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UCLA Series Spotlights Overlooked Japanese Filmmaker

November 15, 2001|Kevin Thomas

Among Japanese filmmakers to receive international recognition in the post-World War II era, Kon Ichikawa is today the least-known. Thus, the UCLA Film Archive's "Kon Ichikawa," composed of 18 films screening Saturday through Dec. 9, is a valuable introduction to a major filmmaker whose work has gone largely unseen on local screens since the early '80s. Ichikawa was always more subversive, intransigent and darkly humorous than such peers as Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.

The series opens Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with one of Ichikawa's most celebrated films, the 1958 "Conflagration," which is also well-known by its Japanese title, "Enjo." Adapted from a Yukio Mishima novel inspired by a student-priest's burning of Kyoto's famed Golden Pavilion, a national treasure since rebuilt, "Conflagration" begins with the arrest of the culprit (Raizo Ichikawa) and proceeds in flashback to reveal how he came to destroy what he most loved in the world. Although at times hard to follow even with subtitles, the psychology of this frustrated, tormented youth emerges with conviction. Masterful and disturbing, "Conflagration" is a timeless work in glorious black and white.

"Conflagration" will be followed by a fresh color print of the bizarre and bravura "An Actor's Revenge" (1963). Legend has it that the Daiei Co., as punishment for a series of flops, forced Ichikawa to remake a creaky old vehicle first filmed in the 1920s. Instead of protesting, the director, with his scenarist wife, Natto Wada, decided it would be a chance "to see what movies can do." In essence, they took a typical revenge plot, one aptly compared to those of the bloody Jacobean dramatists, and created a triumph of style.

The film elicits a pathos that goes beyond the campiness of its unlikely hero, a female impersonator named Yukinojo, who wears women's attire offstage as well as on. For this role, Ichikawa cast Kazuo Hasegawa, veteran matinee idol best known as the star of "Gate of Hell." In his 300th film, Hasegawa also plays a second role, that of a virile Robin Hood who's friendly to Yukinojo.

When Yukinojo arrives in Edo as the star of an acting troupe, he also has the responsibility of avenging his dead parents, ruined by three greedy men now prominent in Japan's old capital. Their ringleader (Ganjio Nakamura) attends on opening night with his beautiful daughter (Ayako Wakao), who falls in love with Yukinojo at first sight.

What ensues involves much typically convoluted intrigue. Visually, "An Actor's Revenge" is a tour de force, with dazzling swordplay and an atmosphere as exotic as that of a Sternberg film. The elements exalt Yukinojo's increasingly tragic dilemma as he finds himself growing genuinely attached to the innocent girl he must exploit to carry out his vengeance.

Although Ichikawa is much concerned with the futility of vengeance, he is even more involved with the isolation of Yukinojo, which began long before his vengeance is set in motion and is only heightened by it. With Ichikawa's characteristic streak of dark humor, "An Actor's Revenge" borders on the outrageous yet is marked by Hasegawa's astoundingly selfless portrayal of the deceptively dainty Yukinojo. Screening Saturday at 7 p.m.: Ichikawa's celebrated "Tokyo Olympiad" (1965). (310) 206-FILM. Kevin Thomas

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