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Related Reading: Japanese Film Directors by Audie Bock and Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History edited by Arthur Nolletti Jr. and David Desser.
Related Article: An Actor's Revenge, featured in Issue No. 25 of Senses of Cinema.


Biruma no tategoto, 1956
[The Burmese Harp]

YasuiDuring the final days of the Second World War, a weary Japanese regiment is sent on a military campaign to Burma. Far from zealous, determined career soldiers, the troop consists of ordinary, dutiful civilians led by a thoughtful music teacher named Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikune). In order to improve morale and build camaraderie, Captain Inouye has taught the soldiers to sing as they make their way through the arduous Burmese jungle. One soldier, Corporal Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), has naturally taken to playing his handcrafted harp and provides the haunting melody. Arriving at a peasant village, the soldiers welcome the tranquility and hospitality of the community, only to realize that British soldiers have been surreptitiously observing them. In order to disguise their combat preparations, the soldiers sing "Home Sweet Home" while donning their military equipment. But during a brief pause, they realize that the British soldiers have joined in their melancholic, universal harmony. The war is over. The Japanese have surrendered. The British soldiers have come to escort the troop to a Prisoner of War camp in Mudon. However, Mizushima is asked to perform a final mission: to persuade a group of Japanese soldiers hiding in the mountains to surrender. The task proves to be impossible, and the fortress is attacked. Mizushima is critically wounded, but is nursed back to health by a Buddhist priest. Now clad in a monastic robe instead of a military uniform, Mizushima sets out to reunite with his regiment, only to find a solemn, urgent personal calling that leads him further away from his friends and beloved homeland.

The Burmese Harp is a haunting, poignant and serenely indelible examination of the aftermath of war. The film opens with the spare, enigmatic words: In Burma, soil is red, so are rocks. Using landscape as a metaphor for the isolation and suffering of the soul, Kon Ichikawa contrasts the chaotic, harsh realities of war with the tranquil expanse of nature: the mountain fortress attack; the discovery of a body leaning against a tree in the jungle; the mass burial of soldiers along the shoreline. Symbolically, Mizushima's spiritual transformation is reflected in a scene where the troop assembles for choral practice at a religious site, as Mizushima rests inside the hull (the figurative soul) of a Buddha statue. It is a reflection of his own enlightenment and sense of purpose after witnessing a great and senseless tragedy - a transcendence beyond his spiritual captivity - towards a lonely, indefinite journey, guided solely by humanity and personal conscience.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Enjo, 1958
[Conflagration]

A quiet, asocial young man named Goichi Mizoguchi (Raizo Ichikawa) arrives at the idyllic Soenji Temple that houses the renowned Shukaku Pavilion with a letter of introduction from his late father, a humble, provincial monk and trusted friend of the Chief Priest, Tayama (Ganjiro Nakamura). Unmarried and without an heir to the temple, Tayama quickly welcomes the young man into his tutelage. The impulsive decision to accept Mizoguchi as a novice draws immediate protest from Tayama's business advisor who decries the priest's favoritism, but also suggests his own son's eligibility for entrance into the temple and potential for future succession to the position of Chief Priest. Nevertheless, despite the advisor's dissension, Tayama assumes responsibility for Mizoguchi's training and sends him to school in order to further his education. But soon, Mizoguchi's suitability to succeed Tayama is brought into question when the residents realize that Mizoguchi's silence is a tormented, self-conditioned response to conceal a severe stammering problem, and argue that he is not linguistically capable of reciting sutras or providing spiritual counseling without drawing ridicule from the parishioners. The introspective Mizoguchi escapes the criticism by retreating into the cherished memories of his terminally ill father and meticulously cleaning the floors of the pavilion, attempting to retain the ideal image of Shukaku instilled by his father. However, Mizoguchi's devotion to maintaining the purity of the pavilion becomes increasingly monomaniacal, as he turns away his adulterous, interfering mother, Aki (Tanie Kitabayashi), during an air raid, and injures a prostitute seeking refuge in the pavilion from an abusive soldier. Alienated from the other students and plagued by poor scholastic performance, Mizoguchi befriends a callous and vitriolic scholar with a physical disability named Kashiwagi (Tatsuya Nakadai) in the misguided belief that their mutual impairment brings understanding. However, Mizoguchi's reliance on Koshiwagi's advice to test Tayama's sincerity proves detrimental, and the novice falls further into disfavor. Bereft of hope to ascend into the priesthood and impotent to the gradual defilement of his beloved Shukaku, Mizoguchi resorts to a final, desperate act.

Adapted from the Yukio Mishima novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and loosely based on the real-life destruction of a sacred structure by a mentally disturbed young priest in 1950, Enjo is a bleak and disturbing examination of Japan's postwar generation, the apure (from the French word après, or "after"). By juxtaposing Mizoguchi's systematic disillusionment with the stark realism of his environment, Kon Ichikawa captures the pervasive nihilism and cynicism of the postwar generation, despite the country's efforts to rebuild and preserve cultural heritage: the temple's decision to open access to Shukaku in order to generate revenue; Kashiwagi's exploitation of his disability to seduce women; Mizoguchi's discovery of Tayama's mistress. Furthermore, by structuring the narrative as a fragmented series of intercut flashbacks, Ichikawa reflects Mizoguchi's underlying psychological fracture and increasing madness. In essence, Mizoguchi's obsession with preserving purity leads to the irrational idea of destroying the offending reality. Tragically, Mizoguchi's desperate ideal, like those of the postwar generation, prove to be transient, elusive, and irretrievable.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Nobi, 1959
[Fires on the Plain]


Funakoshi/CurtisFires on the Plain opens to a harsh and unexpectedly cruel act, as Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) is struck in the face by his commanding officer for returning to his under-provisioned and demoralized regiment. Suffering from tuberculosis, Tamura had been sent to a field hospital in Leyte in order to avoid taxing their limited supplies. Tamura is sent away again - this time, with a handful of tubers and a hand grenade. If the hospital still refuses to admit him, the officer explains that it is his duty to serve the Imperial Army by committing suicide. As Tamura makes his way towards the field hospital, he is unnerved by the appearance of smoke emanating from isolated, contained fires along the Filipino countryside, and changes his route in order to avoid them. Upon reaching the hospital, Tamura is quickly introduced to the basest instincts of human behavior when he meets an opportunistic, injured soldier named Yasuda (Osamu Takizawa) and his obliging assistant, Nagamatsu (Mickey Curtis), who exploit the dire situation by bartering tobacco leaves with patients. The following day, Tamura recounts his observations of the bonfires to other soldiers, who are equally confounded by their significance, and the soldiers conjecture that the fires are signal fires sent out by American soldiers or local guerillas. The idea seemingly takes on validity when an air raid destroys the hospital, but Tamura escapes the carnage. As Tamura continues on his undefined journey, he encounters an isolated group of soldiers whose final orders are to march to a distant reconnaissance area in Palompon for evacuation to Cebu. Tamura warns the soldiers about the signal fires, but an officer explains that the unknown phenomenon is actually the result of villagers burning corn husks after the harvest: "They do it at home, too. Only fires on the plain". Tamura is reassured by the hopeful idea of the peasants continuing the ritual of their simple life, uncorrupted by ravages of war. However, as their evacuation route becomes impassable, and the stranded soldiers succumb to even more unspeakable acts, can Tamura's humanity persevere in the face of nihilism and despair?

Kon Ichikawa depicts a harrowing portrait of dehumanization and barbarism in
Fires on the Plain. Through indelible images of austerity and profound hardship, Ichikawa depicts man's instinct for survival as a metaphor for the innate struggle of the soul to retain human dignity through the madness of war. In contrast to the noble ideal of patriotic duty, Ichikawa presents the act of killing as a manifestation of base and primal behavior: envy, revenge, self-defense, and in the end, cannibalism. Inevitably, the hope of returning to the the tranquility of civilization after the devastation of war proves to be an illusion. Like the mysterious fires on the plain, war is also an inhuman atrocity that destroys all traces of a once simple ritual of existence.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Kagi, 1959
[The Key/Odd Obsession]

KyoAn impassive medical intern named Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai) speaks directly to the camera and describes a scientific theory on the systematic degradation of a man's physical faculties - the start of his irreversible senility - from the age of ten, directing the attention of the audience to an middle-aged scholar on classical art objects named Kenmochi (Ganjiro Nakamura). Against the advice of his physician, Dr. Soma (Jun Hamamura), Kenmochi has been secretly obtaining potency injections from the all too obliging Kimura in an unsuccessful attempt to recapture his waning virility. After his departure, Kenmochi's beautiful wife, Ikuko (Machiko Kyô), pays a visit to Dr. Soma's office in order to inquire on the nature of his mysterious trips to the clinic after receiving news of his frequent appointments from their daughter, Toshiko (Junko Kano). The source of the discreet information about Kenmochi's medical appointments is then revealed after a third point-of-view shift, this time to Toshiko as she meets her lover, Kimura, behind the clinic after he fails to show up for a pre-arranged rendezvous at a concert. Accepting Kenmochi's dinner invitation, Kimura is further exposed to the peculiarities of their marital relationship, as Kenmochi leaves the room to afford Kimura and Ikuko some privacy, and subjects his alcohol-intolerant wife to quickly consume several glasses of hard liquor. After the flustered, inebriated Ikuko subsequently retreats to take her habitual long hot bath, Kenmochi happily reports to Kimura of his discovery that jealousy serves as a potent aphrodisiac for him - a realization that drives him into increasingly insidious machinations in order to fuel Ikuko and Kimura's flirtatious attraction and, in the process, arouse his own sexual desire.

Kon Ichikawa creates a darkly comic, delirious, and irreverent satire on aging, sexuality, and narcissism in
Odd Obsession. By repeatedly shifting narrative perspective among Kimura, Kenmochi, Ikuko, Toshiko, and even to the visually impaired housekeeper, Hana (Tanie Kitabayashi), Ichikawa provides an omniscient, critical view of the self-absorbed, appearance-conscious bourgeoisie: Ikuko's seeming acceptance of her husband's declining health that contradicts her aversion to a physically imperfect kitten; Kenmochi's sale of his personal antique collection that is publicly concealed by his retention of the art objects in the house; Kimura's courtship of Toshiko in order to further his social stature. Adapted from Junichiro Tanizaki's highly sensual, risqué, and controversial novel - a provocative mixture that Ichikawa himself would initially struggle to define as either "art" or "pornography" - Odd Obsession serves as a thematically dense, tonally muted, yet incisive and acutely subversive examination of vanity, sexual obsession, and the impossible pursuit of eternal youth.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Yukinojo henge, 1963
[Yukinojo's Revenge/An Actor's Revenge]

HasegawaAs a punitive assignment for a string of commercially unsuccessful films, Kon Ichikawa was tasked with a re-adaptation of a mediocre serialized story entitled An Actor's Revenge, and consequently turned the banal pulp melodrama into an dazzling, idiosyncratic spectacle. Originally adapted to film by Teinosuke Kinugasa (who himself had a career as an onnagata - a stage actor of female roles - before becoming a director) and casting the original actor from Kinugasa's film, Kazuo Hasegawa, An Actor's Revenge tells the story of Yukinojo Nakamura (Kazuo Hasegawa), a popular nineteenth century Kabuki onnagata who has been consumed by one obsession throughout his life: to avenge his parents' death. One evening, during a theatrical performance, Yukinojo catches sight of his adversaries, a politically connected corrupt warlord named Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura) and his wealthy merchant ally, Kawaguchiya (Saburo Date), who, together with his father's primary business rival, Hiromiya (Eijaro Yanagi), exploited the Nakamuras' dire financial situation to precipitate the family's ruin. Yukinojo's sympathetic performance gains the attention of Dobe's hopelessly romantic daughter, Namiji (Ayako Wakao), the mistress of a powerful shogun, who encourages her father to extend him an invitation to the palace. Yukinojo's deliberate coyness in accepting the invitation and in demonstrating affection towards the vulnerable Namiji inevitably succeeds in winning her heart, and Yukinojo manipulates the affair in order to subvert Dobe's inherent influence over Namiji's shogun lover. Yukinojo further capitalizes on his admission into Dobe's social inner circle by pitting the greedy merchants, Kawaguchiya and Hiromiya, against each other in monopolizing the rice market, an underhanded scheme that would prove to have devastating and unexpectedly tragic consequences.
An Actor's Revenge is a stylistically bold and irreverent satire that seeks to reconcile the familiar, traditional elements of Japanese culture with the modern vitality of Western influence in contemporary Japan. Kon Ichikawa uses a performance within a performance perspective to create a union of distinctive artistic influences through the dual role of Hasegawa: the Kabuki onnagata as performed by Yukinojo, and cinema actor as performed by Yukinojo's alterego, the omniscient thief, Yamitaro. Ichikawa's recurrent fragmentation of images reflect the voyeuristic relationship between spectator and performer: obscured, extended fight scenes witnessed from rooftops, seamless visual transitions between theatrical dramatization and off-stage, real-life events, framing of actors through doorways or other visual occlusions that seem to underscore the intrusive, keyhole perspective of the audience. The old-fashioned script for the tragic melodrama (shimpa) popular in early Japanese cinema is infused with irony, social satire, and subversive visual double entendres. The audaciously eccentric fusion of traditional and modern Japanese art forms are further exemplified through an eclectic soundtrack that combines folk music, jazz and avant-garde ambient sounds. Ultimately, An Actor's Revenge becomes an audacious and infinitely fascinating exercise in straddling the fragile equilibrium that interweaves cultural past and present, East and West, theater and cinema.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Sasameyuki, 1983
[Light Snowfall/The Makioka Sisters]

HasegawaIn the spring of 1938, the proud Makioka sisters, daughters of a prominent merchant family, have gathered in Kyoto for their customary annual viewing of cherry blossoms (hanami). The film opens to the serene and idyllic image of rainfall against the picturesque natural landscape, and is unexpectedly truncated by the spoken word okane (money) as the elder sister, Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), addresses the headstrong, youngest sister, Taeko (Yûko Kotegawa). Socially progressive and independent minded, young Taeko wishes to claim her inheritance in order to finance her fledgling doll making business, against the advice of her older sisters who have set aside the money as her marriage dowry. With the arrival of the eldest sister, Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi), the discussion soon turns to recent complications that led to her decision to abruptly cancel Yukiko's (Sayuri Yoshinaga) proposed omiai (arranged marriage interview) after discovering that the suitor harbors a potentially scandalous family secret. Interweaving past and present, the film then chronicles the evolving lives of the Makioka sisters through the beautiful and enigmatic Yukiko as she engages in the outmoded, vanishing tradition and complex ritual of the omiai in search of enduring love and happiness amidst a profoundly changing society and national culture.

Based on the Junichiro Tanizaki wartime novel, the The Makioka Sisters is a poignant and affectionate elegy on the reluctant, but inevitable passing of a fading, cultural era. By correlating the changing of the seasons with the diverse geographic settings associated with the sisters' introductory encounters of Yukiko's potential suitors, Kon Ichikawa transcends the simple depiction of the dissolution of family to reflect the erosion of tradition and loss of culture in contemporary Japanese society. Note that the film opens with the Makioka family in the scenic, old world culture of Kyoto - the ancient capital of Japan - and ends with the head of the family, Tsuruko, accompanying her husband Tetsuo (Juzo Itami) to Tokyo - the modern, highly industrialized "new" capital of Japan (after the Meiji Restoration). Filmed in the early 1980s during the height of Japan's global economic dominance, The Makioka Sisters further serves as an ironic chronicle of the increasingly obsolete mercantile economy of prewar Japan and the rigid formality of social customs represented by the Makioka family. In the end, Sachiko's resigned remarks reflect the unarticulated longing and quiet tragedy of the transience of existence.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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