Last night’s Unknown Japan screening featured Kon Ichikawa’s Topo Gigio and the Missile War(1967), an endlessly innovative puppet/live action hybrid starring Italy’s beloved rodent. Both comedic and tragic, the film is a truly rewarding watch for viewers of all ages and is a prime example of the famed director’s extraordinary talents.
Many of Ichikawa’s greatest achievements are available on DVD in the U.S. His two most famous outings are subtle anti-war films: The Burmese Harp (1956), in which a Japanese soldier turns to Buddhism at the close of WWII (Ichikawa actually remade this film in 1985), and Fires on the Plain (1959), in which a group of Japanese soldiers fight to survive while stranded in the Philippines, again at the close of WWII. An Actor’s Revenge (1963), is the highly theatrical tale of a female impersonator in a kabuki troupe who seeks the titular revenge for the death of his parents (it was released on DVD here under the alternate title Revenge of a Kabuki Actor). The Showa era-set The Makioka Sisters(1983) was an adaptation of a popular 1940s serial novel concerning four Osaka-born sisters who meet in Kyoto every year to view the cherry blossoms.
Dora-Heita (2000) has an interesting back story worthy of a quick detour: in 1969, big name directors Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita (Twenty-Four Eyes), Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri), and Ichikawa formed a production company called the Club of Four Knights (also known here as the Four Musketeers). You can read the circumstances behind the group’s formation on Wikipedia, but of current importance is the fact that their first project was to be Dora-Heita, the tale of a comedically-inclined, but highly effective magistrate who cleans up a corrupt town during feudal times. The project was deemed too expensive so they moved on to produce Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970), a visually interesting film that failed to garner enough success to keep the company going and thus they disbanded after only one film. 30 years later, Ichikawa, the only surviving Musketeer, decided to resurrect their unrealized project with the great Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance) in the lead. An easy watch, but an ultimately forgettable film.
Ichikawa also helmed a segment in the anthology film Ten Nights of Dreams (2006), which featured adaptations of short stories by author Soseki Natsume. Additional contributing directors on the project included the likes of Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge), Yudai Yamaguchi (Yakuza Weapon), and acclaimed artist Yoshitaka Amano.
Currently out of print domestic DVD releases that you can still track down include Tokyo Olympiad (1965), Ichikawa’s documentary on the Tokyo-held 1964 Summer Olympics, and his take of the oft-adapted national legend 47 Ronin (1994).
Ichikawa grew up in the Kansai region, a setting that he used in many of his films including the aforementioned The Makioka Sisters. Despite his auteur status, Ichikawa’s 80-some-odd films were highly diverse and often quite strange. To name a few: 1962’s Being Two Isn’t Easy [Watashi wa nisai] was a light familial drama told from the point of view of a two-year-old; 1975’s I Am a Cat [Wagahai wa neko de aru] was an adaptation of the popular satire by Soseki Natsume that features a feline narrator; 1978’s animation-infused Firebird: Daybreak Chapter [Hi no tori] was an adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s beloved manga Phoenix; 1987’s Princess from the Moon [Taketori monogatari] was an adaptation of a centuries-old, sci-fi tinged fairy tale that starred the great Toshiro Mifune and strangely featured a theme song by Peter Cetera (the film is actually available to view in the U.S. via Hulu Plus).
Ichikawa’s passing in 2008 at the age of 92 marked the end of Japan’s ties to their golden age of cinema.
WED February 29, 7:00 PM: King of the Japanese avant-garde Shuji Terayama (Pastoral, Emperor Tomato Ketchup) responds to the success of Rocky (1976) with The Boxer (1977) starring the great Bunta Sugawara.
About Eric Bresler:
Unknown Japan curator Eric Bresler is the Site Editor/Founder of Cinedelphia.com, the online center of Philadelphia’s film community. He is also the Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art, founder of Tokyo No Records, and contributing writer for the Ritz Film Magazine. The summer of 2012 will see the debut of his new found VHS footage performance program Video Pirates.