FFC rating: 8/10
edited by James Quandt
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover
"I've read that in America, they'll screen the finished film for ordinary fans in a movie theatre free of charge. Then they have the audience write what they think was good or bad about the film. Looking at the responses, the star or director will sometimes try to reshoot scenes the audience didn't like... That attitude toward filmmaking is really conscientious; I think it's a great way to make films."
Those, believe it or not, are the words of a world-class director, trusted by millions and still active at the age of 86. And such remarks go a long way towards explaining why, despite being one of the four best-known Japanese directors (along with Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu), he has never attracted the personality cult the other three have enjoyed. For unlike that trio's relentless vision, doggedly pursued in film after film, Kon Ichikawa refracted his through the distorted lens of studio insistence and assignments, which may explain why he has worked consistently throughout the Eighties and Nineties when younger directors like Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura have often had to struggle to get a film made.
But the irony is that a vision is there, revealed in his impeccable style and ironic tendencies that take the most questionable of material and turn it into something. Fittingly, Kon Ichikawa, Cinematheque Ontario's new monograph on the director (edited by James Quandt), is as fascinating not only for its revelations on the director himself but also the cultural climate in which they existed--it shows how Ichikawa imposed himself on various sources and how they imprinted on him in return. Drawing from the greatest hits of Japanese film theory's big names (Donald Richie, Tadao Sato, Audie Bock, Keiko McDonald) as well as a variety of new material, the book is as interesting for the background detail on Japanese culture as it is for illuminating the Ichikawan way.
To be sure, there is much that distinguishes Ichikawa from the tenor of his cinematic times. For example, there is the matter of his many--many--literary adaptations. Having ushered the works of Tanizaki, Mishima, and Soseki to the screen, and having cashed in on such best sellers as Ishihara's Punishment Room, it has often been charged that he is merely, as Oshima put it, an "illustrator," but the collection's many comparisons of book to film reveal that he often works counter to the novelist's intent. This is true of Kagi's judgmental ending, a departure from Tanizaki's original that establishes the director's god's-eye view. Similarly, where Akira Ooka's Fires on the Plain allowed its WWII soldier to live on in agony, Ichikawa kills him off, furthering his aesthetic of a closed system from which no human can escape.
There are also plenty of interviews and essays about and by Ichikawa himself, and he proves to be genial and self-deprecating. Kon Ichikawa begins with an interview on the director's early life, and Q&As pepper the book, culminating in a recent "mid-career" conversation that covers filmmaking practice, the vagaries of studio casting, the menace of "Shibuya girls," and how much Ichikawa likes David Fincher's Seven. And the essays further establish him as a friendly, easygoing sort who prefers to forget about "art" and just "be a fan," whether he's rebuilding a house that has just been hit by a dud bomb or assessing the pros and cons of CinemaScope. (This person, it must be said, is slightly different from the one who came to the set: a piece by filmmaker and Ichikawa's ex-assistant Yasuzo Masumura reports on his meticulousness and stubbornness in getting what he wanted.)
Quandt's monograph ultimately becomes more interesting as a record of someone riding the waves of culture rather than someone who harnesses them, and it questions whether that's such a bad thing. Perhaps it has to do with the spate of fresh essays, leaning as they do to the post-structural side, but one gets the sense that Ichikawa acted as a prism for the cultural environment as much as the other way around. Kathe Geist and David Desser's Makioka Sisters article places him as an exponent of 1980's euphoria at Japan's "bubble economy," while Eric Cazdyn's piece helps contextualize his adaptations within Japanese narrative and theatrical traditions.
This leads to some interesting implications about the nature of film authorship, placing Ichikawa in a twilight zone between the auteurist personality-is-all position and the postmodern tendency to privilege outside social forces. On the one hand, he is very much a product of his time and culture, and the book shows how he fits in, for good and ill: I was especially intrigued (and appalled) by Aaron Gerow's essay on Ichikawa's complicity in some outrageous industrial practices post-1976, a serious blow to the notion of an unfettered commercial film artist. But there is enough material on his own particular style that keeps him from seeming anonymous, as a round-table discussion on Tokyo Olympiad reveals: running down the huge scandal that resulted from his oblivious refusal to make a Japanocentric film, one realizes the man's devotion to his vision is total, pliable though it might seem.
Like a great many other essay collections, the book is hit and miss, but the hits are direct and their wealth of information is vast. Although a few of the older pieces seem a bit dodgy when compared to the new essays (Pauline Kael's sketchy appreciations could have been excised without being missed), much of it is important groundwork that the Ichikawa novice will find useful. In short, this is an excellent first-stop source for information on the collection's subject and offers fascinating tangents that enlarge one's understanding of Japanese cinema. It's a mad scramble across a country's culture as filtered through the position of a prolific and still-relevant director.
416 pages; June, 2001; ISBN: 0968296939; Indiana University Press