Kon Ichikawa was considered one of the masters of the immediate postwar generation of Japanese filmmakers -- a generation often overshadowed by the titanic presence of Akira Kurosawa. Like Kurosawa, Ichikawa frequently took secondary sources and made them his own. Also like Kurosawa, he was an exacting perfectionist and master of the widescreen format. Yet unlike Kurosawa, Ichikawa imbued his films with a sense of irony that swings from the sardonic to the compassionate.
Born in 1915 in southern Mie Prefecture, Ichikawa grew up a sickly child and spent much of his childhood drawing. Like Kurosawa, he aspired to be a painter. He also grew to be an enthusiastic movie fan, seeing most of the early samurai epics by Daisuke Ito and Masahiro Makino while marveling at Charles Chaplin films. Yet it was Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies series that proved to be a revelation for Ichikawa, as he realized that animation could combine his passions for art and for movies. After finishing technical school in Osaka in the 1930s, he got a job at the animation department of J.O. studios just as it was expanding from a rental film house to a full-fledged production company. As the Pacific War began, J.O merged with rival P.C.L to become studio giant Toho; Ichikawa was shifted from the dissolved animation department to become an assistant director. Ichikawa's first feature-length film was Musume Dojoji (1946), a ghost story told through puppetry. Unfortunately, the U.S. occupation forces confiscated and subsequently lost the film, not because of its content but because Ichikawa failed to submit the script to censors before its release. Even after he reached the ranks of international renown, Ichikawa still considered this film his masterpiece.
Many of Ichikawa's films were reworked from other sources. His closest collaborator during his creative peak in the 1950s and 1960s was his wife, screenwriter Natto Wada, who proved skilled at creating screenplays from literary sources, all bearing elements of Ichikawa's signature irony. Together he and Wada adapted Toson Shimazaki's Hakai into The Outcast (1962); Junichiro Tanizaki's Kagi into Odd Obsession (1959); and Yukio Mishima's The Golden Pavilion into Enjo (1958), about a stuttering acolyte who burns down Kyoto's Golden Pavilion to protect its purity from a world of corruption and decay. Enjo is often considered one of Ichikawa's best films by both critics and by the director himself. Ichikawa and Wada also adapted two pre-WWII movies, Teinosuke Kinugasa's An Actor's Revenge (1935) and Yutaka Abe's The Woman Who Touched Legs, and one comic book, Puu-San.
At a time when dewy-eyed melodramas dominated screens in Japan, Ichikawa cranked out a number of hard-edged, bitingly satirical comedies in the early 1950s. In A Billionaire (1954), for example, he builds an unlikely comic situation around a suicidal tax collector and a family of eighteen poisoned by radioactive tuna. Although Ichikawa shared the existential humanism of such postwar contemporaries as Keisuke Kinoshita and Akira Kurosawa, he rarely slouched into the sentimentalism that sometimes marred the work of his counterparts. Perhaps his most humanistic and moving work was his best-known work in the West -- Burmese Harp, which won the San Giorgio Prize at the Venice Film Festival and tells the story of a Japanese soldier in Burma who forsakes repatriation and disguises himself as monk to bury the war dead. Yet his morally exemplary actions are made possible by one act of thievery; the protagonist steals the robes from a Buddhist monk who nurses him back to health. Even in this haunting fable of regeneration, no good deed goes unpunished. Later in Ichikawa's career, black humor and irony gave way to the macabre in Fire on the Plains (1959), about a band of desperate Japanese soldiers driven to cannibalism. In one scene, a dying man points to his arm and tells his comrade that he can "eat this part." The scene is funny, but the laughter leaves a bitter aftertaste.
In 1965, Ichikawa released Tokyo Olympiad, a gorgeous portrait of the human spirit. Although widely hailed as a masterpiece of the sport documentary genre, the studio, expecting a straight report of the game's wins and losses, butchered Ichikawa's original edit, prompting him to leave the studio and start a production company with his old friend Kurosawa. One of his last films was an adaptation of the age-old saga 47 Ronin. Ichikawa died of pneumonia at age 92 in February 2008.