Berlinale Blog Kon Ichikawa’s timeless social criticism

Kon Ichikawa
Kon Ichikawa | © Kadokawa Corporation

The Berlinale doesn’t only screen new productions, some classics are on the programme too. This year’s Forum section is devoting a small-scale retrospective to the Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichikawa.

With his lifetime achievement of over 70 films, Kon Ichikawa, who died in 2008 at the age of 92, ranks among the great masters of Japanese cinema. Had he lived, he would have turned 100 in 2015: reason enough for a retrospective this year. The Forum section will be showing three Ichikawa films: Enjo (Conflagration; 1958), Ototo (Her Brother; 1960) and Yukinojo henge (An Actor’s Revenge; 1963). This is an opportunity to introduce Ichikawa’s pictures to a wider public – or, for those familiar with his work, to rediscover them. For although his films won several prizes at the festivals in Cannes and Venice, nowadays they are all but unknown outside Japan.

“Enjo” or the death of the spiritual

The series opens with Enjo, a drama from the year 1958 based on the 1956 novel Kinkaku-ji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) by the controversial Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. In his novel, Mishima tells the story of the 1950 arson attack on the temple of Kinkaku-ji through the eyes of a fictional culprit. The wilful destruction of this “ideal of beauty”, the most famous symbol of Kyoto, the former capital, caused widespread shock in Japan. So Ichikawa’s film, which was released just a few years after the conflagration, made a lasting impression on that generation and is still remembered by many to this day.

The story focuses on the psychological decline of a novice Buddhist monk. After the death of his father, the stammering Goichi Mizoguchi seeks succour and loftier insights in religion. Only to find all too soon that reality and the imagination are worlds apart. The social upheavals that began after World War II did not stop even at Buddhist temples. Convinced that all loftier values have long since degenerated, he sets fire to the Kinkaku-ji temple, thereby annihilating the symbol of his own dashed hopes.

Social upheavals

The film is a contemporary document of 1950s Japan. Even the Japanese have a very hard time today imagining what wartime and postwar Japan was like. And yet Ichikawa has captured something in Enjo that still moves audiences today: the story of a person who is unable to cope with the sudden upheavals in society and falls by the wayside as a result. In this respect, Enjo – like all of Ichikawa’s other films – bridges the temporal and cultural gap between then and now, and is as topical today as it was 50 years ago.