Kon Ichikawa died on February 13, of pneumonia, at the age of 92.
He directed over 80 films in a career that spanned more than 70 years. He entered the Japanese film industry in 1933 as an animator, directed by first feature (Musume Dojoji, aka A Girl at the Dojo Temple) in 1946 and (according to the Internet Movie Database) his most recent feature (The Inugamis) in 2006. Yet, apart from a few key features, his filmography is less well known and certainly less available stateside than the films of many of his colleagues.
The Kon Ichikawa never secured the international reputation of fellow studio professionals Akira Kurisawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, or Yasijiro Ozu, but the versatile director made an indelible mark with two of the most powerful anti-war dramas made in or out of Japan. The lyrical and introspective The Burmese Harp (1956) follows the odyssey of a Japanese soldier in Burma during the waning months of World War II who steals the robes of a Buddhist monk to make his way back to his platoon and undergoes a spiritual transformation as he witnesses the destruction and wholesale death left in the wake of battle. After a career of studio assignments, largely satirical comedies and melodramas, this passion project from Ichikawa made an impression on critics in Japan and became his first film to be seen outside the country, picking up a prize at the Venice Film Festival and securing distribution in the U.S. and Europe.
Fires on the Plain made three years later, stands in stark contrast, stark being the operative word. Based on the novel by Shohei Ooka (who drew from his personal experiences as a soldier and POW) and scripted by Ichikawa’s wife and collaborator, Natto Wada, it too takes the form of soldier’s journey through the battlefields of World War II, this time an island in the Philippines in 1945 as the Americans drive the Japanese out. The striking photography and imagery is the unmistakable work of the same creative artist, but otherwise Ichikawa takes a very different path. Where the serenity amidst death of The Burmese Harp is about the healing of wounds caused by the war, Fires on the Plain is a grim and gruesome and at times macabre autopsy of its (selectively Japanese) victims.
That’s the opening of my review of the Criterion DVD of Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain. It was the first piece I wrote for the Turner Classic Movies website and it’s the Ichikawa film with which I’m most familiar. It’s not much of a tribute, but it’s what I’ve got. I am too am woefully unfamiliar with the cinema of Kon Ichikawa.
“I began as a painter and I think like one,” Ichikawa once remarked, and his roots as a graphic artist and cartoonist can be seen in his eye for composition and imagery on his black and white widescreen canvas. The imagery of Fires on the Plain has a primal beauty that becomes increasingly stark and severe through the course of the film, with scenes are so brutally beautiful and bizarre you’ll not soon forget them: crippled patients squirming like worms to escape the bombing of a hospital, smoke clearing to reveal the rag-doll bodies strewn across an old battlefield, a platoon of soldiers crawling across an open road under cover of night like an army of insects scrambling for cover, and of course the plumes of smoke in the distance from the fires on the plain, like an obscure signal that every soldier reads differently.
The film was even more successful than The Burmese Harp, though it has been criticized for focusing on the Japanese suffering while neglecting the well documented atrocities that the Japanese perpetrated during their brutal occupation. At best Ichikawa suggests the terrible history through the terrified reactions of the Filipinos he meets along the way. But like Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, Fires on the Plain uses the Japanese experience in the final days of World War II as a microcosm for the way war destroys the soul and spirit of all involved, how the will to survive can drive men to acts of cruelty and brutality that make death look kind.
My complete review of Fires on the Plain is on the Turner Classic Movies website here.
Read Mark Schilling’s obituary of Kon Ichikawa in VarietyAsia.