Kon Ichikawa (1915-2008) was born in Mie and studied in Osaka. He began his career as an animator and perhaps because of this, his directing style is so visual that some of his best films can be easily watched without subtitles He once said that his favourite director was Walt Disney.
Yet Ichikawa is best known for a movie he made twice and a documentary many wish he hadn’t made. The Burmese Harp (Biruma no tategoto,1956; remade in colour, 1985) is the tale of a once gung-ho Japanese soldier in Burma who renounces war and becomes a Buddhist monk to atone for those who died in it. The original won prizes at Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award and is still considered one of the greatest anti-war films of world cinema.
Ichikawa was always respected in the business end of the movie industry as a studio director who, like Clint Eastwood, always brought his films in on time and under budget. So when the notoriously dictatorial Akira Kurosawa was sacked from the making of Olympiad 1964, the official document of the Tokyo Olympics, Ichikawa was chosen as a safe pair of hands to finish the job. The then ultra-nationalist JOC gave him a huge budget and unlimited access to the events, expecting in return a celebration of the glory of Japan and its victories: think Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics to understand what they were looking for. What they got, to their outrage, was a nearly three-hour, nearly wordless, wry, stylistically eccentric showcase of the Games, focusing not so much on the winners as those who came all the way to Tokyo to do their best. Thus, we see not only the great Ethiopian, Abebe Bikila, win the marathon, we also see the man who, some hours later, slowly, methodically, came last. Besides the victories, we see poignant slow motion shots of exhausted cyclists wiping out on the rainy streets of Tokyo, and the lone and lonely athletes from small, overlooked new countries. He shows in great detail the Japanese loss of the first Olympic heavyweight gold medal in judo – to a Dutchman (grown men literally wept in shame in the streets of Tokyo that day, but Ichikawa admiringly shows the losing Japanese judoka quietly, good-naturedly, congratulating the winner). Although the movie was a scandal at the time of its release, it’s now the template for nearly every honest sports documentary you’ve ever seen since.
Ichikawa’s vast output (89 movies in 60 years!) is often overlooked by Western film buffs because of its difficulty to pigeonhole (and few of his movies are subtitled – although, except for his literary adaptations, that’s rarely a problem). He made social statements, light comedies, samurai dramas, TV movies-of-the-week, whodunits, innovative documentaries. The list in the sidebar doesn’t scratch the surface, but it’s a good place to start.
– Fires on the Plain (Nobi,1959) – A stark film about Japanese soldiers abandoned on Leyte Island in 1945. Ichikawa portrays them neither as noble samurai or fanatical villains, but as exhausted, increasingly desperate men doing everything they can to simply survive. Naturally, this honest portrayal ensured its initial unpopularity in both Japan and the US. (both Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp are available with English subtitles and commentary from The Criterion Collection, via amazon.com)
– Ten Dark Women (Kuroi juunin no onna, 1961)- A prominent TV producer’s wife and 9 mistresses get together and decide to kill him. Doesn’t quite work out that way, though. Witty and weird and shot in wonderfully stark black and white.
– I Am Two Years Old (Watashi-wa ni-sai,1962) – The world of a salaryman’s family, as seen through the eyes of the youngest member. A wry commentary on the Economic Miracle.
– Alone Across The Pacific (Taiheiyo hitori-bochi,1963) – Based on the true story of young Ken’Ichi Horie (from Osaka!) who sailed alone from Nishinomiya to San Francisco in 1962. Again, very little dialogue, but Ichikawa’s visual sense makes it all perfectly understandable.