There is no obvious claim to depth or originality in Kon Ichikawa's 1973 film, The Wanderers (Matatabi). Set in rural Japan in the turbulent years of the early nineteenth century, it draws on many elements of the samurai film. But its total effect is much more: comic, elegant, mordant, heartbreaking, breath-taking. It's easy to appreciate the technical mastery behind the film—an almost flawless sense of timing and imagery. It's less easy to see just how this criss-cross of moods attains such cumulative power….
In a directorial career that spans more than a quarter of a century and some fifty films, Ichikawa has shifted unpredictably between stylization and naturalism and between gravity and off-beat humor, often incorporating both opposites in the same film. Unlike other well-known Japanese directors such as Ozu, Kurosawa, and even the much younger Oshima, Ichikawa cannot be associated with a single dominant tone. (p. 16)
Any simple curve in Ichikawa's development can be abstracted only from a zigzag of continual explorations. He has always been willing to take chances, to try out new mixtures of stylization and naturalism, of gravity and humor, in percentages that run almost the whole range from zero to one hundred.
There is also a less elusive continuity in Ichikawa's work. Nearly all of his films can be found to revolve around a recurring set of themes…. Many of Ichikawa's protagonists [are] innocents, little men, misfits, outsiders, chickens surrounded by foxes. Mr. Pu in Pu-San establishes the prototype. (pp. 17-18)
One reason for the richness of The Wanderers is that it centers around three different innocents. They are toseinin—peasant imitations of masterless samurai who wander from village to village, ready to work or fight for anyone who will give them food and lodging. Ichikawa does not try to make them superficially distinct from one another, like Lester's Musketeers; in fact, the three are physically quite similar to walk and talk in much the same way, so that their appearance quickly establishes them as an "all for one" trio. But Ichikawa soon draws out unmistakable differences…. The film gains considerable depth from this double image of the toseinin, as they respond both corporately and individually to the turbulent events around them.
I may have given the impression thus far that Ichikawa's interest centers on rather freakish people in rather freakish circumstances. But most of his characters seem unusual only because they lack the veneer of sophistication with which most of us mask our naiveties and obsessions—and which Ichikawa removes in order to focus more clearly on human realities. At the same time he chooses circumstances that will throw light on social realities. If the foreground events sometimes look bizarre, it's because they stem from an all-too-familiar tension in the background.
This is the second element in Ichikawa's recurring set of themes: an environment which threatens his characters, buffets them, takes them by surprise. Most of Ichikawa's films are set amid the breakdown of some kind of moral, social, political, or cultural order. Beliefs, customs, and laws are called into question; they shift, collide, collapse. Sometimes the process may be muted and subtle, as in Kagi, which implies rather than underlines the breakdown of traditional family relationships. In other films collapse is explicit: Fires on the Plain hinges both on the defeat of militaristic Japan and on the breakdown of moral and human values among desperate survivors.
Ichikawa does not reduce his protagonists to passive figures in a panorama of collapse, any more than he reduces his filmic environment to a backcloth for larger-than-life characters; he fuses the two elements into a dynamic whole. In The Wanderers he does this with magisterial ease. Dispensing with "establishing shots" of the world his wanderers live in, he follows their adventures and misadventures in such a way that the larger picture steadily accumulates. I cannot recall seeing any other film which so brilliantly combines microcosm and macrocosm. (pp. 18-19)
[In The Wanderers], he gives an ironic, detached view of the foreground action. The fights, for example, are stylized, sometimes evoking a rhythmic dance, sometimes the flicker of an abstract film, but never settling into any formalist rigidity. This is the secret of Ichikawa's stylization: he takes it just far enough to achieve great visual clarity, to open up the viewer's eye and imagination.
Thus the story of The Wanderers emerges in brief, graphic, sometimes abrupt vignettes. At first the adventures of the toseinin are linear, and shared…. But [then the] simple plot breaks up into apparently unconnected subplots. (p. 19)
Ichikawa plays brilliantly with one of the stock elements of the Japanese period film …: the conflict between two different obligations, or between obligation and desire. Normally such a conflict would dominate the action; in The Wanderers it seems to drop out of nowhere, allowing Genta little time for prior soul-searching…. The real conflict that Genta faces goes beyond any obvious duties or desires and involves the whole meaning of his way of life. (pp. 19-20)
The Wanderers may sound like a gloomy film relieved only by the impersonality of Ichikawa's style. But this is doubly wrong. Much of the content is not gloomy at all, and the visual clarity of Ichikawa's style often intensifies the viewer's emotional response. There is considerable warmth in the relations of the major characters. The solidarity of the toseinin, however shaky, is real….
Ichikawa focuses sharply on the satisfactions which remain amid all the instability: not only food and sex but also the pleasurable awareness of being alive, as reflected by shots of the toseinin walking against a backdrop of misty mounts, or through a forest flecked with snow, or past a tranquil pond with an expanding ring of ripples. Such scenes are commonplace in Japanese films …, but instead of lingering on them, Ichikawa summons them up briefly and dynamically, stressing the moment's joy without its melancholy.
Although The Wanderers contains hardly any camera movements and no flashy cutting …, it crackles throughout with dynamism which sets it quite apart. Sometimes the compositions are oblique offbeat: Ichikawa shows us only half the ripples in the pond, or sets up a fortune, chopping off a man's finger with the visual elegance of a jeweler cutting a precious stone. More often he gives an equivalent twist to the structure and rhythm of the film: he cuts in on some scenes in midaction and pares away explanations so that the full grasp of a scene may be delayed; and he either omits linking scenes or reduces them to brief vignettes, letting the film skip elusively through time and space. While these devices never approach the point of obfuscation, they help keep the viewer slightly on edge and off balance and thus induce … alertness and concentration….
Ichikawa's dynamism springs most of all from his mating of opposites (stylization and naturalism, humor and gravity) with-out upsetting the film's formal and emotional balance. Often in The Wanderers the opposites appear together, creating dense and vivid signs…. (p. 20)
In all of his films—and with dazzling success in The Wanderers—he sets out to bring the struggle of life into the sharpest possible focus. He embraces both the general and the particular, conjuring up formal elegance without betraying the sheer grittiness of the phenomenal world. He refuses to exaggerate either the good or the bad of mankind and of society; and he also refuses to imply that the bad is susceptible either to a panacea (the activist's temptation) or no cure at all (the escapist's). Yet he also triumphs over the occupational hazard of the moderate, who may end up defined only by the extremes he is trying to avoid. The most positive of moderates, Ichikawa works from the conviction that nothing is more important than to see….
The Wanderers is a tour de force that looks simple. In it, the polar opposites that have marked all of Ichikawa's work meet in a consummate point of balance. In it, too, this sixty-year-old filmmaker has achieved a remarkable fusion of technical mastery and creative vigor. It is a film to be seen and vividly remembered by anyone who cares about the camera, people, society, or survival. (p. 21)
William Johnson, "Ichikawa and the Wanderers," in Film Comment (copyright © 1975 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center; all rights reserved), Vol. 11, No. 5, September-October, 1975, pp. 16-21.