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Filmful Life

Director Kon Ichikawa at age 92, still active working as a director.
AKA: The Kon Ichikawa Story  
Year: 2006  
Director: Shunji Iwai  
  Producer: Taka Ichise
  Writer: Shunji Iwai
  Cast: Kon Ichikawa
  The Skinny: A unique documentary about a true cinema legend, Filmful Life is required viewing for all Japanese cinema buffs and a required companion piece for all Ichikawa retrospectives. The film is also a rare case where subtitles may even be a reason even for Japanese audiences to stay away.
Kevin Ma:
     Kon Ichikawa is one of Japan's most prolific filmmakers. Between 1948 and 2006, he made 76 films (that's 1.31 movies a year), including some featuring abhorrent sexuality, cannibalism in a war zone, murder mysteries, and even people in bird suits. At age 92, Ichikawa made Murder of the Inugami Clan, a self-remake of the 1976 classic The Inugamis. Directing the film at such an advanced age was an amazing feat, earning Ichikawa his own documentary, Filmful Life, simply named The Ichikawa Kon Story in Japanese. The strangest (and potentially the most brilliant) decision producer Taka Ichise made was picking director Shunji Iwai, who literally encompassed 58 years of Ichikawa's work into 80 minutes of short film clips and photographs. With a director like Iwai, whose unique visual style is claimed to be inspired by Ichikawa, you know Filmful Life won't be going the usual "talking heads" documentary route. In fact, Ichikawa himself doesn't even make an appearance until the last two minutes of the film.
     Filmful Life plays like a documentary from the silent film era, connected by intertitles that read like a film class essay on Ichikawa written by Iwai, and photographs digitally manipulated to make them appear to be moving. Based on extensive interviews between the two directors (some of them are included in the DVD and are never shown in the film itself), Filmful Life is essentially split into three sections. One, before the beginning of Ichikawa's directorial career, when he managed to avoid military duty during World War II and, during a stint as an animator, predicted the United States would win the war after watching Walt Disney's Fantasia. Two, his marriage to screenwriter Natto Wada, and their subsequent 28 collaborations. And three, his career after Wada's death, emphasizing the Kindaichi series (including The Inugamis and its remake). Those familiar with Ichikawa's work will find the second section the most rewarding and touching due to its emphasis on Wada's importance in some of Ichikawa's most successful films. Even for those not familiar with Ichikawa, this section humanizes the master greatly by placing him in a rare vulnerable position where he is not just portrayed as a legend, but also as a devoted husband who could bring himself to change a film's ending simply because his wife said so.
     While the film does delve into the evolution of the Japanese film industry in small doses, true appreciation of Filmful Life can only be felt if one has at least a slight idea of who Ichikawa is. This applies to not just foreign audiences, who have to read the same amount of subtitles as local audiences anyway, but even to Japanese Iwai fans who feel like they must catch everything with Iwai's name on it. Despite Iwai's numerous creative efforts to keep things engaging, Filmful Life works best as a companion piece to Ichikawa film screenings rather than an independent feature film (And judging from the emphasis on the Kindaichi series, it's obvious which films Ichise would like Filmful Life to be paired with). As comprehensive as Filmful Life is, the film fails to spark any prolonged interest for general audiences, who might find Ichikawa's humble beginnings interesting, but are likely to lose attention when Iwai begins to name all of Ichikawa's 76 films. Nevertheless, Filmful Life is a rare documentary that manages to present a man's eventful life in an efficient fashion, while also allowing the director's style to shine through without becoming self-indulgent. Despite its obvious promotional intentions, Filmful Life is a unique and long overdue documentary for a cinematic legend that should be required viewing in every Japanese film class. (Kevin Ma 2007)
Availability: DVD (Japan)
Region 2 NTSC
Pony Canyon
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 2.0
Removable English Subtitles
Interviews, Trailer, Profiles
  Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen