In Remembrance: Kon Ichikawa


     Kon Ichikawa, the Japanese director of the powerful anti-war films Fires On The Plains and The Burmese Harp, has passed away on February 13, 2008 in Tokyo, Japan. He was 92.


     Ichikawa came to the attention of Western audiences and critics during the arthouse boom of the 1950s and 60s, first with his 1956 film The Burmese Harp. The film tells the story of a Japanese soldier in Burma who is unable to convince his comrades that World War II has ended. After his fellow soldiers are killed, he stays in Burma, becoming a Buddhist monk devoted to the task of burying his slain countrymen. Ichikawa used the post-war military backdrop for his 1959 film Fires On The Plain, which charts the slow descent into madness of a group of Japanese soldiers lost in the Philippines jungle in 1945. Both films featured lead characters who struggle to retain their humanity and morality amongst the madness of war.


     Born November 20, 1915 in Mie, Japan, Ichikawa claimed both Walt Disney and Jean Renoir as cinematic inspirations. He began working in the industry at age 18 when he got a job in the animation department at Kyoto’s J O Studios. He quickly became head of the department, but wanted to direct live action films. His first film, a 20 minute short called A Girl At Dojo Temple (1946), was made using puppets owing to a manpower shortage created by the war. His made his first feature length film, A Thousand And One Nights With Toho, the following year.


     Often ranked among Japan’s greatest directors alongside the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Keisuke Miyashita, Ichikawa’s films ran the gamut from comedy to drama to documentary. In 1953 he directed Mr. Pu, an adaptation of Junichi YokoYama’s popular comic strip. His 1959 film, Odd Obsession, which won a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, was anything but comic, dealing with an elderly man who devises a series of erotic games to dispel his own impotence.


     Ichikawa’s documentary Tokyo Olympiad, which chronicles the 1964 Summer Olympics, earned praise for its cinematography even while some critics at the time were turned off by the unusual editing techniques he employed on the film. I Am A Cat, which he released in 1975, was narrated by a suicidal feline.


     His last film was the 2006 thriller The Inugamis.