Alone Across the Pacific
- Original title
- Taiheiyo Hitoribotchi
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 97 minutes
- 2 June 2009
by Dean Bowman
Kon Ichikawa's career began following WWII and he continued making films in an almost unbroken string until his death in 2008. His expansive oeuvre has been criticised by many as lacking in consistency, leading to the accusation that he was more of a studio craftsman than an auteur, and even Nagisa Oshima unfairly claimed he was merely an 'illustrator'. But the French critics who coined the word auteur did so to raise the profile of Hollywood studio directors, such as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, who were able to stamp their stylistic and thematic signature onto even the most routine productions. In his profile on Ichikawa for Senses of Cinema's Great Directors series, Alexander Jacoby argues that Ichikawa, like Hawks, was indeed able to work under difficult circumstances and to apply his unique sensibility to a range of genres, even though many of his films were imposed upon him by the studios.
I've personally always felt Kon Ichikawa's work to be a unique bridge between the humanism of figures like Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, and the stylistic and narrative extremes of emerging new wave directors like Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima. In his celebrated anti-war film Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959) Ichikawa was able to marry the humanist sensibilities of his forebears to the kind of stark, angry cry that the rebellious new wave were sounding in cinema. In films such as The Key (Kagi, 1959), and Punishment Room (Shokei no Heya, 1956), Ichikawa also dealt with similar themes of sexual perversion and youthful alienation, whilst his Conflagration (Enjo, 1958) and excellent absurdist satire A Full Up Train (Manin Densha, 1957) offered a critique of traditional Japanese values and the corrupting influence of the post-war economic boom in a far more direct manner than Ozu's subtle musings.
Seen in the context of Ichikawa's uncertain position within Japan's film canon, Alone Across the Pacific is fascinating. A potent statement of nonconformity, the film follows a stubborn youth, Kenichi Horie (Ishihara), who defies both his parents and his government (who have expressly forbidden any light craft leaving Japan) by building a yacht and heading to America. Over the course of his journey Kenichi must deal with raging storms, a leaky hull and an overriding sense of loneliness that verges on madness (it's hard not to think of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings during sequences in which he argues with himself). The film begins with his setting sail under the cover of darkness and the majority of it takes place at sea, with flashbacks to the events leading up to his departure focusing on his struggle with the Japanese bureaucracy to get a passport (scenes reminiscent of Kurosawa's Ikiru) and his fraught relationship with his mother and father who beg him to give up his mad scheme and go to university, like everyone else.
Unlike the new wave directors who took their cameras out into the streets, Ichikawa preferred to shoot in the studio on carefully constructed sets, giving many of his dramas, such as An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge, 1963), a theatrically melodramatic quality that brings to mind the Kabuki medium it was depicting. Alone Across the Pacific is a very different affair, given its location shooting on a small yacht adrift on the boundless ocean, and one can imagine this as quite a challenge to a director who preferred the level of control a studio affords. Indeed it's hard not to see the project in self reflexive terms as a personal trial; Ichikawa identifying himself with the youth set adrift and trying to find his place in the world, just as the director was struggling to find his own place within a rapidly changing industry.
But the film is undoubtedly first and foremost a star vehicle for its lead Yujiro Ishihara, a massive celebrity in Japan who symbolised a brash new generation and had already starred in one of the seminal films of the new wave: Crazed Fruit (Kurutta Kajitsu, 1956). His older brother Shintaro was also famous as an author for starting the 'Sun Tribe' genre with his 1955 novella Taiyo no Kisetsu (Season of the Sun), whose rebellious young protagonists were quick to filter into the counter cultural films of the period. Without a doubt Ichikawa, himself from an older generation, had his hands full. Perhaps this explains the slight ironic distance Ichikawa filters Horie's experiences through, as noted by Brent Kliewer in his interesting essay that accompanies Eureka's lavish DVD release of the film, which discusses the mythical and epic qualities of the narrative.
Like many of his films Alone Across the Pacific was written by Ichikawa's wife Natto Wada and structurally the film is quite a traditional adventure story wrapped up in a classical meditation on the human condition (as the trailer boasts: "all facets of the human condition are portrayed"), but on a more metaphoric level the youth's difficult journey across the Pacific could be seen as an allegory of the uneasy resumption of relations between Japan and America in the decade immediately following the war - when he arrives in San Francisco Kinichi is not thrown into detention as he fears but embraced as a celebrity.
But perhaps this is where Ichikawa finally reveals his allegiance more toward the humanism of the older generation than the nihilistic existentialism of the new wave. After all, many new wave films, such as Imamura's Pigs and Battleships, were critical if not openly hostile to America's continued involvement in their country's affairs, as much as they were towards their own government and the traditional Japanese values that had led to the war itself. Although the protagonists of many new wave films would no doubt sympathise with Ichikawa's protagonist's desire to escape what he sees as the stagnant, corrupting influence of post-war Japan, it is unlikely that any of those alienated drifters would possess the perseverance to sail across the Pacific, and even if they did it is unlikely that they would choose America as their destination. Perhaps they would instead set a rather unrealistic course for France, the land of Godard and existentialism which directors like Hiroshi Teshigahara revelled in.
Ultimately, perhaps, it is best not to think of Ichikawa's work as a bridge connecting the post-war humanism of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi to the defiant modernity of Imamura and Oshima, but rather as a dingy adrift between the two. In that case Alone Across the Pacific may indeed be the best example of his position as a filmmaker.