Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Her Brother

Daiei Studios released Kon Ichikawa's Her Brother on November 1, 1960. The film proved to be a triumph for both the director and the studio. It ended up winning 14 awards, including the coveted Kinema Junpo awards for Best Picture and Best Director of 1960.

The critical acclaim was especially gratifying for Ichikawa, since he had toiled for years in the Japanese film industry, never quite reaching the top tier of directors. In this sense, his status differed from that of Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, and Ozu, all of whom reigned supreme at their home studios. Ichikawa, on the other hand, over the course of his long career moved around from studio to studio, always occupying a position just below these elite directors. Whereas the top directors were free to choose their material, their casts, and their technicians, Ichikawa was typically assigned projects by the front office. Working under these constantly changing conditions, he was never able to cultivate a consistent style in the manner of his more revered contemporaries. But ingenuity and creative flexibility allowed Ichikawa to make the most of this situation, resulting in a body of work noteworthy for its diversity.

Ichikawa began his career in 1938 as an illustrator in the animation division at Toho Studios. Slowly working his way up the ladder, he directed his first live action feature in 1948. Caught up in the labor disbutes of the late 1940s, he decided to follow many of his Toho co-workers to a new studio, Shin-Toho. In 1955 he moved briefly to Nikkatsu Studios. And finally in 1956, he settled at Daiei, where he enjoyed his greatest professional success.

Ichikawa first made his mark with a film version of Soseki Natsume's timeless novel, Kokoro (1955), starring Masayuki Mori. One year later, he directed another literary adaptation, The Harp of Burma. With these two successes, Ichikawa came to be seen as a director especially adept at translating literature to the screen. He continued in this vein for the next few years, working from novels by Yukio Mishima, Shotaro Ooka, and Jun'ichiro Tanizaki.

The culmination of this series of literary adaptations was Her Brother, based on Aya Koda's autobiographical tale of her troubled family during the Taisho era (1912-26). Although assigned the project, Ichikawa was able to work with some first rate talent. His cast was headlined by four of Japan's most popular and talented stars: Keiko Kishi, Hiroshi Kawaguchi, Masayuki Mori, and the incomparable Kinuyo Tanaka. Also assigned to the picture was Kazuo Miyagawa, one of the most skilled cinematographers in the Japanese film industry. Over the course of his career Miyagawa had lent his talents to Kurosawa's Rashomon, Ozu's Floating Weeds, and all of Mizoguchi's great masterpieces of the 1950s.

The collaboration with Miyagawa was especially fortunate, since it provided Ichikawa with an opportunity to satisfy his penchant for creating visually innovative film narratives. Although never associated with a signature style, Ichikawa's early days as a cartoonist made him particularly attentive to the visual impact of his films. Always willing to experiment to give his movies a distinctive look, he and Miyagawa created a new technique known as skip bleaching. By treating the film stock with chemicals that muted the palette, Ichikawa lent Her Brother the air of a faded picture postcard. In recognition of this achievement, Miyagawa was awarded the Best Cinematography Award at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Since then, their process has become a standard practice in the film industry.

After Her Brother, Ichikawa went on to other successes, most notably An Actor's Revenge (1963), a highly stylized historical drama, Alone in the Pacific (1963), a biography of Kenichi Horie, the young man who sailed alone from Osaka to San Francisco, and Tokyo Olympics (1965), a cinematic record of the 1964 Oympics.

As the Japanese studio system began to disintegrate in the late 1960s, Ichikawa once again displayed his adaptability. In contrast to his contemporary Kurosawa, whose output after 1970 slowed to a rate of about one film every five years, Ichikawa continued to direct one or two movies per year. His greatest success during these latter years was the tremendously popular Makioka Sisters (1983), based on Tanizaki's wartime novel. Ichikawa's most recent film was released in 2006.

Here I'd also like to take an opportunity to provide some information about Masayuki Mori, one of the stars of the film. The eldest son of the acclaimed author, Takero Arishima, Mori established his own professional reputation as a popular film star. He is especially cherished by cineasts for his participation in two of the masterpieces of world cinema. In 1950 he played Kanazawa no Takehiro, the murdered warrior, in Kurosawa's Rashomon; and in 1953 he played Genjuro, the haunted potter, in Mizoguchi's Ugetsu. 1960 was a banner year for Mori, bringing him roles in three important films. It's a credit to his versatility that he managed to excel in such divergent parts. Hearkening back his early days as a "pretty boy" (nimaime) star, he brings glamour to the role of Fujisaki in Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Channeling villains from the kabuki stage, he oozes corruption as Iwabuchi in Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well. And perhaps tapping into his own family history, he perfectly portrays the distant, self-absorbed author/father in Her Brother.

Ichikawa in the 1960s

Ayako Wakao in An Actor's Revenge

Tokyo Olympics

Masayuki Mori's 1960 rogues gallery


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