily, the evident need for an internationally saleable gimmick had led Ichikawa to a … congenial model in the Hong Kong kung-fu phenomenon, from which he borrows not the 'martial art' itself, but the blandly invincible hero and the nonstop string of gymnastically stylised fights. The notion of a battle in which hordes are formally defeated without a blow being noticeably struck obviously appeals to Ichikawa's sense of the absurd; and he battens gleefully on to the formula, with swords flashing and striking apparently of their own volition out of the darkness as in An Actor's Revenge, and punctuating shots of spurting blood now and again indicating that even games have their consequences. (pp. 55-6)

With its gradual revelation of formalities to be observed, and the minutely calculated variations in the levels of hospitality offered in different houses (as well as assorted social reactions from the guests), this whole opening segment is vintage Ichikawa. Then follows a rather statutory but pleasing flurry of action—one battle taking place in a closed room, another in a mist-swathed field at dawn—since the toseinin must fight for their host, if required, after accepting his hospitality: a curious mixture of hieratic Japanese gestures and Hong Kong knockabout, of comic-strip formality and bloody brutality in which, as the narrator observes, the main point is to cross swords rather than fight to the death, but in which deaths unfortunately will occur, incurring great expense since each side hires mercenaries in order to put up a more imposing front.

After this the plot catches up on Ichikawa, and the film plods rather laboriously through dull acres…. Gradually, however, one realises that the familiar Ichikawa trap is beginning to close, and the film gets on top of itself again with a quizzical questioning of social pressures. Motivated purely by his society's conception of duty into killing his father, the young hero finds himself outcast as a patricide; motivated purely by pity for the girl …, he takes her with him in his escape, and is forced to sell her into slavery in order to survive. Outlawed even by outlaws, morally cut off from his friends …, there is only one place left for him: on the rubbish dump…. (p. 56)

Tom Milne, "Film Reviews: 'The Wanderers'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1974 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 43, No. 1, Winter, 1973–74, pp. 55-6.

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