Of the few Japanese directors who command an international reputation, Kon Ichikawa remains perhaps the least known and the least well understood. The handful of his films which received widespread international distribution in the 1950s and 1960s – The Burmese Harp (1956), Fires on the Plain (1959), The Key (1959), Alone on the Pacific (1962), An Actor’s Revenge (1963) – testify to that trait which has ironically proved his greatest critical stumbling block: an eclecticism of both theme and style which seems to defy auteurist notions of consistency. Many have dismissed him as “just an illustrator”, though there is another irony in the fact that the source of that comment was Nagisa Oshima, a director whose films are similarly eclectic in style and content. In any case, the criticism is hardly fair. While Ichikawa’s work lacks the obvious integrity of Ozu’s, Mizoguchi’s or Kurosawa’s, its outward variety belies an overall unity, revealed as one probes (in Tom Milne’s phrase) “beneath the skin”.
In fact, Ichikawa worked under somewhat different conditions from the other acknowledged masters of Japanese cinema. The commercial pressures he faced appear to have been rather stronger: it is on record that several projects (including one of his most famous, An Actor’s Revenge) were imposed on him by the studio in revenge for the failure of his more personal works to make a profit. Yet he managed, at the same time, to stamp his personality on diverse material. An obvious comparison is with Howard Hawks, whose comedies, which focus on the battle of the sexes, are often described as the thematic obverse of his action films, about camaraderie in an almost exclusively male world. Ichikawa, similarly, divided his films into “light” and “dark”, a division which has some justice – though my own preferred categories would be “ironic” and “sentimental”.
Still, since most critics have stressed his versatility, it is worth concentrating instead on the recurrent features of Ichikawa’s cinema. Though he did not always write his own scripts (most of his major films were in fact based on scripts written by his wife, Natto Wada, only sometimes with his official collaboration), his background and experiences still demonstrably shape the abiding concerns of his films. A native of the Kansai region, he set many films (The Key, Conflagration , Bonchi , The Makioka Sisters ) in its major cities of Osaka and Kyoto – the latter of which was also the subject of a short documentary he realised in 1969. Likewise, his early interest in painting and his training as an animator continued to shape his visual style. James Quandt has discussed Ichikawa’s “use of manga-like storyboards”, his preference for “the control of a studio shoot” over the uncertainty of location work, and the way in which he himself “designed sets, adjusted the lighting, touched up actresses’ make-up [and] went to music school so he could write scores” (1). Such total control approaches the techniques of the cartoon, and it is significant that his career in film began, in 1933, as an assistant animator, while his first project as director was an adaptation of a doll puppet play, The Girl at Dojo Temple (1945). As late as 2000, in his mid eighties, Ichikawa returned to the medium with his animated period film, Shinsengumi. Mr Pu (1953) was adapted from a popular cartoon strip, and certainly the exaggerated facial expressions and twisted bodily postures of his early comedies are more reminiscent of Frank Tashlin than of the nuances of Hollywood screwball. But the influence of the cartoon, and of painting, is visible throughout his career, in the artificial mise en scène of such films as Ten Dark Women (1961) and An Actor’s Revenge, the former intensifying the stylistic tropes of film noir into a manga-like pastiche, the latter iconoclastically blending influences from animation, ukiyo-e and the traditional theatre among whose practitioners its story unfolds.
Thematically, too, Ichikawa’s work displays a remarkable consistency. His abiding concern is with the recent history of his country, and his oeuvre comprises one of the more acerbic examinations of Japan’s development in the twentieth century. His treatment of that theme is more wide-ranging than Ozu’s (which focused more narrowly on the disintegration of traditional Japanese family values) and more direct than Mizoguchi’s, which, while always politically incisive, often achieved its impact under cover of melodramatic convention and historical distance. Ichikawa’s forays into the distant past were occasional: with a few exceptions (An Actor’s Revenge, The Wanderers ), his non-contemporary films were set within living memory, from the late Meiji period (around the turn of the century) to the Second World War. Novels of those years furnished his plots, while on occasion he remade films from the same era, such as Yutaka Abe’s The Woman Who Touched the Legs (1926; Ichikawa’s version appeared in 1952), Kenji Mizoguchi’s Nihonbashi (1929, remade in 1956) and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s An Actor’s Revenge (1937). The gesture expressed in concrete form his admiration for the pre-war masters of the Japanese cinema, and Ichikawa’s taste for satiric ironies and absurdism can be traced to such models as Mansaku Itami’s witty deflation of feudal mores, Unrivalled Hero (1932), which the younger director acknowledged as his favourite film.
Ichikawa’s own critique of his country’s sacred cows and dark secrets was, at its best, as witty as it was merciless. It was at its worst when solemn; thus, the leaden sentimentality and clumsy didacticism of The Outcast (1962), which labours for two hours with much verbose rhetoric to convince us that prejudice is a Bad Thing. The potentially interesting subject – the continuing oppression, under the allegedly enlightened Meiji dispensation, of the Japanese burakumin, or underclass – is thrown away, and the film is distinguished largely by the cosmetic beauties of its widescreen snowscapes. Nor, regrettably, was Ichikawa able to find an adequate response to the defining trauma of his generation, the Second World War – in which, due to illness, he did not serve. The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain differ in approach – the one sentimental, the other visceral, rather in the manner of the American Vietnam movie of later years. The comparison is telling: just as Hollywood has largely failed to deal with the politics of US involvement in Vietnam, preferring to focus on the individual sufferings on American soldiers, so Ichikawa’s war films make only a token acknowledgement of wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese, and largely buy into assumptions of Japanese victimhood in World War II – assumptions which to this day remain too widespread in the country.
By contrast, Ichikawa’s examinations of his nation’s peacetime foibles achieved a crucial detachment. Often, the war was a discreet but necessary background, or an anticipated threat: as early as his first solo feature, A Flower Blooms (1948), he examined the impotence and hypocrisy of the more or less liberal pre-war middle class, whose passivity aided the triumph of militarism. In Conflagration, the destruction of Kyoto’s famed Golden Pavilion is seen in the context of the confusion of a defeated nation, while in Bonchi, a story of the merchant class in pre-war Osaka, only the apocalypse of war can destroy the oppressive family structures of that social group. Likewise, the potential sentimentality of Her Brother (1960) – a Taisho-period story about a family’s response to the slow death of the delinquent brother from TB – is deflected by Ichikawa’s incisive direction, which draws out the irony that only when the boy is dying can his family bear to live with him. The film is very moving, but its subtext is, again, a sardonic critique of the Japanese family.
In the 1950s, Ichikawa’s contemporary films undermined the pillars of post-war Japanese society: the family, again, but also big business, government and the education system. His heroes are often “little men”, powerless against the mechanisms of their society, like the tax collector of A Billionaire (1954), whose attempts to combat official corruption end in dismal failure. That film was disowned by its director after studio interference, and the ending as it stands is curiously inconclusive, yet this remains characteristic of Ichikawa. The limitation, as well as the realism, of his satires lies in the way that they expose the dark underside of Japan’s post-war economic miracle – its corruption and its pressures to conform – without proposing any convincing solution. In this sense, Ichikawa is a pragmatist, rather than an activist. His endings tend towards despair: thus, the eponymous hero of Mr Pu with his closing remark, “How simple to go mad”, or the mass poisonings which conclude A Billionaire and The Key. The melodrama of teenage alienation, Punishment Room (1956) and the caustic satire of the rat race, The Crowded Streetcar (1957), both star the same lead actor, Hiroshi Kawaguchi, and form a diptych examining rebellion and conformity: the anti-hero of the former rejects the morality of his elders, while the hapless protagonist of the latter strives unsuccessfully to fulfil parental expectations. Both films end bleakly: Punishment Room with the boy enduring a brutal revenge from the outraged friends of a girl he has raped; The Crowded Streetcar with the hero prematurely grey and reduced to menial work. Ichikawa saw in audience displeasure at his dark conclusions the proof of his assumptions about society: he famously asked, “Doesn’t this desire for a happy ending show how unhappy they really are?” (2) Given such attitudes, it is unsurprising that many of Ichikawa’s protagonists are outsiders – in Max Tessier’s words, “individuals pursuing an absurd goal, often alone” (3). Examples include the soldier turned monk in The Burmese Harp, scouring the beaches of Burma for the remains of dead Japanese servicemen; the athletes in Tokyo Olympiad (1964); and the 23-year-old Kenichi Horie, who sailed single-handedly from Osaka to San Francisco, in Alone on the Pacific. There is a note of existentialism to the way in which such characters justify themselves through fulfilment of self-imposed tasks. Yet Ichikawa is careful not to glamourise his outsiders – rather, he stresses their humanity, hence the focus on the physical fragility of the athletes in Tokyo Olympiad. Also, he admits the limits of their rebellion, as in the Defoe-like moment in Alone on the Pacific where the hero, stripped to the waist, is embarrassed enough to go below deck to remove his underpants, even though he is miles from any other human being. Even Ichikawa’s outsiders, it seems, feel the pressure to conform.
Ichikawa’s sceptical attitude to his country’s traditions and institutions ties in with another recurrent theme of his work: his interest in the young, and in the gulfs between the generations. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, his regular male lead was Raizo Ichikawa, whose good looks, rebellious yet sensitive demeanour and early death combined to make him something of a James Dean figure. His adaptation in Punishment Room of Shintaro Ishihara’s seminal novel of youthful discontent linked him briefly to the taiyozoku (sun tribe) movement, characterised by accounts of the violent amorality and sexual promiscuity of modern youth – that the film was picketed by housewives anxious to prevent students from seeing it only serves to demonstrate the reality of the generational divide which it examines (4). The hero of Alone on the Pacific has little common ground with his parents, and the film ends on a curiously bleak note as he sleeps through their congratulatory phone call. The most extreme example of Ichikawa’s concern for the experience of youth is I am Two (1962), an examination of the little difficulties of family life narrated in the first person by a two-year-old child. Here the differing perspectives of the boy and his parents are contrasted, while the film also examines the gulf in attitude between the parents – members of the generation who reached adulthood after the Second World War – and the more socially conservative grandmother. The most emotionally intense sequences of the film revolve around her death, which implicitly exposes her attitudes as outdated.
The deaths of parents are, indeed, another recurrent motif in Ichikawa’s work. The protagonist of An Actor’s Revenge seeks to avenge the deaths of his parents; Punishment Room and Bonshi contain weak, ailing fathers, who later die; in The Wanderers, one boy is forced by the warrior code to kill his father. The motif acquires a particular resonance in The Heart (1955), which probes a young man’s relationship with his older mentor, a surrogate father figure who ultimately commits suicide, against the backdrop of his biological father’s death, and the death of the Meiji Emperor, father of the nation. The film becomes an examination of the conflict between duty and affection: the hero abandons his dying father to return to Tokyo at the news of his mentor’s suicide. The implication here – that family loyalties might become secondary to freely chosen bonds of friendship – clearly subverts traditional expectations. The choice between two father figures acquires a more direct political implication in The Outcast, where the hero, who has sworn to his dying father always to conceal his status as a member of the underclass, breaks his oath in loyalty to a surrogate father, also by then dead, also a member of the burakumin class who had sought his protégé’s help to publicise their cause. Here, pursuing the path of filial duty would sustain the oppression of his class; political change requires a rejection of traditional loyalties. In Conflagration, the protagonist’s father, who died as Japan moved towards defeat in World War II, is associated with the Golden Pavilion; the young acolyte’s destruction of the structure is a metaphoric assault on the father, representative of the dead weight of Japan’s obsolete customs. As such, it runs contrary to the retro-fascist nationalism of the story’s original author, Yukio Mishima, who portrays the assault on the temple as a fanatic’s attempt to preserve its purity from the sullying influence of post-war commercialism. Ichikawa himself remarked that he “did not think the Golden Pavilion so great or beautiful a structure,” and argued that “the presence of this great structure does not secure the well-being of human beings around it, or make them happy” (5). In his film, arson becomes an act of rebellion against traditions which have lost their meaning, but which still exert an oppressive influence.
Given this pervasive criticism of the traditions of his country, it is ironic that Ichikawa’s own career suffered as the nation modernised itself. His realisation in 1964 of a documentary about the Tokyo Olympics had its own uneasy symbolism: Japan’s hosting of the event demonstrated to the world its emergence into modernity, and coincided with the collapse of the old studio system in the face of growing commercial pressure. After a few unproductive years in the late ’60s and a flirtation thereafter with independent production, Ichikawa was eventually able to return to regular filmmaking, albeit on the studios’ terms. The complex thriller, The Inugami Family (1976), was the commercial success which enabled him to go on working through the ’80s, when even so eminent a figure as Akira Kurosawa was reliant on foreign backing, and the other major directors of his generation had mostly retired, died or gone into television. His later films often self-consciously recall his status as a veteran: he remade a past success in The Burmese Harp (1985), and, with Actress (1987), recreated the Golden Age of the Japanese cinema in a biopic of its greatest actress, Kinuyo Tanaka. Dora-Heita (1999) was a realisation of a 30-year-old script co-written with Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayaski and Keisuke Kinoshita, originally for the independent production company bankrupted by the failure of Kurosawa’s Dodeskaden (1970). Even at that remove, its story, about a lone hero’s battle against widespread corruption, was a fairly obvious metaphor for those veterans’ distaste for the explicit violence and overt sexuality of modern Japanese cinema. In the hands of Ichikawa, such conservatism seems a little incongruous; his best films, despite the tighter restrictions on filmmakers at the period of their production, were willing to deal with most aspects of life, and are as unembarrassed by sex as they are unexcited by violence. The precision of observation is their great virtue. If Ichikawa, alive and still working at this writing, remains, along with Kaneto Shindo, one of the last tangible links to the rich heritage of Japanese film, his best work is not that of a heritage filmmaker. Rather, his acerbic account of tradition, modernisation and alienation in twentieth century Japan will remain one of the more eloquent examinations of how his country came to be as it now is.
A Girl at Dojo Temple (Musume Dojoji) (1945)
A Thousand and One Nights with Toho (Toho Senichi-ya) (1947) codirector
A Flower Blooms (Hana hiraku) (1948)
365 Nights (Sanbyaku-rukojugoya) (1948)
Human Patterns (Ningen moyu) (1949)
Passion Without End (Hateshinaki jonetsu) (1949)
Sanshiro of Ginza (Ginza Sanshiro) (1950)
Heat and Mud (Netsu deichi) (1950)
Pursuit at Dawn (Akatsuki no tsuiseki) (1950)
Nightshade Flower (Ieraishan) (1951)
The Lover (Koibito) (1951)
Man Without a Nationality (Mukokuseki sha) (1951)
Stolen Love (Nusumareta koi) (1951)
Wedding March (Kekkon koshinkyoku) (1951)
Bengawan Solo (1951)
Mr Lucky (Rakkii-san) (1952)
Young People (Wakai hito) (1952)
The Woman Who Touched the Legs (Ashi ni sawatta onna) (1952)
This Way, That Way (Ano te, kono te) (1952)
Mr Pu (Pu-san) (1952)
The Blue Revolution (Aoiro Kakumei) (1953)
The Lovers (Aijin) (1953)
The Youth of Heiji Zenigata (Seishun Zenigata Heiji) (1953)
All of Myself (Watashi no Subete o) (1954)
A Billionaire (Okuman Choja) (1954)
Twelve Chapters on Women (Josei ni kansuru junisho) (1954)
Ghost Story of Youth (Seishun kaidan) (1955)
The Heart (Kokoro) (1955)
The Burmese Harp (Biruma no tategoto) (1956)
Punishment Room (Shokei no heya) (1956)
The Crowded Streetcar (Man’in Densha) (1957)
The Men from Tohoku (Tohoku no Zummutachi) (1957)
The Pit (Ana) (1957)
Conflagration (Enjo) (1958)
Goodbye, Hello (Sayonara, Konnichiwa) (1959)
The Key (Kagi) (1959) also known as Odd Obsession
Fires on the Plain (Nobi) (1959)
A Woman’s Testament (Jokyo) (1960) codirected with Yasuzo Masumura and Kozaburo Yoshimura
Her Brother (Ototo) (1960)
Ten Dark Women (Kuroi junin no Onna) (1961)
The Outcast (Hakai) (1962)
I am Two (Watashi wa nisai) (1962) also known as Being Two Isn’t Easy
Alone on the Pacific (Taiheiyo hitoribotchi) (1962)
An Actor’s Revenge (Yukinojo no Henge) (1963)
Money Talks (Zeni no Odori) (1964)
Tokyo Olympiad (1964)
Topo Gigio and the Missile War (Topo Jijo no botan senso) (1967)
Youth (Seishun) (1968)
Kyoto (Kyo) (1969)
Japan and the Japanese (Nihon to Nihonjin) (1969)
To Love Again (Ai futatabi) (1971)
The Wanderers (Matatabi) (1973)
Visions of Eight (1973) codirector
I am a Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru) (1975)
Between Women and Wives (Tsuma to onna no aida) (1976)
The Inugami Family (Inugami-ke no ichizoku) (1976)
The Devil’s Bouncing-Ball Song (Akuma no Temari-uta) (1977)
Island of Horrors (Gokumento) (1977)
Queen Bee (Joohachi) (1978)
The Phoenix (Hinotori) (1978)
The House of Hanging (Byoinzaka no kubi kukuri no ie) (1979)
Koto (The Ancient City) (1980)
Lonely Heart (Kofuku) (1981)
The Makioka Sisters (Sasameyuki) (1983)
The Burmese Harp (Biruma no Tategoto) (1985)
The Hall of Crying Deer (Rokumeikan) (1986)
Actress (Eiga joyu) (1987)
Princess of the Moon (Taketori monogatari) (1987)
Crane (Tsuru) (1988)
Noh Mask Murders (Tenkawa densetsu satsujin jiken) (1991)
The Loyal 47 Ronin (Shijushichinin no shikaku) (1994)
The 8-Tomb Village (Yattsuhaka mura) (1996)
There is still no full-length critical study of Ichikawa in English – the only such studies have appeared in Japanese or in European languages. However, the 2001 touring retrospective was the occasion for the publication of a volume, edited by James Quandt, collecting together most of the important articles so far written on Ichikawa. Seminal pieces such as Tom Milne’s “The Skull Beneath the Skin” and Donald Richie’s “The Several Sides of Kon Ichikawa” may therefore now be consulted there. I should acknowledge that this volume is also the main source for my filmography, crosschecked with that in Audie Bock’s Japanese Film Directors (Kodansha, Tokyo, 1978) and other relevant sources.
John Allyn, Kon Ichikawa – A Guide to References and Resources, G.K. Hall, Boston, 1985.
Kon Ichikawa and Yuki Mori, Ichikawa Kon no eigatachi, Waizu Shuppan, 1994.
Kon Ichikawa and Shuntaro Tanikawa, Kon, Korinsha, Kyoto, 1999.
James Quant (ed.), Kon Ichikawa, Cinematheque Ontario, Toronto, 2001.
Angelo Solmi, Kon Ichikawa, La Nuova Italia, Florence, 1975.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
An Actor’s Revenge by Acquarello
Kon Ichikawa at Strictly Film School
Acquarello discusses The Burmese Harp, Conflagration, Fires on the Plain, The Key, An Actor’s Revenge and The Makioka Sisters.
Article from Film Comment, includes brief synopses of Ichikawa’s films.
The Several Sides of Kon Ichikawa
Sight and Sound interview.
An Actor’s Revenge
Midnight Eye review.
Article on Ichikawa in Guardian Unlimited.
Click here to search for Kon Ichikawa DVDs, videos and books at
- James Quandt in Quandt (ed.), Kon Ichikawa, Cinémathèque Ontario, Toronto, 2001, pp. 3–4.
- Ichikawa, quoted by Donald Richie in “The Several Sides of Kon Ichikawa”, Sight and Sound, vol. 35, no. 2, Spring 1966, p. 85.
- Max Tessier, “Kon Ichikawa – Black Humour as Therapy” in Quandt, p. 81.
- For an examination of the controversy provoked by the film on first release, see Michael Raine, “Contemporary Japan as Punishment Room in Kon Ichikawa’s Shokei no Heya” in Quandt, pp. 175–189.
- Ichikawa, interviewed by Joan Mellen in Quandt, p. 76.