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Kon Ichikawa: The Great Adaptor

Written by Mike Crandol Tell a Friend

For international audiences, Kon Ichikawa - who passed away February 13, 2008 - might be called the Ringo Starr of the great Golden Age Japanese film directors. In the West, at least, Ichikawa is a name that does seem destined to remain eclipsed by the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, and Yasujiro Ozu. But the Japanese have long recognized and celebrated Ichikawa's invaluable contribution in forging the identity of their national cinema. If Kurosawa, Kobayashi, and Ozu were auteuristic luminaries working within clearly defined boundaries, Ichikawa was the master-of-all-trades. His work spans six decades and virtually every genre of filmmaking imaginable. Comedies, mysteries, sci-fi fantasies, documentaries, even anime - Kon Ichikawa did them all, and he consistently did them better than anybody else.

But what Ichikawa was truly best at was adapting - adapting some of the greatest works of Japanese literature for the screen, and adapting to fit the times over his long and prolific career. When evolving filmmaking styles and tastes reduced directors like Akira Kurosawa to the occasional arthouse release, Kon Ichikawa deftly navigated the swiftly changing currents of the cinematic mainstream. As a result, he remained one of Japan's most reliable and bankable directors from the 1940s well into the first decade of the 21st century. His extraordinary flexibility earned him his much vaunted place in movie history even as his lack of "auteur" status caused him to be overshadowed by his contemporaries.

Cartoons and Comedies

Born November 20, 1915 in Mie, Japan, Kon Ichikawa's lifelong passion for cinema was ignited by Mickey Mouse. Fascinated by Walt Disney's early sound cartoons, Ichikawa resolved to become an animator. At the time, Japan's eventual megalith anime industry was virtually nonexistent, and Ichikawa became one of the country's first commercial animators, landing a job with a small film studio in Osaka in 1933. The animation department shared space with a live-action film unit, and soon Ichikawa found himself moonlighting as an assistant director of live-action features. When the studio was folded into the newly formed Toho Company in the early 1940s, Ichikawa headed off to the new headquarters in Tokyo to start work as a full-fledged director.

His early work at Toho would set the pace for much of his career. His directorial debut, a 1946 puppet film entitled A Girl at Dojo Temple, straddled filmmaking genres and attracted attention for its deft adaptation of a traditional Japanese story. Unfortunately it also attracted the attention of US Occupation officials, who deemed it too traditional for its own good; the film was confiscated and forgotten for many decades. Ichikawa turned to adapting more contemporary, innocuous material, and soon established himself as a highly-profitable helmsman of popular comedies.

The director's number one creative cohort during this and subsequent periods was his wife, screenwriter Yumiko Mogi. Better known by her pen name, Natto Wada, Yumiko would collaborate with her husband on virtually every picture he made through the 1960s, when she chose to retire from the rapidly-changing film industry. Ichikawa credited much of his success to his wife's extraordinary talent for adapting diverse literary sources for the screen while retaining the heart of the original text. A standout of their early comedic successes is Mr. Pu, a 1953 retelling of a then-popular manga about the romantic woes of a Japanese everyman.

Getting Serious

Ichikawa and Wada entered the ranks of Japan's filmmaking elite with an adaptation of a very different sort, 1956's The Burmese Harp. For this reworking of author Michio Takeyama's antiwar fairy tale, Japan's number one comedic filmmaking partnership journeyed into surprisingly bleak territory. Although Ichikawa and Wada may have been expected to retain much of the book's whimsy, the decision was made to tell The Burmese Harp in the most unflinchingly realistic way possible. The tale of a Japanese soldier's spiritual crisis in the jungles of Burma during the closing days of World War II, the film remains one of the most poignant and heartfelt antiwar pictures ever made. Coming out at a time when much of the world was fawning over Japanese Cinema, The Burmese Harp brought Ichikawa unlooked-for international renown and gained him a place alongside directorial darlings like Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa.

Spurred on by the success of The Burmese Harp, Ichikawa and Wada revisited the antiwar theme with Fires on the Plain (1959). Where lesser filmmakers might simply regurgitate the imagery and motifs of their earlier work, Ichikawa and Wada craft a new, thoughtful variation on a similar theme that stands on its own right while complementing their earlier accomplishment. Although Fires on the Plain, based on a novel by Shohei Ooka, was lambasted upon its release for its detached observation of the inhumanities of war - which include a simultaneously humorous and disturbing climax involving bloody cannibalism - today the film is widely considered a masterpiece of the genre.

In addition to The Burmese Harp, 1956 also saw the release of Ichikawa's The Punishment Room, which furthered his reputation as Japan's most diverse director. The second of three films from that year based on author Shintaro Ishihara's "Sun Tribe" novels, The Punishment Room helped usher in the Japanese New Wave with its tale of disaffected youth rebelling against the elder generation. Ichikawa, however, was not destined to join the ranks of New Wave directors such as Nagisa Oshima and Hiroshi Teshigahara, whose work won critical acclaim but failed to generate much public interest. Ichikawa was too popular for that.

Renaissance Man...and Wife

Enjoying the best of both worlds, Ichikawa tackled an ever-expanding horizon of varied material while continuing to make the occasional high-quality crowd-pleaser that he and Natto Wada were known for. He filmed Yukio Mishima's "unfilmable" novel Enjo in 1958. This obtuse experimental film came just one year after his very conventional, lighthearted, and unabashedly entertaining caper comedy Hole in One, starring Machiko Kyo. Around the same time he was crafting his cannibalistic Fires on the Plain, his adaptation of a famous Junichiro Tanizaki novel, Odd Obsession (a.k.a. The Key, 1959) won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. A blatant and sometimes shocking examination of an aging man's sexual perversions, Odd Obsession prefigures the so-called "pinky violence" soft porn pictures of the 1970s in much the same way The Punishment Room anticipates the Japanese New Wave.

An Actor's Revenge (1963) is perhaps his best-known picture from this period, which tells the story of an "onnagata" (a female impersonator in kabuki theater) seeking revenge for the death of his parents. A remake of Japanese film pioneer (and former onnagata) Teinosuke Kinugasa's 1935 picture of the same name, Ichikawa amplifies the lurid melodrama of the original, transforming the film into a celebration of camp while preserving its narrative weight. Self-consciously artsy and exotic, An Actor's Revenge was a favorite on the 1960s international film festival circuit.

When Tokyo was chosen to host the 1964 Summer Olympics, the elated Japanese government decided to commission a documentary film to commemorate the event. Although he had no documentary filmmaking experience, the ever-versatile Kon Ichikawa was named the man for the job (but only after Akira Kurosawa had been fired for demanding creative control over the games' opening and closing ceremonies). Initially daunted by the sheer enormity of the undertaking, Ichikawa turned to his wife and longstanding creative partner, Natto Wada. Together they found a way to modify their skills at narrative filmmaking for a reality filmmaker's lens, drawing inspiration from Leni Riefenstahl's groundbreaking documentary on the 1936 Berlin games, Olympia. The result was Tokyo Olympiad (1965), which was hailed abroad as a milestone in sports documentaries for its emphasis on the human drama of the games, focusing as much on the losers as the victors. The film was not so well received by its financiers, the Japanese government, who had expected a more straightforward piece of national propaganda. As a result, the three-hour film was re-edited and whittled down to a mere 90 minutes for its domestic release.

Tokyo Olympiad also marked the end of Ichikawa's longtime professional collaboration with Natto Wada. Although they would remain a loving couple until her death in 1983, Wada grew dissatisfied with the "new film grammar" and chose to retire from the industry. Kon Ichikawa, ever the adaptor, continued to keep pace with the cinematic times. But even though some of his biggest and most acclaimed hits were still ahead of him, his later output lacked the consistent high quality that marked his creative partnership with Wada.

Inugamis and Makiokas

Japanese box office records were shattered in 1976 with the release of Ichikawa's The Inugami Family, a taut and creepy whodunit based on the wildly popular mystery novel by Seishi Yokomizo. Part of the film's thundering success is no doubt attributable to Yokomizo's loyal readership and the appeal of his perennial hero, the affable and unkempt but brilliant detective Kosuke Kindaichi. But bringing a mystery as layered and intricate as The Inugami Family to the screen intact was a delicate operation that - in the wrong hands - could have been a box office disaster. Ichikawa masterfully manages the large cast of characters as Kindaichi gradually unravels the murderous secrets of the wealthy Inugami family. A top-notch mystery movie that avoids any narrative confusion while keeping its audience guessing until the very end, The Inugami Family would become Ichikawa's biggest commercial success. The director quickly put four more adaptations of Yokomizo's novels into production, with Koji Ishizaka reprising his role as Kindaichi, but Rhyme of Vengeance, The Devil's Island, Queen Bee, and The House of Hanging failed to capture public imagination in quite the same way The Inugami Family had.

After successfully directing comedies, war pictures, period melodramas, a sports documentary, and murder mysteries, it might have seemed there was no new territory for Kon Ichikawa to conquer. Yet the director - now well into his fourth decade of filmmaking - continued to take his art in as many directions as possible. He returned to his animator's roots in 1978, directing the anime/live-action hybrid feature Phoenix, a partial adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's philosophical manga masterpiece. If Ichikawa doesn't handle Tezuka's jumbled retelling of Japanese mythology quite as well as he does Yokomizo's complex mysteries, the fault lies more in the unmanageable scope of Tezuka's manga than it does in the film's director. The following year, Ichikawa also co-wrote Rintaro's cult classic anime feature, Galaxy Express 999, based on the work of celebrated manga artist Leiji Matsumoto.

Ichikawa's next masterpiece was, of course, yet another adaptation of a famous novel, Junichiro Tanizaki's magnum opus, The Makioka Sisters. Tanizaki's chronicle of the lives of four well-to-do sisters in wartime Osaka, a metaphor for a rapidly-changing Japan heading towards an uncertain future, had been previously filmed multiple times, but critics almost unanimously agreed Ichikawa's 1983 version came closest to capturing the elusive lyricism and melancholy of the celebrated novel. At a time when many felt that Japanese Cinema had fallen into a creative nadir, Kon Ichikawa continued to be a beacon of light.

In 1987 Ichikawa made his most unusual and unexpected film since Tokyo Olympiad, a special-effects heavy sci-fi fantasy based on Japan's oldest work of prose fiction and featuring golden age stars Toshiro Mifune and Ayako Wakao. Princess from the Moon retells the 10th-century Tale of the Bamboo Cutter by way of Steven Spielberg's E.T.. Princess Kaguya, the adopted daughter of a poor bamboo cutter and his wife, is a fallen celestial spirit in the original tale, but in Ichikawa's take she becomes an orphaned alien with extrasensory powers. When her relatives appear to pick her up in their giant UFO during the movie's climax, there can be no doubt Ichikawa is trying to replicate Spielberg for a Japanese audience. He is largely successful in his endeavor.

Twilight Samurai

Just about the only thing Ichikawa hadn't done by this point was shoot his own version of Chushingura. The forever-popular legend of the "47 Ronin" had been filmed innumerable times by directors as diverse as Kenji Mizoguchi and Kinji Fukasaku, and Ichikawa offered up his own version in 1994. Kon Ichikawa's 47 Ronin is distinguished by the presence of Ken Takakura, the number one box office star of the 1970s, as the leader of the loyal 47 ronin who spend years plotting an elaborate revenge for the death of their lord. In 2000, Ichikawa would pay an encore visit to the samurai drama with Dora-heita. The film's story of a seemingly-disreputable village magistrate was based on a script Ichikawa co-wrote with Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, and Keisuke Kinoshita thirty years earlier, and cannily recreates the look and feel of classic jidaigeki actioners.

Kon Ichikawa remained a cinematic force to be reckoned with well into his twilight years. For Ten Nights of Dreams, the 2006 anthology film based on ten short stories by revered author Soseki Natsume, Ichikawa headlined an all-star list of directors such as Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge) and Nobuhiro Yamashita (Linda Linda Linda), many of whom weren't even born when Ichikawa lensed versions of Natsume's Kokoro in 1955 and I am a Cat in 1975. For what would be his final picture, Ichikawa revisited an old favorite. The Inugamis (2006) is a meticulously crafted reshoot of his earlier masterpiece, The Inugami Family, down to the recasting of Koji Ishizaka as a noticeably aged but no less spry Kosuke Kindaichi. While there are some fun new faces among the Inugamis themselves - including Tatsuya Nakadai as the ailing patriarch and late-60s box office sensation Junko Fuji as his ruthless daughter - The Inugamis sticks almost too close to its predecessor, not really offering viewers anything new. Nonetheless, as an encore performance of what was arguably a master filmmaker's finest achievement, The Inugamis is a fitting finale to Ichikawa's unparalleled run as a director.

Less than two years later, the 92-year-old Ichikawa would succumb to pneumonia, following his beloved wife and creative partner Natto Wada who had died almost 25 years to the day earlier of breast cancer. Fortunately, director Shunji Iwai preserved Ichikawa's story for the world in his aptly titled documentary, The Kon Ichikawa Story (2006). Created during the filming of The Inugamis, the movie provides an intimate portrait of the master at work. Iwai's labor of love is a fine testament to the director's amazing legacy, but the enormous body of work Ichikawa left behind speaks for itself. His nearly 100 pictures are not merely an integral part of Japanese film history; they by and large are Japanese film history. Without Kon Ichikawa, it simply wouldn't be the same. Not even remotely.

Published May 13, 2008

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