His detractors have claimed that Kon Ichikawa is not a real auteur because of the extreme eclecticism of his work. In the course of a career extending from the mid 1930s to the present, he has tackled humanist war pictures, extravagant period pieces, mordant modern black comedies, social satires, comedies of manners, docs, detective stories, films derived from comic strips, and literary adaptations (his oeuvre includes movies based on canonical works by virtually every major 20th-century Japanese writer). The one constant is Ichikawa’s dryly ironic and gallows-humored view of human beings. Odd Obsession is the title of one of his most striking films; it could be applied to a dozen of them—his major works are nearly all studies of anguished, obsessive characters pushed to extremes.
Ichikawa was born in 1915, the son of a kimono merchant. Entranced by Disney’s Silly Symphonies, he decided on his life’s work and entered films at 18 in the animation department of a Kyoto studio, directing his first feature in 1948. A series of comedies, mostly studio assignments, was followed by Harp of Burma (1956), the haunting story of a Japanese soldier who stays behind in Burma after the war to bury the dead. It won a prize at the Venice Festival and gave him considerably more clout at home.
It was followed by 1958’s Enjo (Conflagration), based on The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Yukio Mishima’s novel on the actual burning of the famous Zen structure by a mentally disturbed young priest. Like the book, Enjo was a devastating critique of postwar Japanese society; it signaled Ichikawa’s emergence as a mature director. The film’s emphasis on the architectural space of the temple as the key element in translating Mishima’s narrative language to film is brilliantly resolved. This visual tour de force was accomplished with the collaboration of Kazuo Miyagawa, Japan’s foremost director of photography, who shot Rashomon and a fair share of the great films of Mizoguchi and Ozu.
Miyagawa worked with him again on Kagi and Odd Obsession, a perverse black comedy based on Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel about an elderly art dealer fixated on maintaining his virility who finds he is only aroused when jealous, and arranges liaisons between his wife and his daughter’s fiancé. This Grand Guignol heavy breather benefits immensely from Miyagawa’s bold experiments in color. It was followed by 1959’s Nobi (Fires on the Plain), about the last days of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. One image, of a starving, demented soldier sitting by a tree, crapping and scooping up his own shit and eating it with the earth, seems strangely religious. Ichikawa provided some clarification in an interview: “Yes, there was a religious connotation: the Buddhist sense of resignation, something true of the Japanese people. And yet, in addition to being Buddhist, I’m a Christian. I mixed the chocolate and brown sugar for that scene myself.”
1963 was a bumper year for the director, who delivered two major films: Alone on the Pacific and An Actor’s Revenge. The first is based on the true saga of Kenichi Horie, who sailed from Osaka to San Francisco in a tiny boat. This apparently impossible subject is fleshed out with skillfully managed flashbacks that fit together like a jigsaw, so that by the time the young man reaches America we are in total sympathy with his flight from Japan and its stifling family structure. The playful and experimental An Actor’s Revenge, an eccentric masterpiece, concerns a 19th-century onnagata (female impersonator) of the Kabuki theater, whose persona is maintained offstage, and who is driven by the idea of killing the men who caused the death of his parents. Veteran actor Kazuo Hasegawa gives astonishing twin performances as Yukinojo, the fluttery performer, and Yomitara, the burly thief who befriends him. Ichikawa juxtaposes naturalistic scenes with obviously painted sets, making superb use of widescreen. This campy and fascinating study of opposites—illusion/reality, masculinity/femininity—made in 1963 and set in the mid 1800s, is the most modern show in town.
Ichikawa’s glowing and irreverent account of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was released in many different versions, often butchered, after the rights were sold off. Tokyo Olympiad is being shown at MOMA in its complete 170-minute form; it’s one of the highlights of the 26-film retro. It was partly written by the director’s wife, Natto Wada, who had worked on the scripts of most of his earlier films and had been a formidable influence on him. After Olympiad, Wada retired from screenwriting. Ichikawa has continued working, often with great commercial success, and at the age of 86 is still making feature films. But the absence of Wada’s huge talent has been clearly felt.