Kon Ichikawa

By: Devin McKinney
November 20, 2015


KON ICHIKAWA (1915–2008) had directed nearly 30 features before The Burmese Harp (1956) won a prize at Venice and took him international. The story, both maudlin and moving, of a Japanese soldier who becomes a wandering Buddhist monk dedicated to ceremonially burning or burying his countrymen’s corpses led to Enjo (1958, adapted from Mishima), about a demented acolyte’s burning of Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion, and Fires on the Plain (1959), a grueling drama of wartime cannibalism. In both, difficult, even horrific material was drained of melodrama yet infused with a gruesome tenderness. Co-scripted by Ichikawa’s wife, Notto Wada, the stories also reckoned with Japan’s legacies of militarism and fanaticism, and its suicidal sense of honor.

Ichikawa’s next phase ripened into eroticism (Kagi), adventure (Alone on the Pacific), theatricality (An Actor’s Revenge), and Eastmancolor. This new aesthetics, filtering tradition through modernity, culminated in Tokyo Olympiad (1965), his masterful documentary of the 1964 Summer Games. “The Olympics are a symbol of human aspiration,” runs the opening title; in curious harmony with Ichikawa’s earlier work, the film mostly abjures a rhetoric of triumph in favor of striving, suffering, and the isolated effort. Yet its vision is explosively joyful. From the raw discharge of 164 cameras Ichikawa derives endless texture and tension, absurdity and abstraction. Motion is slowed, depth flattened, focus heroically long or heatedly tight; sounds are magnified, merged, suppressed altogether. From the husky ripple of national flags rising in unison, to the ritualistic tics of a shot putter; from the flesh of a rifleman’s bulging cheek to the elegant violence of sprinter Bob Hayes tearing a hole in time, Tokyo Olympiad is propaganda for the human race, a humanist epic bursting with irony and with love.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Chester Gould, Benoit Mandelbrot, Miroslav Tichy, Robert Kennedy, Don DeLillo.

READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).


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