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Kon artist
The MFA’s Ichikawa retrospective is the film event of the year


“The Films of Kon Ichikawa”
At the Museum of Fine Arts through September 2.

Among the truly great filmmakers of the last half-century, Kon Ichikawa may be both the most prolific — he’s just completed his 77th film (82nd if you count TV-movies), at the age of 87 — and, beyond his native Japan, the most unheralded. He’s never garnered the attention of Western audiences as Kurosawa has, or even Mizoguchi or Ozu, both of whom enjoyed their period of favor with art-house audiences. The traveling Ichikawa retrospective organized by James Quandt, which will be visiting the MFA through the beginning of September, is as far as I know the first one ever organized. Containing one-third of his output, including many brand-new prints and many films you simply can’t see anywhere else (at this juncture, only half a dozen are available on video), it’s the Boston movie event of the year. No one who’s serious about film can afford to let it go by.

Although I’ve seen fewer than half of the movies in the retrospective, as well as two or three that aren’t included, and though the range of Ichikawa’s work is too tremendous to allow for generalizations, some distinctive qualities present themselves. Like John Huston and Satyajit Ray, he’s an unusually literary director. Some of the most celebrated Japanese writers of the 20th century have provided source material for his movies — Mishima (Conflagration adapts The Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Tanizaki (Odd Obsession is based on The Key, The Makioka Sisters on A Light Snowfall), Ooka (Fires on the Plain), Natsume (The Heart). He has a superb compositional sense: it’s hard to think of another director, aside from Kurosawa, for whom the placement of actors and objects in the frame is a more potent combination of the painterly and the dramatic. This characteristic is most abundantly clear in an exquisite widescreen color film like Tokyo Olympiad (1965; August 26 at 12:30 p.m. and August 31 at 7 p.m.), his delightfully unorthodox record of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, or An Actor’s Revenge (1963; August 3 at 7:45 p.m. and August 19 at 3:45 p.m.), which plays with the line between the theatrical and the cinematic as Olivier did in Henry V, and where images flare up mysteriously in pockets of the screen like the smoke-cradled conjurings of a genie. Or The Makioka Sisters (1983; August 19 at 1 p.m.), where the languid, strolling beauty of the protagonists, four sisters in a fading aristocratic family in pre–World War II Osaka, matches the sedentary beauty of the trees during the annual cherry blossom festival. Ichikawa encourages us to see the women as part of the breathtaking landscape, along with the pink blossoms and the blur of magenta reflected in the surface of the pond.

Ichikawa made his first movie, a short called " The Girl at Dojo Temple, " in 1945, and it’s obvious that as an artist he was powerfully shaped by the Japanese defeat of that year. Many of his movies seem haunted by the feeling of the last days of the Second World War and its indelible imprint on modern Japanese history. Two, Harp of Burma (1956; August 5 at 1:30 and August 24 at 5:45 p.m.) and Fires on the Plain (1959; August 5 at 1:45 and August 17 at 5:45 p.m.), dramatize the end of the war.

In Harp of Burma, a young soldier named Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), on orders from his captain, tries to persuade another company staked out in the mountains of Burma to capitulate to the British after Japan has officially surrendered. When as a point of honor they refuse, Mizushima is caught in the midst of the ensuing massacre, and what he sees alters him irrevocably. Rather than returning to his unit, he becomes a Buddhist priest, roaming the Burmese countryside looking for the corpses of his countrymen so he can perform the sacred cremation rites over them. The oddly poetic images of the war dead in this picture are reminiscent of Dovzhenko’s great World War I film Arsenal, though the one that you may carry away with you — the visual emblem of the movie — is of Mizushima in priest’s rags with his shaved head retreating from the camera. The movie has a musical emblem, too: " Home, Sweet Home " played on the harp, first by Mizushima and later by a Burmese boy he tutors. The cross-fertilization of East and West in this setting of the old song has a strange, strong flavor, like the idea of a Japanese private who joins a Burmese monastic order, refusing to return to his homeland as long as other Japanese still lie on the blood-stained Burmese soil, deprived of the right to see Japan once more.

The devastating Fires on the Plain focuses not on the horrors of battle but on the horrors of starvation. On the Philippine front in the last vestiges of the Pacific war, Japanese soldiers have turned to cannibalism. The main character, Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi), is dying slowly from tuberculosis — his diseased body is what prevents him from being eaten, but it’s miraculous that he hasn’t yet been killed off, like most of his comrades, by bombs or gunfire or hunger. His survival is an absurdity: he wanders through the movie, barely able to keep himself upright, like a ghost or a figure in a Beckett play. The vision of this movie is shocking, and once you’ve seen it you’re unlikely to forget it; it has a scalding purity. Only a handful of war movies deserve to be placed beside Fires on the Plain The Birth of a Nation, Grand Illusion, Forbidden Games, The Night of the Shooting Stars, Casualties of War.

You can also feel the specter of World War II in Conflagration (1958; August 2 at 7:45 p.m., with an introduction by James Quandt, and August 12 at 2:30 p.m.), though it’s barely mentioned. The temple a young novice (Raizo Ichikawa) is attached to is the symbol of purity, and he sets it on fire because of the disjunction between its unstained beauty and the corruption of the world around it. The movie, like Mishima’s novel, is set in the ’40s, and it’s easy to connect the young protagonist’s anguish at failing to find in the temple a reflection of the life he’s been thrown into with the anguish of his country after the humiliation of defeat. In Mr. Pu (1953; August 9 at 5:30 p.m. and August 11 at noon), Ichikawa evokes the mood of post-war Tokyo. The hero (Yunosuke Ito) is a schoolteacher who gets beaten and thrown in jail and loses his job when he joins a labor protest march. The movie tries for a cross between Modern Times and The Bicycle Thief, with a hapless clown hero (Ito, with his enormous stoved-in face and heavy-lidded eyes, is quite marvelous) who gets caught up in the desperate crush of the times. The mix of neo-realism and broad farce doesn’t come off, but the movie’s a fascinating failure; I can’t think of another like it. And though the Tanizaki novel that sired The Makioka Sisters was written in the late ’30s, it too looks ahead to the end of the war. The movie is conscious, in a way that Tanizaki couldn’t have been, of the fact that in a few years the old Japan represented by the Makioka family — a family of industrialists that has lost its power but is struggling to maintain its status, like Orson Welles’s Ambersons — will have vanished forever. This is unquestionably Ichikawa’s great theme.

The Makioka Sisters is my favorite Ichikawa; it’s one of the most visually stunning movies ever made, one of the few authentic masterpieces released during the 1980s, and one of the most intelligent adaptations I know of a first-rate novel. On the same plane is Odd Obsession (1959; August 4 at 4 p.m. and September 2 at 3:45 p.m.), an earlier meeting of the sensibilities of Tanizaki and Ichikawa. Odd Obsession is a hilarious chronicle of the erotic machinations of two men and two women: an aging art historian who takes injections to maintain his stamina in bed; his wife, whose blushing agreement to please him masks her desire to kill him with kindness; their daughter’s fiancé, who’s the object of the wife’s fantasies; and the daughter herself, who plays a conflicted role in her mother’s adultery. Ichikawa made the movie in 1959, when American writers and directors were still fighting to throw off the shackles of the Production Code, but you won’t find anything as daring among the French, Italian, or English films of the same era. Even Buñuel never matched it for sheer perverseness. Perhaps this extraordinary retrospective will finally bring Odd Obsession the notoriety it so richly merits.

Issue Date: August 2-9, 2001