Tuesday, June 25, 2013

June Director - Kon Ichikawa

I missed last month's installment of the Director of the Month through a mix of travel, car trouble and monitor trouble. It's a risk in the summer - I spend a lot more time on the wander, and things can drop for a while, especially things that require me to sit in front of a computer for some length of time. We sometimes get nice weather here! This month, though, I am ready (maybe because it rained for half the month, so it was easy to sit in front of the computer), well before the end of the month.

This month, I am going to reverse myself a bit - instead of continuing to count down my favorite Japanese directors, I am going to drop back a bit, to #7 - Kon Ichikawa. He's fairly well known in the states, but doesn't quite seem to have the cachet of the really highly regarded Japanese directors, nor the narrower, but usually more passionate following of people like Oshima and Imamura. But he's not far from any of them. If he stays below the best - it might be because he doesn't seem to commit to things. He is an great aesthete, and a fascinating experimenter, but he has less of the strong identity of the other great Japanese directors. Though it's easy to overstate that - I mentioned before that his eclecticism reminds me of Oshima - and that he shares with Oshima a kind of consistent tone, cool irony in everything. He reminds me, also, of Stanley Kubrick - his irony, distance, analytical, almost clinical style; they share a sense of cruelty, that never quite abandons the characters, an undercurrent of disgust and sympathy.

Though how much of that is Ichikawa and how much was Natto Wada? She was his wife, and his screenwriter, almost from the beginning up through the mid-60s - which is roughly when his films started to lose their way. (At least that is the conventional story - in fact, he still made a fair number of quite solid films after this). Their collaborations, in any case, have the strongest taste of his most characteristic - or most effective - style, that tone I mean. However those collaborations worked, his films are marked throughout the period by that sharp ironic style, and his utter mastery of composition and construction. He was, over all, a master.

Top ten:

1. Fires on the Plain - one of the greatest war movies of all time - I have written it up at length before. I'll add here that it makes a kind of perfect double bill with the Burmese Harp - that film is optimistic and sympathetic to everyone, a film about hope and redemption. This - is not.

2. The Burmese Harp - A lovely, moving film about soldiers going home. It is sometimes criticized for avoiding the Japanese responsibility for the war - but like Fires on the Plains, it is explicitly about the experience of the men on the ground. That is an important tradition - the war is hell on soldiers story, like All Quiet on the Western Front or the Red Badge of Courage. This tradition ignores culpability and portrays everyone as suffering. In this case the suffering is real - the problems are hinted at but not treated - the resolution, the assertion of human possibility is very powerful and convincing. And in any case, we have Fires on the Plains to tell the other side.

3. Kagi - Hitchcock style thriller from a Tanazaki book. An old man spies on his younger wife and a younger doctor who's engaged to their younger still daughter. Plots schemes and betrayals ending with the crowd of them poisoned by the maid, who the cops release, thinking she is trying to protect the mistress from accusations of suicide. The story is nasty piece of work, perverse and strange and observed with an odd mix of distance and ironic identification, a trademark of both Tanizaki and Ichikawa. There's no wonder he kept returning to Tanizaki. As is also common through most of his career, Ichikawa uses cinema to full advantage - the screen is all chopped up, divided, full of blank spaces and odd relationships among the characters; the film generally is full of odd features - an opening monologue addressed to the audience, freeze frames of the main characters, like in a cop show showing the comings and goings of villains - ending with a voiceover by the dead Nakadai - "why? why was I poisoned? I didn't do anything." Great stuff.

4. Makioka Sisters - another Tanizaki adaptation, lavish and gorgeous - the point of which is made at the end. The film is about 4 sisters: one married to a banker, the next to a businessman, the third looking for a husband, the fourth a terror who runs off with a lover. At the end, sinter #2 visits her and says, in proper Japanese fashion, "the seasons come and go, but nothing really changes, does it?" - well,I don't know if she knows better, but the film, and I'd bet the book, is dedicated to refuting that bromide at every point. It is a film about the end of the world. Inside the film, everything is changed: the family is broken up, they all atomize to their individual desires, they accept the end of their dynasty - and outside the film, it ends in 1938, with the world is tottering on the edge of the end. The film itself is ravishingly beautiful, cool and distanced, funny, sharply, and sometimes disruptively edited. Ichikawa's style is on display - overwhelming graphicism, the symbolic and aesthetic use of color and composition, the tendency to favor a series of static compositions, with very little camera movement, and what there is is not used to create the kind of fluid temporalized space Mizoguchi specialized it. There are 180 degree cuts - there are lapses in and out of flashbacks, there is use of sound to link and dissociate images - there are graphic matches, there are games with black and white and color, there is clever use of text.... All of it is sharp and clear. It's a masterpiece, in the old fashioned sense of the word.

5. The Wanderers - 3 Toseinin, wandering thugs, in 1844, having adventures. Mostly they get involved in local feuds and serve as temporary muscle - resulting in wild fights where people try to look mean without hurting each other, though sometimes these get ugly. Ichikawa shows these fights in all their splendor - men hacking away at each other with swords and sticks and farm implements, slipping and sliding, falling into holes, the whole thing. The fight scenes are ridiculous, brutal, sometimes gruesome... Eventually the three of them get involved in a more coherent plot - one of them is compelled to kill his father, then disowned by the boss who made him do it; the three of them, plus a farmgirl the patricide “seduced” then convinced to run away with him head out for home, though things go about as one could expect. They sell the girl to an inn (though promising to redeem her in three months); one gets tetanus; the other two fight over which of two gangsters they will betray, in the course of which one falls over a cliff. The end. It’s a harsh, funny, totally unsentimental film - you can, sort of, feel sorry for the poor devils, but you can’t forget they are in it because they are idiots, though it’s hard to see how anyone else around them isn’t also an idiot.

6. An Actors Revenge - A famous female impersonator exacts revenge on the men who ruined his family. Theatrical and extravagant, the kind of film that just explodes when you see it on a big screen. Gorgeous strange staging, odd structure, a weird perversity, a wildly unconventional and artificial way of depicting things - fights all flashes of swords, a dead person shown as a still photo.... One of the films where Ichikawa lets out all the stylistic stops - and since he was always something of a showoff - this one is pretty stunning to look at.

7. Mr. Pu - Sketch comedy that turns dark, adapted from a manga. Lots of Chaplin; also lots of its manga roots - episodic, built around isolated incidents and sketches. Broadly speaking, follows the ruin of a modest teacher. He's his by a politicians car; he's humiliated by his students; he's demoted - he's lured to a rally by some of the students, and when the rally turns violent, he's hit in the head, photographed, and everything goes to hell. It is very dark - another characteristic of Ichikawa's comedies, in particular. Here, everyone suffers - Mr. Pu's friend is fired, the politician is arrested, the students suffer, the girl Mr. Pu liked takes up with another man, but her mother forbids her from marrying him - they shout and insult both father and teacher. In the end, the girl tries to commit suicide, but fails (the cops fol her), and Mr. Pu gets a job and goes to work. It is a fascinating film, full of vignettes from early 50s Tokyo - unemployment, clinics, schools, intellectuals in all their absurdity - it's really quite extraordinary.

8. Tokyo Olympiad - Documentary about the 1964 games - starts with a shot of the sun filling the screen - cuts to a wrecking ball knocking down a wall - interesting. Focuses on the effort of sports - the athletes preparing, working, waiting - the spectators - the mechanics of the sport - tending to ignore the competition, except in a couple instances; the volleyball finals,say, which Japan won. Some great moments, reaching a kind of peak with the marathon - an Ethiopian running all alone at the front, an English runner kicking in to pass a Japanese at the finish line for 2nd - and the other runners struggling, suffering, creeping in or not making it. Fairly marvellous film - a bit disconcerting to see a film about the Olympics giving 2 seconds to basketball though.

9. I Am Two - Surprisingly wonderful little film, narrated from the POV of a 2 year old. Begins with the child's birth - narrated - shadows and shapes that only later made sense - accompanied by rather marvellous visuals, out fo focus colors and lights, filmed through gauze (out of focus and a kind of fuzz effect) - slowly taking form - the face of a woman, saying the baby is smiling - still ringed with the same fuzzy effect - and here we get the first of many little pricks at the sentimentality of the material - the narration says "I was trying out my muscles - I used some muscles on my face and she thought I was smiling." - it continues from there. The story is loose enough, but not entirely loose - part 1 establishes the household, the relationship between father and mother, their social standing and so on (with nods to Ozu along the way - I WAS BORN BUT... especially) - part ii has them move in with his mother - the grandmother and wife struggle over petty things, but come to understand and like one another - then the old woman dies, leaving the other 2 1/2 alone.... All this is nicely observed, handsomely shot - it is funny and sweet, sometimes delightfully whimsical (there are two or three wonderful bits of animation), but also full of the sharpness Ichikawa is known for. The premise of the child's narration is plenty cute, and there's plenty of cute in it - but it is also usually unsentimental, undercutting the pretensions or worries of the adults - and once in a while, Ichikawa uses the premise to great effect. A serious discussion of life and death, heaven and hell, is ended by the child saying he has to use the potty - that is perfectly characteristic of Ichikawa/Wada...

10. Kokero - Soseki novel - a young man befriends a professor who doesn't have a job - there are psychological quirks invoved - eventually the man tells how he stole his best friend's girl, causing the other man to kill himself - he has hated himself since. Ends with the old villain killing himself - right as the Meiji emporer dies. It's got political subtext, but I can't totally parse it - but the death of fathers, the sense of compromise and betrayal all seem aiemd at a comment on the end of the Maiji era, and perhaps its failure.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Utterly fantastic discussion and listing of Ichikawa's film, Weeping Sam. I have never seen MR. PU or I AM TWO, but I am certainly a huge fan of this great director, and will offer up my own ranked Top 10.

1. The Burmese Harp
2. Fires of the Plain
3. The Makioka Sisters
4. The Wanderers
5. The Key (Odd Obsession)
6. Enjo
7. Kagi
8. An Actor's Revenge
9. Tokyo Olympiad
10. Kokero

I feel that the mournful and deeply spiritual THE BURMESE HARP is one of the great Japanese films, and Ichikawa's masterpiece. But your choice is hard to contest as well, as is your entire list and wonderful capsules.