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January 20, 2011

The Kon Ichikawa Story: A Filmful Life

doraheita ichikawa.jpg
Kon Ichikawa on the set of Dora-Heita.

Ichikawa Kon monogatari
Shunji Iwai - 2006
Pony Canyon Region 2 DVD

Shunji Iwai will be premiering his newest film, his first in English, at Sundance in the next few days. I won't be there, and neither will be some of those reading this piece. However, Iwai has what he describes as his own online film festival. It's as worth checking out as are Iwai's films. My personal favorite at this time is Alice and Hana.

Iwai's movie about Kon Ichikawa is a personal look at both a filmmaking idol and friend. Some of the facts of Ichikawa's life are presented, but this is less an objective documentary than a cozy, and immensely entertaining portrait of a guy who just happened to be one of Japan's great directors. And of course, like any such film, you want to see more work by the filmmaker in question. There is some frustration, in that only a limited number of Ichikawa's films are available with English subtitled DVDs, and the fewest of those films are from his earlier works.

The excerpts are like great delicacies that left me craving for more. There were several Ichikawa films that I've always wanted to see, such as Conflagration and The Key. A couple of minutes are given to seeing Tatsuya Nakadai taunting Raizo Ichikawa (no relation) in the former, and Machiko Kyo teasing everyone in the latter film. An anecdote is told that Kon Ichikawa was given the rights to the film by showing up at author Junichiro Tanizaki's house, driving up in a Mercedes with a large gift of cash. Of films currently unavailable, Hideko Takamine snags the attention of Ken Uehara and myself in Ichikawa's feature debut, A Flower Blooms, from 1948. Ten Dark Women, from 1961, is a black comedy about a television producer, and his wife and nine mistresses who conspire to murder him. And as revered as Yasujiro Ozu may be, maybe because he is so beloved, I would like to see Ichikawa's parody of Ozu, Anata to watashi no aikotoba: Sayonara, konnichiwa. There's also Hole in One, with an extremely voluptuous Machiko Kyo, and a badly fastened wig.

Additionally, there are excerpts from Ichikawa's work as an animator in the early Thirties, making cartoons that look very similar to some of the work of his American contemporaries. A film with marionettes, a period love story, and Ichikawa's first film of any kind, shows his concern for framing and lighting, as if he knew that eventually this work would be practice before given the opportunity to work with live actors. A lifetime fan of Walt Disney, Iwai was able to include excerpts from one a Disney "Silly Symphony" as well as Mickey Mouse in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" from Fantasia. A close up of Ichikawa on the set of his last film, is of his shoes, with the Mickey Mouse logo.

wada and ichikawa.jpg
Natto Wada and Kon Ichikawa

Iwai's film is also, at time, a biography of Natto Wada, Ichikawa's wife, screenwriter, and creative partner. Even though she addressed him as Sensei (Master), and he called her Natto-san, Ichikawa would always concede to this intelligent and attractive woman regarding all artistic decisions. Poignant is the story about the couples last movie date, where Wada decides that the two of them should go see E.T.. It is no coincidence that Ichikawa's best films were all done in collaboration with Wada.

Near the ends, the film takes on a more personal note when Iwai relates how Ichikawa had come up with the idea that the two of them would share directorial duties on a film. As would happen when Dora-Heita was in the screenplay stage, nothing would come of conflicting visions. Perhaps, as Ichikawa did with Dora-Heita, directing the film following the passing of collaborators Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Masaki Kobayashi, Iwai might film the project he and Ichikawa had proposed to do together. Perhaps, also, Iwai, might film one of Natto Wada's unfilmed screenplays. Iwai also makes some funny and perceptive observations about Ichikawa's men and women.

A second DVD, with Iwai interviewing Ichikawa, sadly does not have English subtitles. Iwai's story of Ichikawa ends with what turned out to be Ichikawa making his last film. He might have need some assistance with a cane, but even at age 90, Ichikawa-sensei was still spry, and still with an impish sense of humor.

Poster for Ana (Hole in One) with Machiko Kyo

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 20, 2011 07:50 AM