Massachusetts | Theatres

A Living Master: The Films of Kon Ichikawa

1 Aug , 2001  

Written by Vikki Warner | Posted by:

This month, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston celebrates one of the most respected Japanese filmmakers.

Amazingly, Kon Ichikawa, the subject of an August retrospective screening series at the Boston MFA, is no longer generally regarded as a major force in his own native Japanese film community. In fact, after a brilliant career spanning over half a century, he is thought of in Japan as a has-been, a relic. At 86 years of age, Ichikawa is still making films at a rate of one per year. To Americans, this sounds like staying power, to the Japanese, staying too long. Ichikawa is seen in Japan as being reluctant to throw in the directorial towel to allow younger filmmakers more attention. While it is common practice for Japanese directors to retire when they reach a certain age, Ichikawa and a small group of other directors have refused, causing a backlash from the same film community that once propelled them to success.

Here in America, Ichikawa is little known except to connoisseurs of foreign film and lovers of Japanese cinema. But American film enthusiasts of all tastes would do well to sample some of Ichikawa’s lush, emotionally expressive works. Joe Anderson, author of "The Japanese Film: Art and Industry" and a former professor at NYU, notes, "The keyword with Ichikawa is ‘variety’ more so than any other director. He will tackle, and seems to be interested in tackling, almost anything." 

Americans who are tired of seeing films that are rehashes of the same old themes will find this variety almost too heady to fathom. From anti-war stories ("Harp of Burma"), to satires ("Mr. Pu"), to comedies ("The Woman Who Touched Legs"), to documentaries ("Tokyo Olympiad"), the incredibly prolific Ichikawa covers the spectrum with a diversity that defies all attempts at pigeonholing. Kabuki-esque spectacles, mysteries, social activism, surrealism: Ichikawa nimbly weaves between all genres, settling on none. 

Though Ichikawa’s films have no obvious common theme or story element, Anderson observes, "Two things we can see in many of his films are perseverance and perversity." Perseverance, not only in the connotation that he continues to direct films when his industry is urging him to "honorably" retire from the business, but also for working doggedly at getting the emotional essence of his films, the "aura" as Anderson puts it, just right. Perversity, for being "stubborn, contrary, and often deviant," in subject matter and approach. In his adaptations of literary works, Ichikawa captures the emotion evoked from the original piece and deftly recreates it in film, while rearranging and revising the story. "Ichikawa is really a post-modern filmmaker in a sense of destruction of categories — particularly the category of auteur," says Anderson. By refusing to make a series of similarly themed, neatly categorized films, Ichikawa removes himself from any accusation of auteurism.

Ichikawa’s most revered work is probably "Harp of Burma" (1956), a transcendent story of war’s many victims. But his dark satires, including "Mr. Pu" (1953) and "Ten Dark Women" (1961), are equally admired. "The Heart" (1955), Ichikawa’s brooding but beautiful story of betrayal and guilt, was the start of Ichikawa’s most fruitful and successful years. And "Tokyo Olympiad" (1965), documentary of the strain and toil of Olympic athletes in the 1964 Games, is consistently compared to Leni Riefenstahl’s "Triumph of the Will."

The screening series at the MFA, which takes place from August 2 – September 2, 2001, samples a stellar assortment of Ichikawa’s best-known works and many moods. While most of the twenty-six selections are from the ’50s and ’60s, a few are from later years; his most recent film, ‘Dora-Heita,’ will also be shown. All films are in Japanese with English subtitles. Tickets are $7 for MFA members, seniors, students, and Japan Society members, $8 for general admission. Call the MFA Film Line at (617) 369-3907 for program information, or visit www.mfa.org; go to the calendar, then click on ‘Film.’


The screening series at the MFA, which takes place from August 2 - September 2, 2001, samples a stellar assortment of Ichikawa's best-known works and many moods. While most of the twenty-six selections are from the '50s and '60s, a few are from later years; his most recent film, 'Dora-Heita,' will also be shown. All films are in Japanese with English subtitles. Tickets are $7 for MFA members, seniors, students, and Japan Society members, $8 for general admission. Call the MFA Film Line at (617) 369-3907 for program information, or visit www.mfa.org; go to the calendar, then click on 'Film.'