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Kon Ichikawa: Versatile, uniquely non-conformist, and experimental auteur of the last century

The Burmese Harp
Above: Kon Ichikawa's first version of The Burmese Harp.
During the Berlin Film Festival this year, early on the morning of February 13th, Kon Ichikawa passed away. He was 92.
Ichikawa is neither well known nor understood in the West as other Japanese auteurs like Kurosawa and Ozu. The latter are regarded having more consistency in their styles, while Ichikawa was versatile. He directed 76 feature films from the 1950s to 2006, but international recognition is given only to a few literary works in the 1960s such as The Burmese Harp, which brought Ichikawa the San Giorgio Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1956, The Key, winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1960, and Fires on the Plain, winner of the Golden Sail at Locarno Festival in 1961. In Ichikawa’s documentary, Tokyo Olympiad, which received the United Nations Award in 1966, the director used super-telephoto lens to show details and trivia such as the strange behavior of an athlete who didn't win the race in the end. As a result, the film successfully recreated realistic sensation of the event. Although the film was attacked by domestic MPs who argued it was not an accurate record of the Olympiad, Ichikawa's artistic approach was highly appreciated around the world, affecting filmmakers internationally including 13 jours en France, directed by Claude Lelouch in 1968.
As a child, Ichikawa fell in love with Disney animation and he began his career as an animator. It was after the war that he started directing feature films for Toho, and then for Nikkatsu after the mid-1950s. There his career flowered and produced the above masterpieces. Among them, Her Brother, a special mention at the 1961 Cannes film festival, is one of the favorites of Japanese audiences.
Based on the novel by Aya Koda, it is the story of companionship between Gen, the sister, and Rikuro, her younger brother, in the pre-war period. Their father is a writer who doesn’t get involved with family matters and their stepmother is suffering rheumatism which passes all house work to Gen. Rikuro is lonely and drifts himself in dissipation. Gen was the only one he trusted. Soon Rikuro is sent to a sanatorium with TB. There he reconciles with parents. One winter night, Rikuro takes his last breath at the age of 17.
Yasushi Akutagawa composed the moving soundtrack for the film. He was one of the sons of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, father of Japanese short stories, whose story Rashomon was adapted into a film by Kurosawa. Kazuo Miyagawa, who shot Her Brother, worked for Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, and was known as one of the best of cinematographers. He invented bleach bypass to enhance the distressing mood of the period of the story. It entails skipping of the bleaching function during the processing of a film. By doing this, the silver is retained in the image along with the color dyes. The result is a black and white image over a color image. This technique has been practiced by Western cinematographers and can be found in Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report.
Ten Dark Women, Ichikawa’s darkly humored, suspenseful film shot in black and white, caused a buzz in Japan when it came out in 1961. Mr. Kaze (literally meaning wind), a television producer, is having affairs with nine women at the same time. Although they are all aware that each one’s relationship with Kaze is going nowhere, they cannot leave him either. Tormented with jealousy and desperation, these women start wishing Kaze’s death. Becoming aware of the uneasy atmosphere, Kaze asks his wife to stage a fake murder for him. Those who believed his death go to find new lives, while Kaze’ wife divorces him and Ichiko, one of the nine, takes over the relationship for her. Yet even this gesture is not due to love but because it is a good excuse for Ichiko to retire from being an actress. The film ends with her steely look as she drives a car in the night.
Setsuo Kobayashi, the cinematographer, created stylish and mysterious shots for this noir-ish look at the melodrama of the television industry. He had worked closely with Yasuzo Masumura, a precursor of the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s. All characters are carefully aligned in an animation-like fashion within frames. Dialogs are zesty and witty. Natto Wada, Ichikawa’s wife and long-term collaborator, wrote the searing script whose satire could only be derived from real scenes from the television industry. Music was again by Yasushi Akutagawa.
Ichikawa’s popularity saw its height in Japan with his detective series of Kosuke Kindaichi, an adaptation from the novels written by Seishi Yokomizo. The Inugami Family, the first of the series caused a stir when it came out in 1976. It was also the first production by Kadokawa Haruki Corporation, the most active film company in the 1970s and 1980s. The series was followed by The Devil’s Ballad (1977) and three more, which have been produced by Toho. Keiko Kishi, who was Gen in Her Brother, played a serial killer in The Devil’s Ballad. She kills her own daughter by mistake, and there is a spectacular shot of a hill when she runs down the slope in shock, with dramatic piano music making one think of her as a ball in a pinball machine. This scene is unforgettable. Ichikawa reconstructed the stagnant air of closed communities after the war, in which people were still living under the strong regime of tradition. He visualized decorative—even aesthetic—murder scenes. Like the comicbook influence in Ten Dark Women, this film also features striking graphic influences here seen in layout of credits in various typographic styles. Even in a grim setting, it proves Ichikawa’s sense of fun as an animator at heart. Actually, many Ichikawa's films are playful and avant-garde. An Actor's Revenge, a revenge story surrounding a Kabuki actor, is stunning as it proceeds with a touch of film noir and contemporary jazz on the soundtrack. In the Kindaichi series, Ichikawa effectively used brief shots in succession, noise of rustle of dress, or sound of Japanese harp as accents.
Ichikawa’s films lost vigor after the 1980s. He re-shot The Burmese Harp in color in 1985, as well as The Inugami Family in 2006 30 years after its first release with an all new cast except Koji Ishizaka, who played Kindaichi in the original films. This became his last film. Though Ichikawa challenged himself with these remakes—how many film directors in the world would think of remaking their own films? —they never surpassed his own originals. We might have lost the highest-spirited film auteur in Japan.

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