Unless you’re an Asian-film buff, or pushing 60, the closest you may have come to the work of Japanese master Kon Ichikawa is his lovely 1983 movie The Makioka Sisters, the story of a quarrelsome dynastic family weathering World War II and Japan’s rapid transit to modernity. Even with blue-ribbon champions like Pauline Kael, Ichikawa’s vast and varied oeuvre has largely been confined to the film-festival circuit in this country, an oversight that the UCLA Film and Television Archive is out to redress with a muscular retrospective — 18 films in all — spanning four decades of his work, curated by the excellent James Quandt of Toronto’s Cinémathèque Ontario.

At home, the eminence of this 86-year-old director — often ranked with Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi — has been vigorously disputed by critics, especially since the mid-1970s, when his wife and longtime co-screenwriter, Natto Wada, withdrew from filmmaking. Ichikawa is unpopular with devout auteurists freaked by the director’s dazzling formal versatility, eclectic choice of material, and emotional range. Not that he cares: The nearly 80 films he’s made evince a blithe willingness to serve both art-house markets and as a studio director for hire. When Ichikawa claims as seminal influences Walt Disney and Jean Renoir, he’s not being coy.

Whether in documentaries (the retrospective includes 1965’s Tokyo Olympiad, Ichikawa’s famous three-hour film about the 18th Olympic Games), lavish period pieces, anguished war movies or mischievous satires of tight-assed Japanese mores, Ichikawa has staked out what may be the only defensible position of a filmmaker striving for social critique in one of the world’s most conformist societies: a stubborn iconoclasm with respect to received values. For all its breathily romantic celebration of the city of Osaka in cherry-blossom season, The Makioka Sisters is wickedly subversive of traditional Japanese domestic culture, with its arranged marriages and covert affairs, its ferocious snobbery and furtive gamesmanship. Yet the movie is also ruefully sympathetic toward its protagonists, hedged about as they are by stuffy convention.

Ichikawa’s no cynic. His war films in particular are humanistic in the most stringent sense — resolutely clear-eyed about the depths to which men and women can sink under pressure, yet compassionate toward suffering in its many forms. In the horrifyingly beautiful Fires on the Plain (1959), a study of cannibalism among the demoralized Japanese army in the Philippines during the final days of World War II, a lone tubercular soldier clings to the last shreds of decency, not because he’s more virtuous than his desperate comrades, but because he alone — too sick and emaciated to qualify for a place on the menu — can afford the luxury of morality. The film, shot with Ichikawa’s abiding love of the wide screen, makes Saving Private Ryan, and all the other nominally unsparing accounts of the war currently being rushed off the Hollywood presses, look like sappy fairy tales.

Fires on the Plain is saturated with Christian imagery, which, woven into the director’s trademark black wit, makes the movie all the more devastating. His international breakthrough, Harp of Burma (1956), one of several new 35mm prints in the retrospective, tells the story of a Japanese soldier in Burma who, unhinged by the destruction of an army unit that refuses to surrender to the British, goes native and becomes a Buddhist priest, opting for lifelong penance. A curious blend of veneration for Burmese folk culture and shameless milking of the song “There’s No Place Like Home,” Harp of Burma hovered as close to schmaltz as Ichikawa had probably ever gone (he went on to remake it in 1985), yet it’s still a touching film.

One of the best films in the retrospective — and certainly the most stylized — is An Actor’s Revenge (1963), which makes wily use of kabuki theater to tell the story of a female impersonator who, in seeking to avenge the suicides of both his parents, discovers that vengeance brings terrors far greater than does the sense of having been wronged. Though you can read it as a cautionary tale, An Actor’s Revenge is magnanimous in its pity for a man who wreaks havoc where he least means to. Indeed, if there is a human type running through Ichikawa’s films, it is the unhappy obsessive. And if there’s a spirit that informs the work, it’s the quality of mercy.

KON ICHIKAWA | A retrospective at the UCLA Film and Television Archive | November 17–December 9

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