Kon Ichikawa, celebrated Japanese helmer whose career spanned more than seven decades, died on Feb. 13 of pneumonia. He was 92.
Best known abroad for “The Burmese Harp” (1956) and “Fires on the Plain (1959), pics that vividly, if grimly, portrayed the human costs of WW2, as well as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics docu “Tokyo Olympiad” (1965), Ichikawa was the last directorial giant of Japan’s now vanished studio studio system, which reached its peak in the 1950s and early 1960s, before succumbing to the advance of television.
Born in 1915 in Ise City, in Western Japan, Ichikawa began his career as an animator, heavily influenced by Disney’s “Silly Symphonies.” In 1933 he joined the animation department of the predecessor of the Toho studio. In 1935 he became an assistant director for live-action pics and in 1946 helmed his first pic, “A Girl at Dojo Temple.” He began making sophisticated comedies, with Hollywood as a model, but later became known for his powerfully told, vividly shot literary adaptations, including “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” (1958), “The Key” (1959) and “The Makioka Sisters” (1983). The scripter on many of the pics of his 1950s and 1960s creative peak was his wife, Natto Wada, who died in 1983, but largely laid down her pen after co-writing “The Tokyo Olympiad.”
Ichikawa was a member of the “Four Knights” — a quartet of helmers, including Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Masaki Kobayashi, who joined together to make a pic, based on a Shugoro Yamamoto story, about a feudal-era magistrate who plays the drunkard and playboy to gather info on shady doings in his assigned province. The project never got off the ground, until Ichikawa dusted off the script three decades later and made “Dora Heita” (2000), starring Koji Yakusho as the magistrate.
A life-long fan of Agatha Christie — he even used “Christie” as a pen name for his own scenarios — Ichikawa also helmed a series of popular mystery pics, beginning in 1976 with “The Inugamis,” whose story of deadly family intrigue was based on a best-selling Seishi Yokomizo novel. Ichikawa later remade this pic for what would become his last feature credit, the 2006 “The Inugamis,” in which Koji Ishizaka reprised his original turn as wandering detective Kosuke Kindaichi.