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TCM Imports - May 2019
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Remind Me

Her Brother

In Kon Ichikawa's Her Brother (1960), the characters define the frame. There is a religious mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) prone to dramatics and asserting herself whenever possible. She has a way of filling the few spaces given to her. There is the father (Masayuki Mori), a writer who is successful enough to keep his family comfortable in a middle-class existence and who at first feels as distant as the mother is cloying. He has a way of disappearing into dark corners. Grabbing even more attention than the mother is Hekiro, the titular brother (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), aimless and prone to getting into trouble, he often zips from one side of the screen to the other until finally being tethered down in the third and final act. The real protagonist, however, is his sister, Gen (Keiko Kishi). She plays the part of a surrogate mother, a caregiver, as well as the sister who tries to take care of and protect her brother as best she can. She anchors every scene she inhabits.

Her Brother won several awards and also got a glowing plug in the Summer of 1961 issue of Sight & Sound, where it was reviewed as being "flawlessly composed for the widescreen and shot in ravishingly muted colours intended to evoke the mid-Taisho period (about 1920) in which the story is set."

Her Brother contains biographical elements for Ichikawa, who was born in 1915 and was a young boy being raised in the 1920s, spoiled by his mother and sisters. His father passed away when he was young, and his uncle changed his first name to "Kon" for good luck. Ichikawa probably didn't think he was too lucky when he was diagnosed with Pott's disease, a form of tuberculosis (which pops up in the film). That early diagnosis, however, did save him from having to go to war later on and it paved the way for his becoming a director.

As a teenager, Ichikawa was fascinated with the Silly Symphony series by Walt Disney Productions and he decided to become an animator. In 1933, he found a job within J.O. Studio's animation department and when that arm closed he moved into working on feature films as an assistant director. Company mergers would eventually have him working for Toho Film Company, where he met Natto Wada, the woman who would go on to become both his wife and future collaborator. They referred to each other as "master" and although they would often argue about story elements, Ichikawa always deferred to his wife, ultimately conceding that she was correct.

In the introduction to his monograph on Ichikawa, James Quandt, Senior Programmer at TIFF Cinematheque, notes that Ichikawa's reputation in the West rests on fewer than 10 films--rather than a prodigious body of work that is eight times that size--and this is due to the fact that only a handful of the films were ever subtitled or widely distributed. The titles that did get acclaim and recognition, Quandt adds, came "from one decade: three classics of postwar humanist cinema (Fires on the Plain, Harp of Burma, Enjo), two social comedies based on Jun'ichirĂ´ Tanizaki novels (Kagi, The Makioka Sisters), the wild comic spectacle An Actor's Revenge, and the documentary, Tokyo Olympiad, which has been released in many versions and continues to be the subject of considerable controversy." Later in the monograph and in an interview with Max Tessier, Ichikawa himself, when given the choice to pick the top five favorites from his own body of work, listed: "Above all, Enjo. But also Actress, Harp of Burma, Pu-san as well as Her Brother. The latter was shown at Cannes, and I was sure it would win a prize."

In the wonderfully crafted documentary by Shunji Iwai, The Kon Ichikawa Story (2006), it is revealed that Her Brother was the first film shot using "silver retention, a special development method also used for the movie Seven [sic] (1995)". Iwai closes his documentary on Ichikawa somewhat in awe that the elderly director who worked alongside Kurosawa was still chain-smoking cigarettes and making movies. Two years later in 2008, at the age of 92, Ichikawa died of pneumonia in Tokyo.

By Pablo Kjolseth

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