Ichikawa's first film, Musume Dojoji (1946), on a Joruri subject, was forbidden by the U.S. military censorship that prevailed in Japan from 1945 to 1952, because it was deemed "too feudal." But he was fond of such literary subjects and in collaboration with his wife, between 1950 and 1965, produced his masterworks which were often based on contemporary novels. Wada had a great talent for adapting literature to the screen and she wrote 34 scripts in this period. Adaptations include Tanizaki's The Key and The Makioka Sisters, Kawabata's The Old Capital, Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Soseki's Kokoro and I am a Cat, and Ooka Shohei's Fires on the Plain.
This last war film also brought Ichikawa some recognition in the West, as did another war tale (based on a novel by Takeyama Michio) called The Burmese Harp. In 1965 Ichikawa made Tokyo Olympiad, a large documentary about the Olympics of the previous year.
After the middle sixties, Ichikawa's output declined. Tokyo Olympiad was in retrospect a sort of watershed. One reason was the gradual breaking up of the studio system - even big studios like Toho didn't have the resources anymore to make art films. In order to lure what audience they could to the cinema, films became more extreme in the use of violence and sex. Wada was not happy with this new tone and retired from script writing - and this was a great loss for the films her husband Ichikawa made. In the second half of the sixties, the once so productive director only made one feature-length film, in the five years after that only three, among which the best was The Wanderers (1973).
In 1976 Ichikawa bowed to the demands of commerce and started his series of thrillers based on the popular murder mysteries by Yokomizo Seishi. Starting with The Inugami Family, he made five such films until the end of the 1970s, and three more later on. The last film he helmed (aged 87!) was in fact a remake of The Inugami Family (2006).
But in the 1980s, Ichikawa also made a sort of come-back with literary subjects. He filmed The Old Capital by Kawabata, Ohan by Uno Chiyo and, more notably, The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki. He also remade his own The Burmese Harp. Besides more thrillers, in the 90s he also addressed a perennial Japanese subject in The 47 Ronin.
Some of Ichikawa's best films are:
- The Heart (Kokoro, 1955)
Adaptation of Natsume Soseki's famous novel about a student idolizing a guilt-ridden teacher.
- The Burmese Harp (Biruma no Tategoto, 1956)
Rather sentimental film about a Buddhist monk searching for the bodies of Japanese war dead. Based on a novel by Takeyama Michio. This compassionate anti-war film became the first work by Ichikawa Kon to attract attention in the West (Venice Film festival, Academy Award nomination for best foreign film). In 1985, Ichikawa remade the film in color with different actors. Criterion esssay one and two.
- Conflagration (Enjo, 1958)
Adaptation of Mishima Yukio's The Temple of the Golden Pavillion, about a novice who destroys the temple he loves to preserve its purity. With Ichikawa Raizo as the novice monk. This is one of Ichikawa Kon's best works.
- Odd Obsession (Kagi, 1959)
Adaptation of "scandalous" novel by Tanizaki Junichiro, an irreverent satire on aging and sexuality. With Kyo Machiko, Nakamura Ganjiro and Nakadai Tatsuya. Won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1960.
- Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959)
The hellish experiences of a Japanese soldier lost in the mountains of the Philippines at the end of the war. Often considered as Ichikawa Kon’s masterpiece. Funakoshi Eiji plays the lost Japanese soldier. Note that being captured by the enemy was considered as a great dishonor at that time. Criterion essay.
- Her Brother (Ototo, 1960)
Family drama about a delinquent brother ill with tuberculosis. After a novel by Koda Aya, and with Kishi Keiko, Tanaka Kinuyo and Kawaguchi Hiroshi. Special mention at Cannes festival. Remade in 2010 by Yamada Yoji as a tribute to Ichikawa Kon.
- The Outcast (Hakai, 1962)
Adaptation of Shimazaki Toson's well-known novel (translated as "The Broken Commandment") about the persecution of the burakumin underclass.
- An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge, 1963)
Period film about a Kabuki female impersonator (Hasegawa Kazuo) who seeks revenge for the death of his parents. All-star cast, great cinematography. Midnight Eye review, Senses of Cinema review.
- The Wanderers (Matatabi, 1973)
Satiric period film in which the yakuza code compels one of the protagonists to kill his father.
- The Inugami Family (Inugamike no Ichizoku, 1976)
Convoluted murder mystery with supernatural overtones, based on a popular novel by Yokomizo Seishi. Understated detective Kindaichi, a sort of Japanese Columbo, is played by Ishizaka Koji. Other Kindaichi films made in the following years were A Rhyme of Vengeance (Akuma no Temari-uta, 1977); Island of Horrors (Gokumonto, 1977); Queen Bee (Joobachi, 1978); and The House of Hanging (Byoinzaka no kubi kukuri no ie, 1979).
- The Makioka Sisters (Sasameyuki, 1983)A Sensuously gorgeous film, a worthy adaptation of Tanizaki's masterful novel about the lives of four sisters from a traditional merchant family in the Kansai. The major plot consists of attempts to find a husband for the second sister. Criterion essay. Criterion Confessions review.
- Crane (Tsuru, 1988)
Based on a folk tale and with Yoshinaga Sayuri as protagonist. One snowy night a beautiful woman named Tsuru (Crane) visits a poor peasant and says she will become his wife...
- The 47 Ronin (Shijushichinin no shikyaku, 1994)
Ichikawa's take on Chushingura. With Takakura Ken and Miyazawa Rie.