09 January 2013

The Uniqueness of Kon Ichikawa

Although the long and distinguished film career of the late Japanese director Kon Ichikawa dated back to the 1930s and included many award winning films in Japan, he gained international attention in the 1950s and 1960s for a series of anti-war films, including 'The Burmese Harp' (nominated for an Academy Award in 1957) and 'Fires on the Plain' (winner of the Golden Sail at Locarno in 1961). It was during this period that a short symposium on his work was published in Japanese, which was subsequently translated into English for publication in the now defunct journal Cinema. Although Ichikawa began by saying that, 'I really don't know myself, so I'll just smile,' the symposium provides an early insight into the mind of the director and how he feels about his own work. Part of a series of symposia designed to reveal unknown aspects of films by Japanese directors, the following interview was conducted by two other Japanese film directors, Kyushiro Kusakabe and Akira Iwasaki.

Kusakabe: The purpose of this series of symposiums is to discover unknown facets of various films. The films of Kon Ichikawa are the subject of today's discussion, which may prove to be interesting since we have you here with us.

Ichikawa: I don't really understand myself, so I'll just smile.

Kusakabe: Your most recent films are Being Two Isn't Easy (Watashi Nisai, 1962), The Sin (AKA The OutcastHakai, 1962), and The Revenge of Yukinojo (AKA An Actor's RevengeYukinojo Henge, 1963). Being Two Isn't Easy attracted a great deal of public attention and also was ranked among the Ten Best Movies of the Year. We'd like to begin with this film since it is regarded a a film in a class by itself.

Iwasaki: Being Two Isn't Easy is a film that only you could've made. I saw it in a theater in Ikebukuro [downtown Tokyo] and found that the audience was composed mostly of middle-aged housewives, the kind that you see in your neighborhood or anywhere carrying their shopping bags. I was deeply moved by the atmosphere in the theater. The women wept during the movie and there was something which strongly affected me as well. I think this film is very different from you previous films in the way it affects its viewers.

Ichikawa: Can you tell me what does this?

Iwasaki: Well, one of the hallmarks of your films is a piercing  and ironic view of humanity or a detached and satiric vision of society. But in this film your usual bite has been replaced by compassion and warmth. Both the over-indulgence and the distress of the parents are presented through the eyes of their two year-old child, however your attitude is very warm. You used to achieve irony by having the characters smile sardonically or by piercing a character to the quick. And there is irony in this film, too, but it is not venomous. Of course, if this made the film merely innocuous, it wouldn't be good; but its venomlessness takes the form of compassion. That's why it won the hearts of all those women.

Kusakabe: There are two views of life in Being Two Isn't Easy. One is an ironical view of the adult world through the eyes of a baby, and the other is a vision of the value or dignity of human existence as seen in the continuity of life from the grandmother to the mother and from the mother to the baby. The second view is what the women appreciated.

Ichikawa: I originally had no intention of criticizing society through a baby's eyes. The staff talked about what is the most important thing in life. We felt that we adults need to discern what life is--a problem of the human heart and soul. Therefore the film was meant to be a 'hymn to life.' I don't deny that some irony comes out, but quite frankly, I wrote the script in hopes of making a little imprint on my heart. But I feel this film is a failure. Of course there's never anything that can be called perfect.

Kusakabe: In what sense?

Ichikawa: I was chided by my wife. She says that the images she gets from this film are not mine. They're too easy to understand, that is, they lack artistic or personal innovation.

Iwasaki: You use a kind of image of doga, which has two meanings--animated cartoons and children's drawings--and the film is influenced by both off them. Perhaps Mrs. Ichikawa couldn't see you in the film's softness and tenderness, which is the source of the film's compassion. The film makes a deep philosophical impact--the continuity of life--and yet its form is easily understood by most people That's why I'm greatly impressed.

Kusakabe: Don't you think your three recent films show the three styles or streams of Ichikawa films? Every Ichikawa film has its own style, but can also be classified as one in which you emphasize experimental techniques like The Revenge of Yukinojo, or as one in which you emphasize ironic observation of man like Being Two Isn't Easy, or as a traditional drama like The  Sin. Although your filmography appears to be haphazard and eclectic, it is possible to classify your films.

Iwasaki: Kusakabe sees three streams but I think there are two. One is comedy (or comic thrillers); the other is great traditional drama, such as Punishment Room (Shokei no Heya, 1956), Conflagration (Enjo, 1958) Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959), Her Brother (AKA Younger BrotherOtoto, 1960), and The Sin. Good qualities can be found in your comic thrillers, but most of them are not successful. Your masterpieces are all traditional dramas; this is where you reveal your real ability.

Ichikawa: For me the theme of a film is not so important. I'm not very concerned about it. That is, whether or not I decide to make a film about a certain thing is determined by whether or not I'm interested in it. Although I say to myself, my intuition for makings these decisions is very acute compared to other directions. In this I am a perfectionist. I must have my own way--this is 'me' as a director. My wife says its my sense of beauty, which may be the motivation for my activities in film.

Iwasaki: You are unconcerned about theme and can work passionately on any type of film because you have confidence in yourself, in your style and technique. But speaking objectively, you cannot work on any theme. The person Ichikawa must have limits, and therefore the director Ichikawa must have thematic limits he can work on. For example, take Yasujiro Ozu: the Ozu Tofu Restaurant can only sell tofu. The Ichikawa restaurant, however, can sell both tofu and pork-cutlet, but not tofu, pork-cutlet, beefsteak, and tempura. Thus, unless you choose or focus on your themes, you will fail as you did in The Revenge of Yukinojo. Your experimental temperament is certainly a good quality which no one else has, but I feel that both an accomplished master and an acolyte are dwelling in you at the same time. Sometimes you become one and sometimes the other. But somehow when you become an acolyte, you fail. Your fresh, youthful attitude and your experimental temperament are definitely some of your virtues. But your excessive self-confidence in style or technique seems to coexist with your lack of concern about theme. This is what I'm afraid of.

Ichikawa: I see. I appreciate your observation. You understand the content of Yukinojo, but I was thinking about a stylistic beauty which sprouts from my previous films. Simplicity and artistic innovation are the basis of stylistic beauty; as [my wife and collaborator] Nato says, they lead to a sense of beauty. I wanted to embody this and make it clear. I don't recall how resolutely I decided to do this, but I made the film with this in mind. I wanted to explore and distill my sense of beauty so that it would be crystal clear, and I wanted to integrate my style and my thinking. I was also trying to achieve this when I made Ten Dark Women (Kuroi Junin No Onna, 1961). My attitude toward beauty has now settled and congealed so vigorously in Nato and myself that it may become my next phase.

Kusakabe: The combination of Nato Wada as scriptwriter and yourself as director seems to be the secret ingredient or mysterious core that produces the uniqueness of an Ichikawa film. Your collaboration brings out something extra.

Iwasaki: Actually, I've never known any director-scriptwriter team that has gotten along for such a long time without having trouble. All husbands and wives experience quarrels and boredom as well as love; and besides that, you must also experience these things as artists. I've never heard of such a case.

Ichikawa: It's because Nato is such a great person. [laughs]

Kusakabe: Turning to Japan United Artists was your reason for founding this that you felt something must be done about the movie industry in Japan?

Ichikawa: Well, the movie industry is on the decline everywhere in the world. Recently I happened to see Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un curĂ© de campagne, 1951), John Ford's The Informer (1935), and Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) on television; they are definitely first-rate films. to which nothing being made today can be compared. These days we directors advocate big productions when what we should be doing is seriously investigating real, orthodox filmmaking--what production should be.

Iwasaki: The rise of independent production is related to the world-wide decline in big productions.

Kusakabe: If the decline in the movie industry is accompanied by a decline in artistry, films will lose their validity and significance. The decline of Hollywood several years ago was due to this very coincidence. The companies tried to recuperate with bigger productions, and the artists--a group of independent producers called the New York School--tried to recover their art. As a director, what do you think is the most important thing in maintaining your existence, your artistic career?

Ichikawa: Well, I'd like to preserve my personality from extinction--that would be the most important thing.

Iwasaki: Independent production is needed to drive the Japanese film forward again. But as long as the present system of distribution remains unchanged, Japanese films will be limited to the big studios, and the most efficient kind will be a unit-production under one of them. If you really want to establish an independent production in the the true sense of the word, the only way would be to make a low-budget film which can be distributed internationally--like Kaneto Shindo's Naked Island (Hadaka no Shima, 1960).

Ichikawa: Shindo is trying to cut his way through, but even he will find himself trapped in the corner of being forced to make very peculiar films. Therefore, one way to establish an independent production is to make the most of the present organization.

Kusakabe: When your idea is realized, will a new kind of Ichikawa film be produced?

Ichikawa: Not necessarily. [laughs] But I would feel good if one was. [laughs] Don't you think that even a little effort to improve the system is important?

Kusakabe: Yes, I agree with you. Japanese directors have been too negative to make the effort. That's why your activities have great significance for film production in Japan. We hope you continue your efforts.

[This symposium was first published in English in Cinema (Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall 1970), which had been translated from the original Japanese version from the May 1963 issue of Chuo Koron. The English translation was done by Haruji Nakamura and Leonard Schrader. It has been slightly edited for presentation on TV Multiversity. The images are from the English version of the symposium.]

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