Photographs of Japanese director Kon Ichikawa the subject of a career retrospective that continues to unfold in weekend screenings at the Freer Gallery of Art and the National Gallery of Art through mid-December often show him with a humorously penetrating or sardonic expression and a cigarette balanced on his lower lip.
The late American director John Huston lent himself to similar poses, and the durability of Mr. Ichikawa’s work within the Japanese studio system may parallel Mr. Huston’s status in Hollywood, to some extent.
Both reconciled individuality with commercial success and showed adaptability in demanding and potentially compromising industrial systems. Both reflect a knowing and somewhat jaundiced view of human nature that stops considerably short of misanthropy or despair. You feel as if you’re sharing the impressions of men who’ve been around but are awfully difficult to discourage.
Mr. Ichikawa’s “Fires on the Plain,” a brilliant depiction of Japanese soldiers at the end of their endurance on Leyte in summer 1945, has a characteristic group of sight gags. In one, a ragged survivor exchanges his boots for a better pair attached to a corpse. The discarded boots soon attract a straggler, whose footwear is in a more tattered condition. Then the second discarded pair attracts an even more desperate soldier, until the last passer-by decides that he might as well plod on in bare feet.
Although nearing age 86, Mr. Ichikawa remains professionally active. He began his career as an animator at a small studio in Kyoto at age 18. Mr. Ichikawa moved to Tokyo in 1939 with the merger of several companies into Toho, an emerging industry giant. He apprenticed as an assistant director for several years. The director seems to remember his mentors fondly and as hard drinkers, to a man.
Mr. Ichikawa dates the start of his directing career to a tear-jerker of 1948 titled, “A Flower Blooms.” He felt secure enough at that juncture to begin a second but enduring marriage. His bride, Yumiko Mogi, also had a failed marriage in her past. Within a short time she emerged as his most trusted screenwriting collaborator. Known professionally as Natto Wada, she was closely involved in most of his projects through the early 1960s, contributing to all the titles that won him an international reputation: “The Burmese Harp,” “Enjo,” “Kagi,” “Fires on the Plain,” “An Actor’s Revenge,” “Alone on the Pacific” and “Tokyo Olympiad.”
Miss Wada died in 1983, at age 63, but had retired from active screenwriting almost two decades earlier. She expressed dissatisfaction with the general drift of story content and studio organization.
Mr. Ichikawa explained her withdrawal in these terms: “My wife is very meticulous. She always did a complete and beautifully detailed scenario. The way movies are made nowadays, there isn’t time to do that, and here I am still reworking the dialogue and even worrying about the casting after shooting has already begun. She doesn’t like the new film grammar, the method of presentation. She says there’s no heart in it anymore, that people no longer take human love seriously.”
One would prefer to think that Miss Wada made an exception for her husband’s movie version of “The Makioka Sisters,” released in 1983 and the last of his productions to be successfully imported to the United States. As a portrait of genteel family affection and infighting, it has few peers. Mr. Ichikawa enables viewers to feel almost as nostalgic about Osaka domesticity at the end of the 1930s as the turn-of-the-century, Midwestern domesticity celebrated by Vincente Minnelli in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
A few of the famous Ichikawa titles “The Burmese Harp,” “Enjo,” “An Actor’s Revenge,” “Kagi” and “Fires on the Plain” already have been shown during the retrospective, originally organized at the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto by its curator, James Quandt, and showcased at the Museum of Modern Art Film Library in New York City before arriving in Washington. A basic source work also has been edited by Mr. Quandt. It is “Kon Ichikawa,” an anthology of interviews and critical appreciations.
Most of the selections derive from the last half of the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s, when Mr. Ichikawa’s prestige was at its most consistent and huge gaps had not developed in the appearance of his work at American art houses. This weekend will permit some belated catch-up with a varied trio of titles that had little or no commercial exposure in the United States.
“Kokoro” will be shown at 2:30 p.m. today in the National Gallery’s East Building. This pivotal, 1955 Ichikawa film is the study of a haunted and suicidal personality, a teacher idolized by a student unfamiliar with the causes of his despair. The movie began a shift from topical comedy to psychological drama in the director’s work. The change led more or less logically to the classics of obsessed loners set against World War II backdrops, “The Burmese Harp” and “Enjo.”
Tomorrow, a stroll across the Mall will lead you to sharply contrasted Ichikawa titles. At 2 p.m., the Freer Gallery plays host to “Money Talks,” circa 1964, a satire of what was then an emerging popular addiction, the yakuza thriller, which exploited the contemporary gangster culture. At 4 p.m., the National Gallery of Art’s East Building features a 1956 costume drama, “Nihonbashi.” This film adapts a vintage play about rivalries in the geisha quarter of Edo during the late 19th century.
The genre of comedies that first made Mr. Ichikawa popular in Japan is exemplified in the picture being revived a week from tomorrow at the East Building. “Mr. Pu,” released in 1953, derived from a comic strip about a math teacher whose mishaps never seem to end. They provide a catalog of post-World War II social upheavals and maladjustments.
Another stroll across the Mall on Dec. 9 will reveal Mr. Ichikawa at his most eccentric as a narrative stylist. “I Am Two” of 1962, scheduled for the Freer Gallery, is told from the point of view of a family toddler. The 1975 movie, “I Am a Cat,” scheduled for the East Building, takes a dim view of the life of a turn-of-the-century pedagogue from the perspective of his pet cat, who eventually decides to end it all.
As you discover this venerable and versatile filmmaker, perhaps the key quote of his to keep in mind is this: “I look around for some kind of humanism, but I never seem to find it.”
In truth, he has found an abundance of it, but he has been reluctant to settle for complacent observation and interpretation.
Remaining programs in the Kon Ichikawa series at the Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive and 12th St. SW (202/357-2700), and the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW (202/737-4215):
Today: “Kokoro” (1955), 2:30 p.m., auditorium of the East Building of the National Gallery.
Tomorrow: “Money Talks” (1964), 2 p.m., Meyer Auditorium of the Freer Gallery; “Nihonbashi” (1956), National Gallery’s East Building.
Friday: “Punishment Room” (1956), 7 p.m., Meyer Auditorium.
Nov. 18: “Bonchi” (1960), 2 p.m., Meyer Auditorium; “Mr. Pu” (1953) and “Men of Tohoku” (1957), 4:30 p.m., East Building.
Nov. 24: “The Outcast” (1962), 1 p.m., East Building.
Nov. 30: “A Billionaire” (1954), 7 p.m., Meyer Auditorium.
Dec. 1: “Alone on the Pacific” (1963), 2:30 p.m., East Building.
Dec. 2: “Ten Dark Women” (1961), 2 p.m., Meyer Auditorium.
Dec. 7: “A Full-Up Train” (1957), 7 p.m., Meyer Auditorium.
Dec. 8: “Tokyo Olympiad” (1965), 2 p.m., East Building.
Dec. 9: “I Am Two” (1962), 2 p.m., Meyer Auditorium; “I Am a Cat” (1975), 4 p.m., East Building.
Dec. 15: “The Makioka Sisters” (1983), 2:30 p.m., East Building.
Dec. 16: “The Wanderers” (1973), 4 p.m., East Building.
All showings are free. Tickets to the Meyer Auditorium are distributed an hour before show times. No tickets are necessary for programs in the auditorium of the East Building, but early arrival is recommended.