Sunday, July 06, 2008

Japan Cuts: A Filmful Life

MS Word’s spellchecker does not love the title, but it actually represents a very literate film. That is because A Filmful Life (trailer here), Shunji Iwai’s documentary about the great Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichikawa, is much heavier on text than visuals, even before the English subtitles are taken into account. It screens Friday at the Japan Cuts festival as part of a tribute to the director.

Iwai primarily profiles Ichikawa through words and music, quickly interspersed with photos and brief clips from the master director’s filmography. Try not to blink during the screening. As Filmful unfolds his story, it seems Ichikawa was blessed with good luck during unfortunate times. He was twice passed over by the draft board, probably thanks to a childhood misdiagnosis, and his family in Hiroshima evacuated in time to survive the bombing.

Originally attracted to film through his talent for drawing, Ichikawa’s early film work was on animated films, whose characters bore a pronounced resemblance to Mickey Mouse. His first live action film was actually a work of puppetry, A Girl at Dojo Temple, taken out of circulation by the American authorities for fear its traditional Japanese elements would reignite dormant nationalism, and only recently rediscovered.

In truth, the clips of Dojo are probably the most striking images from Ichikawa films seen in the documentary. Based on the brief samples Iwai incorporates into Filmful and the two Ichikawa films screening during the festival, Ichikawa looks like an actor’s director who elicited great performances, more than a self-conscious auteur. He was often attracted to well known Japanese literary source material, like The Tale of Genji, I Am a Cat, and The Burmese Harp, probably his best known film in America. It was also one of the many screenplays written by his wife, Yumiko Mogi under the “Natto Wada” pseudonym they initially shared for collaborations, before she essentially took it over.

Ichikawa took the unusual step of twice remaking his own pictures, helming second versions of Harp and the Inugami Family mystery. (Both versions of the latter will screen during the festival tribute.) Strangely, Ichikawa’s films are not widely available in America, despite the international regard for the director often considered second only to Kurosawa (his one-time senior at the Toho studio) in Japanese cinema.

Iwai’s Filmful is a surprisingly watchable tribute, despite its relative simplicity. His abbreviated visuals can be intriguing and his soundtrack is often very effective, particularly the jazz-influenced music underscoring Ichikawa’s early years in animation. Clocking in under ninety minutes, the brief Filmful should really be seen in conjunction with one (or both) of the Inugami films, but it is a manageable and informative introduction to a great filmmaker.