Monday 5 February 2024

Kon Ichikawa: Politics and Desire

Conflagration (Directed by Kon Ichikawa)
In a career extending from the mid-1930s to the mid-2000s, Kon Ichikawa directed almost 80 films that ranged widely in genre, form, and tone. He has made ferociously humanist war films (The Burmese Harp, Fires on the Plain) and light-hearted domestic comedies (Being Two Isn’t Easy); formalist documentaries (Tokyo Olympiad) and extravagant period pieces (An Actor’s Revenge); his celebrated adaptations of famous Japanese novels such as Enjo and The Makioka Sisters earned him a reputation as a “deadpan sophisticate”(Pauline Kael) with an elegant compositional style, venomous wit, and narrative daring, but he was also a crafty master of populist entertainments.

The problems of apprehension and evaluation posed by the diversity and magnitude of Ichikawa’s oeuvre are compounded by other factors, notably the formidable influence of his wife and scenarist, Natto Wada, whose withdrawal from writing his scripts in the mid-1960s marked a turning point in his career; and the difficulties he encountered with the studios, who occasionally punished his failures and transgressions by assigning him dubious projects, or hired him only on “salvage operations.” While often referred to as a link between the “golden age” of Japanese cinema and the New Wave of the ’60s, Ichikawa has rarely been given his due as an innovator, even though his experiments with formal elements (the CinemaScope frame, the tonalities of black and white and colour, the graphic design of compositions, the use of freeze frames, masking, flash cutaways), with unconventional registers of dialogue and acting, and with subjective or surreal imagery are among the most daring and influential in postwar Japanese cinema.

In the following excerpt from an interview with Joan Mellen from 1972 Kon Ichikawa discusses his influences as a filmmaker and the political dimension to his films.

Q: How did you start making films?

A: When I was a youth it was the time of the Western film world’s so-called renaissance. There were so many great European and American films. They had a great impact on the Japanese. Japanese then began to pursue filmmaking seriously. This influenced me considerably.

Q: Which European and American films or directors most affected you?

A: I should mention the names of filmmakers who moved me very much rather than individual titles. Among them, in America, Charlie Chaplin stands out, as does William Wellman. In France René Clair. Nor can I forget Sternberg and Lubitsch.

Q: Why have Japanese filmmakers been so interested in historical themes and period films?

A: I don’t think Japanese films lean particularly toward the jidai-geki, or costume drama. Some people are interested in episodes of a certain era, but I would not want to make the distinction between jidai-geki and gendai-geki. To me they are the same. If I may add my opinion, films which have modern themes and modern implications should not be simply classified as jidai-geki, even if they are set before the Meiji era. They are indeed modern films although they may take the form of costume plays.

Q: You don’t think there are more historical films made in Japan than in the United States, although we do have the "Western", which may be thought of as similar to the jidai-geki?

A: We probably have a few more and it may have some significance, in my case for one. It is true of course that there are more jidai-geki made here than gendai-geki. You see film is an art which involves the direct projection of the time in which we live. It is a difficult point to state clearly, but my general feeling is that Japanese filmmakers are somewhat unable to grasp contemporary society. In your country, there seem to be many more dramatic current themes to portray. To render something into film art we really need to understand thoroughly what we want to describe. Unable to do this, many of us go back to history and try to elucidate certain themes which have implications for modern society.

Q: Is it because Japanese society is undergoing great political and social change at the present time?

A: Yes, that is correct.

Q: Are you interested in the theme of political apathy or indifference in the Kogarashi Monjiro stories?

A: Yes, the protagonist is an outlaw and a loner, like an "isolated wold". He is like the character in many Westerns. He is always anti-establishment.

Q: Do you suggest through this character that political action is fruitless, especially in the sense that an isolated individual attempting to do away with evil would find it impossible?

A: You might say that in terms of the political implications, although the political element is not the main theme. I am much more interested in the search for what defines human nature.

Q: In general would you say that you are more interested in psychological aspects than political?

A: Yes, generally so...

Q: What aspect of the original novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, were you interested in when you made Enjo?

A: In this film, I wanted to show the poverty in Japan.

Q: Who wanted to show the poverty especially, you or Mishima?

A: No, I.

Q: Is it a material or spiritual poverty?

A: I started from the economic and naturally pursued the spiritual also, because it is the story of man. The economic side represents sixty per cent and the spirital forty percent.

Q: Doesn’t this indicate a strong political element in your words?

A: Only for this film in which spiritual poverty is caused by economic poverty. Usually I don’t consider myself a politically minded director. When I am making a film, I don’t think of the political side of the film very much; it is not the main thing.

Q: Maybe political is the wrong word. By "political" I mean social consciousness, the relationship between the individual and society, not in the sense of political parties.

A: Then yes, that is important to my work. I am both aware of and concerned with social consciousness.

Q: Is there any similarity between your private Mizushima in Harp of Burma and Goichi Mizoguchi in Enjo?

A: They represent the youth in Japan. In the case of Mizushima the time was the middle of the war, and with Goichi it was just after the war. In this sense, both whether a soldier or not, represent Japanese youth.

Q: What is the origin of their disillusionment with the world? Are they each disillusioned about in a general way? Although their behaviour is, of course, different: one leaves the world to become a Buddhist monk and decides never to return to Japan and Goichi in Enjo burns down one of the most famous shrines in Japan.

A: Both are very young, and both are in search of something. Neither knows exactly what he is after, as they are still young. Both thrust themselves against the thick wall of reality and disillusionment trying to find out what they desire.

Q: As in the burning of the temple. What do they desire?

A: Truth.

Q: Is it the truth of themselves or of the world?

A: The truth of their own lives.

Q: Is the meaning they seek in their lives similar to that of Watanabe in Kurosawa’s Ikiru? Watanabe of course is an old man.

A: Possibly so. I can say it is close. It depends on the viewer’s interpretation.

Q: What is the statement about the nature of war that you are making in Fires on the Plain?

A: War is an extreme situation which can change the nature of man. For this reason, I consider it to be the the greatest sin.

Q: Do you use a social situation like war as a device to explore the human character? The social situation would be a means of showing what the human being is capable of – as in Tamura’s cannibalism, homicide, or the massacre in the film – as opposed to showing what happens in a society that leads to war?

A: I use the situation of war partly for this reason, but also to show the limits within which a moral existence is possible.

Q: Why do you have Private Tamura die at the end?

A: I let him die. In the original novel he survives to return to Japan, enters a mental institution, and lives there. I thought he should rest peacefully in the world of death. The death was my salvation to him.

Q: What he saw made him unable to continue to live in this world?

A: Yes, he couldn’t live in this world any longer after that. This is my declaration of total denial of war, total negation of war.

Q: In Alone in Pacific you seem to be saying that determination is important, not what you do, nor the nature of the act.

A: Yes. That was my precise conception.

Q: Isn’t what we do important? Wouldn’t you say that there is some distintion between doing some useful thing and voyaging alone on the pacific?

A: No, no difference.

Q: In Japanese films and in yours in particular, much more so than in Western films, there seem to be mixtures of styles or rather varied methods of filmmaking which are combined sometimes even within a single film. Many of your films, and those of Oshima and Shindo for example, are so completely different from one work to the next. Is this a special characteristic of the Japanese film? I am thinking in particular of your segment of A Woman’s Testament.

A: [Laughs] Do you think so! Probably you are examining the films in great detail! We don’t see this particularly. I believe that expression should be free, so this notion may affect the fact that you have just described. But I am never conscious of differentiating my methods or that I have one single special style. All depends on the story or the drama on which I am working.

Q: This seems to be something unique about the Japanese film. In American films one director’s works are generally similar, especially among the older directors.

A: I think each should differ according to what is being expressed. As I am Ichikawa and no one else, even when I try to change the style according to the theme there is always some similarity from one film to the next. Right now I am working with an Italian director, Pasolini. I have really been influenced by him. I consider him one of the greatest filmmakers today. Do you know his work?

Q: Which films of Pasolini do you admire the most?

A: Oedipus Rex, Medea, The Decameron, The Gospel According to St. Mathew, Teorema. I consider Pasolini the finest director making films today. Among American directors I was impressed with Peter Fonda, not with his Easy Rider, but with The Hired Hand. He seems to be very young, yet he has a very good grasp of his subject. He understands love so beautifully. How old is he?

Q: He is about thrity-five. Whom do you admire among the younger Japanese directors?

A: None among the young ones. I don’t know any of their films.

Q: How about among the older ones?

A: Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, of course.

Q: In connection with Mizoguchi’s Oharu I visited the Rakanji Temple in Tokyo. Didn’t he film one of the main scenes there?

A: But it could be that he made that movie in Kyoto. Is Oharu the American title? The title in Japanese is Saikaku Ichidai Onna. You know, there are several Rakanjis.

Q: Is there a contradiction in the fact that you seem to praise the family system in Ototo (Her Brother) but attack it in Bonchi? Or were you criticizing the matriarchal family in particular in Bonchi?

A: "Attack" is a strong word, but yes, I have criticized the family system in Ototo and yes, in Bonchi I attack the matriarchy. Ototo takes place in the Taisho era, before the war, about forty years ago, but today we still have much the same problem in our family system. I hold the opinion that each family should be accustomed to respecting the individuality of every member. This is what I wanted to say.

Q: What is your viewpoint in Hakai (The Outcast)?

A: The theme is racial discrimination. Japanese discriminate against burakumin. Originally when the Koreans emigrated to Japan, they brought their slaves with them; these were segregated and called burakumin.

Q: Were you then treating the great discrimination against the Koreans by the Japanese?

A: I think all human beings should be equal.

Q: Could you say something about how you used the visual details of the architecture in Enjo to reveal the psychology of the boy?

A: Yes, I sought to do this. This beautiful structure was simply nothing but old decayed timber, no more than that. The boy didn’t think so at first, but he gradually realized it.

Q: What is the relationship bewteen his feeling about himself and his feeling about the building?

A: Let me add this. It doesn’t have to be the Golden Pavilion. It can be any one of the so-called great monuments in our history. They are so fine. Nobody questioned their greatness because many generations were taught to revere them. Well, in actuality some people think the particular monument, in this case the Golden Pavilion, is great, but some think it is not. Varying opinions should be accepted because excellence is solely dependent upon the viewer’s conception.

Q: Does he hate the building and burn it down as an act of self-hatred?

A: Yes, he hated himself and destroyed himself.

Q: The building represented everything which oppressed him?

A: Yes, that expresses it.

Q: Is that why people are shown as very small and the building huge in some scenes? They are individuals very vulnerable to and unable to control outside influences which dominate them, of which the Kinkakuji stands as a symbol.

A: Yes, that’s right. One further thing, I wish to stress is that Goichi was handicapped. He stutters and cannot express himself well and in a sense he closes himself off from society. He has a sense of inferiority in relation to that magnificent building and he suffers from his isolation. I myself did not think the Golden Pavilion so great or beautiful a structure. I may be wrong but my point here is that the presence of this great structure does not secure the well-being of human beings around it, or make them happy.

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