The Strange Case of Kon Ichikawa: though one of Japanese cinema’s most prominent postwar humanists, his varied output, and frequent canonical literary sources, make his auteurship a tough sell. Further complicating things — at least in this country — is his oeuvre’s spotty availability, rectified somewhat by Criterion reaching into the Janus Films library for a Pacific War diptych comprised of perhaps his two best-known films.
Nagisa Oshima infamously dismissed Ichikawa as merely “an illustrator,” but even if that were true, every author should have such an illustrator (and an adaptor with the unassuming clarity of Ichikawa’s wife-scenarist Natto Wada). Trained as an animator and heavily reliant on storyboards, Ichikawa possesses a visual sense as distinctive and adaptable as his temperament.
The Burmese Harp, from Michio Takeyama’s novel about a Japanese solider who stays behind in Burma after the surrender to bury the dead, has music in the air throughout — the soldier accompanied his company’s frequent choral interludes on the titular native instrument — and Ichikawa matches the lilting soundtrack with idyllic compositions, attempting to salve the ravages of war.
Fires on the Plain, from Shohei Ooka’s novel, is another antiwar plea, but similarities end with the first shot — a close-up of its protagonist being slapped across the face.
In the war’s dying days, hollowed-out PFC Eiji Funakoshi beats a solo retreat through the Philippine mud, an anti-odyssey haunted by the specter of cannibalism, defined by episodes of human madness and vindictive nature, and illustrated in widescreen tableaux at once fevered and painterly.
In interviews, Ichikawa looks far younger than his 91 years (in fact, he’s still directing). Tony Rayns’ and Chuck Stephens’ essays grapple with the Strange Case, and with the most frequent critique leveled at both films: that they soft-pedal the Japanese army’s wartime atrocities.
A sin of omission, but it doesn’t detract from Harp’s noble sentimentality or Fires’ ragged, hallucinatory charge — or the case for Ichikawa.