Drunken Angel: The Kon Ichikawa phobia

March 13, 2024, 11:52 p.m.

Alice Fang’s column “Drunken Angel” introduces her favorite directors from the Golden Age of Japanese cinema.

In the summer of my sophomore year, I found my way to the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, which at the time was screening movies by the iconic Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Growing up I’d kept my distance from this director, associating him simply with the idea of old black and white samurai movies. I had felt that Japanese Cinema’s Golden Age comes from a world that does not cross orbits with my own. Yet when I walked into Stanford Theater’s screening of “Yojimbo,” without many expectations, gravity shifted. The moment the movie’s theme began playing, I fell hard and utterly in love. In retrospect, I am glad that I did not enter this world earlier. My first encounter with “Yojimbo” was such a beautiful moment that I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But the first Japanese Golden Age director I want to honor in this column is not Kurosawa. I decided that I first want to burrow deeper into the subconscious of my life lived in those films and “face my fears,” so to speak. At the end of the day, Kon Ichikawa is the moviemaker that scares me the most. 

In my head, I think of Ichikawa in relation to Stanley Kubrick, a director I had known and loved much earlier. The similarity, for me, comes from how they both move so easily between moods and genres. In the case of Kubrick, I think that the incredible perfection I perceive in each of his feats turns into a sense of coldness. He is so good at what he does that it is almost too good to be true, too good to retain enough human warmth for me to not be at least a little bit scared of him. 

If Kubrick is cold, Ichikawa, to me, is frigid: a freezing, deep fright. On the surface level, he also displays great mastery through his handling of a wide variety of genres, and his ability to move so smoothly between different styles and sentiments. But this mastery is not quite perfect. It is, perhaps, perfection askew. His movies are not pristine, impeccable systems, but seemingly well-organized systems that have a black hole somewhere inside that sends a chill down your back. 

The best example that can be used to explain my Ichikawa phobia is his 1959 film “Odd Obsession.” The story is driven by a relatively simple perverse-erotica plot: the protagonist is an art historian (Nakamura Ganjiro II) who, as his virility wanes, attempts to regain mastery of his sexual capability by orchestrating an affair between his wife (Machiko Kyo) and his daughter’s boyfriend (Tatsuya Nakadai). Those three main actors are themselves among the most formidable talents of Golden Age Japanese cinema, capable of doing justice to the widest variety of roles but capable above all of portraying the most terrifying characters. Joining forces with Ichikawa, they turn the story into an absurdist puppet play. 

Machiko Kyo plays the manipulated woman who knowingly feigns fainting fits in the shower, and conspiringly rises from her stupor to close her arms around the younger man, an abused doll that rolls its eyes the moment when you become assured of her lifelessness. Ganjiro, the frustrated puppeteer, packs all his male midlife crisis into a mask of calculated, composed gravity. Nakadai, the seduced pawn, but at bottom a heartless opportunist, plays along with his polite smile, impeccable demeanor, and innocent, glassy, doe eyes. 

Darker than this grotesque power play is the way that these characters are to meet their end. Spoiler alert — but it is impossible to talk about this movie without outlining its final scene. The helper in their house, Hana, has spent much of the screen time busing in the background over some bug powder. She is color blind, and the containers for insecticide and — of all things — some sort of salad dressing, happen to be red and green. At the end of the film, after Ganjiro’s character dies of heart failure, and as the remaining members of this love quadrangle are preparing to move on with their lives, Hana manages to take them all down with a poisoned salad. They converse with their usual hearty respectability, commenting along the way that the salad seems to taste strange. Then, one by one, they fall face flat into their plates. Questioned by the police, Hana insists that it was she who killed them all, that they were evil. The police officer laughs it off. (We are still not sure to what extent the poisoning was intentional, or whether it resulted from her mixing the two containers because of her color-blindness.)

In his film “Enjo,” produced in the year before, and again featuring Ganjiro and Nakadai, Ichikawa alternates between the absurdist to existentialist-nihilist outlooks. The film is adapted from Yukio Mishima’s legendary novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which in turn took inspiration from the real story of a monk who burnt down the temple of his dreams. Mishima’s novelistic treatment flowers with internal dialogues and philosophizing on beauty, life, and death. Ichikawa, working with a visual medium, tunes down all this inner voice to near-silence clothed in high-contrast black-and-white silence. The protagonist stutters, and in the movie, all we hear from him verbally is his scarce, self-protective speech. But to me, this novel-to-film adaptation is as successful, as fundamentally comprehending, as Kubrick’s rendition of A Clockwork Orange. The desolate landscape of the film’s imagery, especially of the white flames tearing open the grayish sky in the end, strikes me as an incredibly astute representation of the aesthetic nihilism of Mishima’s protagonist, and Mishima himself. 

Ichikawa’s 1956 film, “Punishment Room,” burns his uncanny stamp into a third genre — the teenage angst, “Rebel Without a Cause” trope. This film was indeed grouped as an emerging trend in Japanese cinema at the time which took direct inspiration from the James Dean type hero. Like James Dean, Ichikawa’s protagonist charges half-blindly through life, confused, and angry, throwing his energy as if spitting fire. But the title of the film itself intimates that this teenage hero is not quite championed in the same way as its American predecessor. This film ends, literally, in a “punishment room.” The protagonist is tied to a chair in the storage room of a bar, where all his enemies have a go at him. Finally, the bunch of kids fear that they have killed him, and storm out. For a moment I believed that he must be dead. But then he gets up, still blindfolded, flounders around the room, miraculously find the door—and out he crawls through a dark alley, at the end of which is a light, and faint shadows of pedestrians that, the movie gently assures its audience, will surely find and rescue our hero. This is by no means a depressing ending, but my mind still lingers on the Punishment Room, the Japanese title for which also evokes the sentiment of executions. More “cause-less” than the protagonist’s rebellion is, in this case, the punishment enacted by his friends. 

Each of these three films, as I’ve summarized, operates under wildly different genres, source materials, and sensibilities. In his directorial excellence, Ichikawa is the type that does justice to his work by almost entirely disappearing into them, shape-shifting to the degree that you question if they could come from the same mind in the first place, only to recognize their familiar undercurrent through a retrospective washing over of existential dread. There is, however, another Ichikawa film in which he does seem to have disappeared utterly— I am as yet undecided on my verdict. His adaptation of Natsume Suzuki’s novel I Am A Cat, made much later in 1975, just seems so innocent in its portrayal of harmless satire and good-humored fun. Tatsuya Nakadai returns to play the middle-aged, scholarly main character, who spends his days bickering with friends and hanging out with his cat — the novel’s narrator and supposedly the story’s real protagonist. If there is the same dark undercurrent running beneath this film, I have not yet perceived it. I wonder if it has something to do with time, the gap of over a decade between this and the other aforementioned works. Or, perhaps, his sensibility is there all this time. Only that he has grown more masterful in shape-shifting, more at ease with his insistence at planting a black hole underneath each story told or retold, that he creates the full impression of having vanished from the audience’s view.

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