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February 13, 2008

Kon Ichikawa: 1915 - 2008


For most Western viewers of Japanese films, Kon Ichikawa stood in the shadow of his peer, Akira Kurosawa. Only a small handful of his films are readily available on tape or DVD with English subtitles. With directorial credits spanning an amazing sixty years, I would hope that more films would be made available.

What is generally considered his best film, An Actor's Revenge is currently only on letterboxed VHS in the U.S. What is striking is the gleeful audacity of having baby faced Kazuo Hasegawa appearing as a Tokugawa Period female impersonator through the entire film, romantically pursued by Ayako Wakao and Fujiko Yamamoto. Hasegawa's voice and mannerisms are feminine until the time comes to defend himself. The sword fighting scene takes place in a staged setting, filmed reality giving way to a theatricality that draws attention to itself. The visual incongruity works as a counterpoint to a story about the title character, whose theatrical image conflicts with his sense of self.

This examination of private and public personas is part of The Burmese Harp. At the end of World War II, a Japanese soldier pretends to be a Buddhist monk for survival, only to eventually adapt that way of life. Ichikawa's career was varied to include both adaptations of novels by Junichiro Tanizaki and Yukio Mishima, as well as documenting the 1964 Olympics, and making a film starring the mouse puppet Toppo Gigio.

Discussing what was regarded as his stylistic inconsistency with Joan Mellen in the book, Voices from the Japanese Cinema, Ichikawa noted about his films: "I think each should differ according to what is being expressed. I am Ichikawa and no one else, even when I try to change the style according to the theme there is always some some similarity from one film to the next."


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 13, 2008 09:59 AM


What sad news. Thanks for the lovely tribute, Peter. I've seen a half-dozen Ichikawa films, not including an Actor's Revenge, and I thought almost all of them were terrific. Fires on the Plain is one of the most harrowing films I've ever seen. Conflagration is one of the great films about modernism. Being Two Isn't Easy is a delight, with several charming scenes that remind that Ichikawa began his film career as an animator. I recently showed the Burmese Harp DVD to a cinema discussion group at a nonprofit I volunteer for, and it launched a terrific discussion. I'm convinced it was the primary model for Terence Malick, John Toll, Hans Zimmer, and other collaborators on the Thin Red Line.

Posted by: Brian at February 13, 2008 12:49 PM

I just watched my first Kon Ichikawa film a few weeks ago: his 2006 remake of his own Inugamis. It had some wonderfully wry, humorous moments.

The Burmese Harp sounds like something I'd be interested in seeing.

Posted by: Curtis at February 13, 2008 10:05 PM