Glass houses – director Kon Ichikawa – Statistical Data Included
Scorned in the East, forgotten in the West, the once-legendary Kon Ichikawa ignores his critics and continues to do what he does best: make films, remake films, and hold a mirror up to Japanese tradition. Olaf Moller finds the true auteur in the so-called hack.
During the past two decades of his prestigious and adventurous career as a director — spanning now more than half a century with over 70 features and still going strong — Kon Ichikawa, once hailed as one of the world’s greatest directors for films like The Harp of Burma (56), Fires on the Plain (59), and An Actor’s Revenge (62), has become an embarrassing bate noire for most Japanese critics. Today he’s regarded as a master who’s lost his touch, a relic from another era stubbornly refusing to retire, and, worst of all, a sellout.
At first glance, this sobering verdict of a brilliant career gone down the tubes is corroborated by his work’s trajectory. From the mid-Fifties, beginning with The Heart (Kokoro, 55), to the mid-Seventies, ending with I Am a Cat (75), Ichikawa seemed virtually incapable of directing anything less than a great film — it’s actually easier to count the potboilers. There are also major films to be found both before and after the main phase of his career. In Ichikawa’s apprenticeship period, starting with his now-lost debut, the unreleased puppet animation A Girl at Dojo Temple (45), and ending with his last film prior to The Heart, Ghost Story of Youth (55), there are a handful of remarkably good films, and the same holds true for the post–I Am a Cat period. There are surely other discoveries to be made among Ichikawa’s rarely shown early works, and doubtless many of his later films will look much better in hindsight.
Considering his age, it comes as a surprise to hear that Ichikawa was a sickly child. Born in 1915 in Uji-Yamada, the son of a kimono merchant, he was housebound for much of his childhood, and learned to draw at an early age. He discovered Chaplin and Disney, and through them, a passion for the cinema. Animation seemed to be his calling, as it combined his two major interests, drawing and filmmaking. In 1933, after finishing technical school, Ichikawa became an apprentice at the animation department of J.O. (Jenkins/Osawa) studios. When J.O. was taken over by Toho, then a distribution company that owned a movie-house chain, the animation department was dissolved, and Ichikawa became an assistant director on live-action films. He was lucky enough to apprentice with four stylistically distinct directors: Yutaka “Jacky” Abe, a Hollywood-trained professional with a knack for fast-paced action and sophisticated comedy; Tamizo Ishida, a flaneur and womanizer; Nobuo Nakagawa, a horror-film eccentric; and Mansaku Itami, a social satirist and film theoretician.
Ichikawa’s time came in 1947, after he shifted from the strike-tom Toho to Shintoho, its upstart breakaway. (He actually pieced together Shintoho’s first film, a promotional production called 1001 Nights with Toho.) By the time he made his true debut feature, a melodrama called A Flower Blooms (48), Shintoho had become an independent operation in dire need of a hit — which Ichikawa delivered later that year with 365 Nights (48). He would eventually return to Toho, which produced his first major works, Mr. Lucky and The Woman Who Touched Legs (both 52). Later, after a stint at Nikkatsu, where he directed his 1956 international breakthrough, Harp of Burma, he moved to Daiei, where he made most of his generally acknowledged masterpieces. Then, from 1964 on, Ichikawa worked as a freelance director, with Toho co-producing most of his later films.
Opinions differ about when and why things started to go wrong for Ichikawa. Some say it began when he parted with Daiei; some say just a little bit later, with the retirement of Natto Wada, his wife and most important collaborator, after Tokyo Olympiad (65); but just about everybody agrees that there is a break in his work after his 1976 box-office smash The Inugami Family. Ichikawa was 61, and his home, the Japanese studio system, was breaking down. According to conventional critical wisdom, this would have been the perfect moment to step down and behave like a good elder statesman of Japanese cinema: Ichikawa either should have retired, making a comeback with one or two deeply personal projects, or shifted gears to make bigger-budgeted, commemorative message movies for an elderly middle-class audience in dire need of “culture.” Instead, Ichikawa directed five adaptations of Seishi Yokomizo mysteries in a row from 1976 to 1979, and then went on to make “important films” at the rate of one every two years, with other diverse excursions thrown in for good measure. In other words, Ichikawa simply kept on working, and began to seem like the superior hack he has often been described as.
Just as it is for Claude Chabrol, filmmaking is a way of life for Ichikawa, bordering on obsession — the latter being his great theme. This has confused critics, who associate compulsive productivity with B-films and expect A-list filmmakers like Ichikawa to be steadfast, working toward an ever-finer mastery of their art while remaining deeply engaged, regardless of whether they are making a living.
What confused many critics and finally made them turn away from Ichikawa was his versatility, the wide range of subjects and moods in his work, which is often mistaken for an unruly eclecticism. (This is surprising in Japanese film culture, which values directors who take risks and try new aesthetic approaches.) The sheer breadth of Ichikawa’s body of work is dazzling in terms of sources, techniques, genres, styles, and moods. His oeuvre is like a house with many openings (doors, windows, trapdoors, and trompes l’oeil apertures), a multitude of different but interconnected spaces and rooms.
This structure is, in turn, intrinsically connected to Japanese cinema as a whole, with its tradition of remakes and reworkings of stories. Ichikawa has made not only live-action films but also (occasionally experimental) documentaries, animated features and television programs; he has adapted everything from genre best-sellers (Yokomizo, Ed McBain) to works by virtually every major 20th-century Japanese writer (Yukio Mishima, Jun-ichiro Tanizaki, Soseki Natsume, Yasunari Kawabata, and Kyoka Izumi), to Kabuki plays and reworkings of other traditional theatrical forms, to Murasaki Shikibu’s court-classic The Tale of Genji, not to mention his frequent collaborations with the eminent poet Shuntaro Tanikawa. The result is an array of admirably different films: works of social satire (Mr. Pu, 53), solemn social outrage (The Outcast, aka The Broken Commandnasnt, 62), sophisticated comedy (The Woman Who Touched Legs), ironic mysteries (Ten Dark Women, 61), heartfelt family dramas (Her Brother, 60), strange, erratic dissections of human foibles (The Key, 58), and brooding, nihilistic tales of passion and despair (The Heart). All are handled with equal ease and mastery.
That’s not to say that these films have nothing in common. There’s an encompassing vision behind Ichikawa’s work, but not one that can be described by simply identifying common themes and issues. Nevertheless, there are subjects that obviously hold deep interest for him, most important among them being The Family. Whether he adapts Yokomizo (The Inugami Family) or Tanizaki (The Makioka Sisters, 83), his films always become dissections of family values, which, implicitly, always reflect the inner state of Japan itself. Ichikawa’s work forms a single entity that is full of life, intelligent and open-minded, yet riven with doubt, idiosyncrasy, and contradiction. This also manifests itself in Ichikawa’s passion for mixing genres, his penchant for working with convoluted, twisty plots prone to turning in on themselves self-reflexively and break into shards, while the director maintains a careful distance.
To approach things from yet another angle: it is a telling and thoroughly Ichikawan irony that he was both discovered in the West and granted master status in Japan for a film whose solemn seriousness makes it an anomaly in his oeuvre. The Harp of Burma (released in the U.S. as The Burmese Harp) was originally scheduled to be directed by Nikkatsu’s art-film-auteur-in-residence, the devoted Buddhist, humanist, wartime-propaganda movie-meister, and Hiroshima survivor Tomotaka Tasaka, who fell ill during preproduction and had to be replaced. Under Tasaka’s direction, The Harp of Burma might have been a true masterpiece rather than simply a great film: a cry from the depths of the Japanese heart. Ichikawa’s distinctly distant treatment forestalls that — in this case not necessarily to the work’s advantage, as it reduces the film to a simplistic War Is Bad statement.
In a certain way, all of Ichikawa’s films from the Eighties and Nineties are a skeptical return to and reflection on his work from the Fifties to the Seventies. As well as his obligatory remake of 47 Ronin in 1994 — a story that has been remade more than 100 times — he directed The Harp of Burma for the second time in 1985. This sense of distance, of reflection, and the process of presenting things from different angles and returning to them, is perhaps the key to his genius. Ichikawa reinforces this detachment with the immaculate beauty of his images: their forceful composition, stark black-and-white contrast or carefully nuanced color schemes, and their cool, unsettling indifference to the characters in the frame. They are glacial images. Critics instinctively react to this artful sense of distance when they dismiss Ichikawa — to his delight — as an illustrator. He acknowledges that there is indeed an obvious gap between what is said and how it is said, and that to willfully ignore this is to fall into it. This abyss is his films’ true subject.
The house of Ichikawa is a hall of mirrors, an inside-out fun house of human ambitions, around and through which the filmmaker walks, mounting new mirrors here and there and uttering, “What fools these mortals be.”
This, in the end, might be the real reason for Ichikawa’s fall from critical grace. His oeuvre is neither affirmative nor inspirational. It’s negative, coolly formal, and dispassionate. It is a cinema of reflective surfaces — and so, implicitly, always more about the viewer than the director, still less the film’s characters — and it’s also a cinema of despair, the most open-minded, udcondescending form of humanism. A cinema that ironically always verges on coming too close to the heart of the matter: us.
A Kon Ichikawa film retrospective will travel to the following locations:
Cinematheque Ontario, Toronto (Jul 3-Aug 10)
Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley (Jul 13-Aug 31)
The Museum of Fine Art, Boston (Aug 2-Sept 2)
Cinematheque Quebecoise, Montreal (Sept 6-Oct 14)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York (Sept 7-Oct 2)
Cleveland Cinematheque, Cleveland (Sept 29-Oct 31)
National Gallery of Art and The Freer Gallery, Washington (Oct 26-mid-Dec)
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Nov 16-Dec 16)
UCLA Film and Television Archive, Los Angeles (Nov-Dec)
Pacific Cinematheque, Vancouver (Nov-Dec)
College of Moving Images, Santa Fe (Jan-Feb)
The Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago (Jan-Feb)
Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus (Feb)
National Film Theatre, London (spring 2002) A newly published anthology, Kon Ichikawa (445 pp., $29.95), is available from Indiana University Press. Edited by James Quandt, it features writing by Ichikawa, interviews with the director, and essays on his films.
The Essential Ichikawa
1. Mr. Pu, aka Pu-san (1953)
A perfect example of Ichikawa’s early social satires; in postwar Japan, ronin students drag their poor slob of a math teacher to a political rally, and inadvertently transform him into a political undesirable.
2. The Heart (1955)
Observed by his student, a teacher’s obsessive wallowing in guilt and self-hatred finds its cruelest expression in his coldness toward his devoted wife. Adapted from a novel by Soseki, it marks the beginning of Ichikawa’s 20 years of pure genius.
3. Conflagration, aka Enjo (1958)
Young Mizoguchi’s quest for purity leads him to a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, where he becomes disillusioned with society’s postwar corruption and succumbs to self disgust. Adapting Mishima’s classic historical novel, Ichikawa gives the story a psychological spin and an ironic, excessive beauty (photo, opposite page).
4. The Key, aka Odd Obsession (19591
Obsessed with satisfying his beautiful young wife, an impotent, wealthy old lecher bribes his son-in-law to have an affair with hex; recording his dirty thoughts in a diary that lie hides for his wife to find and read. A classic of modern literature reconceived as a gleefully disgusted comedy of masks and pretensions, a hall of mirrors in which art and life reflect each other endlessly.
5. Fires on the Plain (1959)
While Ichikawa couldn’t — or didn’t want to — eliminate the Buddhist sentiments in The Harp, of Burma, his adaptation of Shohei Ooka’s novel purges most of its Christian overtones. This is not your usual peace-mongering antiwar film: this is a had-ass mother of a war movie that grabs you and rubs your face — frame by hauntingly detached, beautiful frame — in man’s degradation.
6. Ten Dark Women (1961)
A spineless man’s nine mistresses join forces in an attempt to kill him, but their own mind games and backstabbing trip them up. This prime example of Ichikawa’s penchant for spiking crime-fiction plots with social satire gels into a weirdly nihilistic film consisting of a succession of ridiculously embarrassing implosions.
7. I Am Two, aka Being Two Isn’t Easy (1962)
Life, love, toilet training, and death as seen through the eyes of Taro, the world’s most analytical and verbose toddler. One of Ichikawa’s strangest — and out of artistic necessity, uneven — works. A shamelessly positive and unabashedly life-affirming film in which Ichikawa regresses to a state of blissful ignorance.
8. An Actor’s Revenge (1963)
Commercial filmmaking seldom comes closer to producing an experimental work of art than in this flamboyant, big-budget exercise in camp as content, subtext, and metafiction in which a Kabuki female impersonator (superstar Kazuo Hasegawa) avenges the death of his parents. Total cinema at its most outrageous.
9. Tokyo Olympiad (1965)
The most beautiful Olympic Gaines documentary ever made — but only in its rarely seen original 165-minute version. What disturbed viewers at the time of the film’s release, and was accordingly cut, was Ichikawa’s interest in the spectators, to which he devotes a great deal of screentime.
10. The Wanderers (1973)
Three dumb-ass swordsmen attempt to make their mark as chivalrous commoners in mid-19th-century Japan. The first croaks from a gangrenous foot; the second — while discussing one of the finer points of yakuza honor — falls off a cliff; the third, thinking the second has gone to take a dump, simply walks on. Ichikawa’s venomous comment on the then-current yakuza movie craze and the student rebellions that were disrupting Japanese society. Stylistically perhaps his loosest, rawest work, it’s youthful in a way that has nothing to do with age but everything to do with vision — which is precisely what the film’s protagonists lack.
Olaf Moller is still writing and living in Cologne, Germany.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Film Society of Lincoln Center
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group