Rewriting History
Natto Wada’s Punishment Room
by Jordan Cronk

One of the great ironies of the auteur theory is that in its elevation of the director to the level of cinematic architect, it correspondingly neglects the efforts of its namesake initiate: that of the author herself. And in a primarily visual medium, the work of the screenwriter is of particularly precarious prominence. It’s much easier to appreciate the achievements of, say, a cinematographer or a visual effects team than it is to parse the contributions of what is ostensibly the emanating agent for all narrative cinema. Indeed, it can be difficult to quantify such influence on even a single film––for every Casablanca or Network, where the script is of equal, if not greater, notoriety than the more appreciable aesthetic aspects of the work, there’s a John Ford or Stanley Kubrick film of which little is noted with respect to its expositional elements. Attempting to trace a screenwriter’s sensibility over multiple films—to say nothing of a career—is, then, what we might call a potentially futile exercise in creative and critical categorization.

Nonetheless, there is something to be gleaned from such an inquiry. One of the more curious authorial elisions with regard to the work of a major filmmaker—and one that has fascinated this writer for many years—is that of Natto Wada, wife and collaborator of celebrated Japanese director Kon Ichikawa. Both employed at Toho Studios in the early 1940s, Ichikawa and Wada (birth name Yumiko Mogi) married in the spring of 1948. They immediately began working together—he as director; she as screenwriter—and the following year would release Passion Without End (1949), the first of what would amount to over thirty collaborations. Wada’s case is fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the scarcity of similar husband-wife pairings over such an extended period of time in the history of cinema. But from a completely creative standpoint, her presence and perspective appear to be the single greatest influence on Ichikawa’s artistry. In retrospect, it’s almost remarkably convenient how one can correlate Wada’s contributions with that of her husband’s achievements. Despite not nominally accounting for Wada’s individual efforts, the cinematic-historical record generally situates Ichikawa’s most fertile period as stretching from the early 1950s to 1965’s Tokyo Olympiad, the last Ichikawa film Wada would contribute to in any significant way (with but a few exceptions, she would write or cowrite all of Ichikawa’s films over this same period).

So why the lapse in recognition for an artist who was not simply an inspiration for her personal and professional partner but the literal author of some of the best films ever produced in the East? The answer may be as routine as auteurist indifference or Western deference to established hierarchies, but on evidence of Ichikawa’s standing in the mid fifties/early sixties, a time typically considered the golden age of Japanese cinema, it’s clear a cause cannot be ascribed to any one film. Film scholar James Quandt, in his forward to the 2001 Cinematheque Ontario monograph Kon Ichikawa, describes the director as an “impediment to auteurist analysis” for two primary reasons. First, the diversity of his interests and breadth of his occasionally compromised filmography (he’s credited with directing over 80 films, many of them studio assignments); and second, “the formidable influence of his wife and scenarist, Natto Wada, whose withdrawal from writing his scripts in the mid-sixties marked a turning point in his career.” In the same introduction Quandt summarizes both the acerbic demeanor (the “black wit”) of many of their best films together, as well as Wada’s penchant for literary adaptations. “There is no question,” he writes, “that Ichikawa’s post-Wada films are markedly less sardonic,” noting that the process of “extricating Wada’s influence is one of many factors that makes ‘the case of Kon Ichikawa’ so confounding.”

One might add that their fifteen-plus years as creative partners were almost perfectly split between black comedies and equally dark dramas, the former significantly less known in the West. Rather than aim to reconcile the two periods (a task for a much larger essay), it may be worthwhile to simply investigate the most readily available materials, the films that by and large continue to define Ichikawa’s practice over a half-century later. For the purposes of analysis, we can roughly situate this era between The Heart (1955)––the first film of Ichikawa’s “mature” period, and one that Wada curiously did not script––and Tokyo Olympiad, a document of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and her final credit before retiring from screenwriting. This is the period during which Ichikawa would produce The Burmese Harp (1956), Conflagration (1958), Odd Obsession (1959), Fires on the Plain (1959), The Broken Commandment (1962), and An Actor’s Revenge (1963), among many less recognized titles.

What these films have in common, besides their literary origins and generally bleak perspective, is a sharply satirical tone, a quality running through both Ichikawa’s comedies and melodramas, and as such something that appears a distinct result of Wada’s vision. Thus, while the director’s subjects and characters don’t easily evince a female perspective or speak to generally accepted notions of femininity, there’s a certain sensibility––sometimes explicit, other times more difficult to gauge––at work in Ichikawa’s best films that one must grant to Wada’s presiding influence in order to gain full understanding of the director’s oeuvre, whether it’s in the aforementioned notes of satire and cynicism, or something less immediately perceptible, such as situational, social, or domestic designs within the narratives proper. Of their collaborations, Ichikawa’s Japanese New Wave–stoking 1956 classic Punishment Room offers a particularly rich case study in the pair’s working relationship and the extent of Wada’s impact.

Despite being an expert technician with an acute compositional eye––and further, an early experimenter with aspect ratios, lens filters, and theatrical staging strategies––Ichikawa is not as obvious a stylist as other major Japanese directors of the period. His images lack the monumentality of Kurosawa, the fluidity of Mizoguchi, and the rigor of Ozu. As philosophically divergent as they are, his closest counterparts may in fact be Mikio Naruse and Shohei Imamura, though he lacks similarly singular thematic concerns, instead working in a manner familiar to either or both (it’s no wonder Ichikawa has just as often been described as a humanist in the vein of former, as he has a cinematic entomologist to equal the latter). Indeed, nearly each film found Ichikawa trying new techniques, approaching previously unexplored subjects and accepting new challenges, which may account for the topical rather than formal recognition even his best-known films receive. It’s when we look closer at these themes and how they’re articulated in the dialogue and scenarios of Ichikawa’s films that Wada’s contributions begin to take on added weight. In Punishment Room, a film about youthful rebellion and the symptomatic sense of disaffection which spread swiftly through postwar Japan, these subjects were imbued with the topical energy of the period, an era of generational discontent that proved of great personal interest to Wada and Ichikawa, themselves young parents caught between the currents of the past and present.

By contrast, Odd Obsession, one of Ichikawa’s darkest, wryest films, presents its story of a sexually frustrated husband orchestrating an affair between his wife and future son-in-law with a comically incidental air, as if each party is not only privy to the other’s perversions but also secretly longing for the arrangement to develop/devolve into consented, familial consummation. In lieu of such hedonistic passion, Ichikawa and Wada offer a socially scathing climax, allowing a working class representative of the family’s twisted obsessions to administer deadly comeuppance. Inbred trauma likewise incites the wayward protagonist of Conflagration to set fire to a Buddhist temple at film’s end––similarly symbolic fates for members of troubled social castes. Compare these to The Heart, a quite beautiful work in its own right and another film about a family living with unarticulated guilt (but again, one not scripted by Wada), and the difference in disposition becomes apparent. The Heart concludes with an emotional, even devastating, admission from husband to wife, but there’s little dimension to the revelation beyond what’s inherent in the discourse and the ancillary effect it will have on the couple themselves.

Though Punishment Room represents what is likely the fatalistic extreme of the Ichikawa-Wada worldview, the brand of earnestness embodied by The Heart eventually won out in a number of films written by Wada as well, such as The Burmese Harp and The Broken Commandment, period pictures that foreground the humanism coursing through even the most bitter of their collaborations, and in which the social and political issues depicted offer key present day parallels. The former, an adaptation of Takeyama Michio’s 1946 novel of the same name, follows an increasingly disillusioned World War II soldier who, in the wake of Japan’s surrender, assumes the role of a monk and proceeds to bury the bodies of his dead comrades. There’s a distinct lack of cynicism in Ichikawa and Wada’s representation of the soldier, which stands in direct opposition to, say, the caustic defiance which propels the protagonist of Fires on the Plain, a very different sort of antiwar film which translated Shōhei Ōoka’s 1951 novel into a brutal yet strangely comedic portrayal of ideological sanctity. The Broken Commandment, made toward the end of Ichikawa and Wada’s partnership, centers on a young grade-school teacher also living under false pretenses. As a member of the socially outcast burakumin class, the man, if discovered, risks being removed from his job and banished from the community he’s attempting to nurture.

This simultaneously specific and crosscultural attention to the perseverance of the human spirit seems to be what drove Wada in her choice of source material. That she would even attempt to locate such elusive bits of humanity in texts as acidic as those which inspired Punishment Room or Odd Obsession speaks at once to her understanding of a maturating postwar cinematic consciousness and her keen awareness of its capacity to reflect contemporary social temperaments. In an essay by Audie Bock included in the aforementioned Ichikawa monograph, he cites Wada’s disenchantment with the overriding misanthropy of Japanese cinema in the mid-sixties, then at the height of its progressive yet unflaggingly pessimistic New Wave movement, as perhaps the cause of her withdrawal from screenwriting. “She doesn’t like the new film grammar, the method of presentation of the material,” Bock quotes Ichikawa as saying. “She says there’s no heart in it anymore, that people no longer take human love seriously.” Thanks to her husband, Wada’s humanization of dark social themes took on a variety of forms over the years, but it’s ironic that the cynicism that they together helped usher in would be the very same attitude that would, ultimately, wither their own creative morale. “That [Wada] was responsible for many of the excellent qualities of Ichikawa’s films,” writes Donald Richie in his 2001 book A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, “is evident in a certain decline in their quality after her death.” Indeed, few screenwriters seem to have yielded such a lasting effect on two dovetailing eras of cinema.

Few of Wada’s own words survive—at least in English—but a number of key insights into her process are thankfully preserved in an essay she wrote in 1956 (published in 1962 and also available in the Cinematheque Ontario collection) in response to an addition she made to her and Keiji Hasebe’s script for Punishment Room, which was an otherwise faithful adaptation of Shintaro Ishihara’s controversial novel Season of the Sun. The book––one of the first popular pieces of taiyozoku (“Sun Tribe”) literature, a subgenre that dealt with the rebellion of postwar Japanese youth––Wada explains, provided a shocking realization for many of her generation not privy to the escalating manifestations of sexuality and violence against authority in youth culture. Released the same year as Kō Nakahira’s seminal Crazed Fruit (which sports a screenplay by Ishihara himself, adapted from his novel of the same name), the film charts the casually nihilistic lifestyle of a young university student named Katsumi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), whose rebellious acts range from physically harassing his teachers to intimidating strangers who just happen to cross his path. The drama hinges on Katsumi’s premeditated rape of his classmate, Akiko (Ayako Wakao), whom he eventually drugs and victimizes. The morally unambiguous nature of this situation is then complicated by Akiko’s growing attraction to—and professed love of—Katsumi, whose defiant attitude she finds alluring. With Ichikawa’s stark and unsentimental treatment of these events and Katsumi’s inevitable recompense, the film is suitably provocative and pessimistic, even compared to the director’s other work during this period.

In light of Punishment Room’s subject matter, Wada’s addition of a maternal figure to Ishihara’s story seems rather uncontroversial, though it reportedly raised objections on behalf of those invested in the novel. In her own words, Wada’s intention in adapting Ishihara’s book was to “understand these young men, as a woman and as a mother.” In that respect, giving Katsumi a mother is an understandable act of representation for both Wada and, by extension, an audience of women who might otherwise feel alienated by this largely testosterone-fueled film. But there’s an additional, perhaps more important, reasoning at work here. The Confucian philosophy of filial piety is a foundational cultural concept in Japan, one which taiyozoku art and entertainment directly attempted to rebuke. Because Wada added a second parent and additional figure of sympathy to the proceedings, Katsumi’s actions take on an additional dimension of critique, as acts potentially fostered by social sedition as much as they are familial subjugation.

In “A Taiyozoku Masterwork: Punishment Room,” one of Japanese film historian Tadao Sato’s many contributions to Quandt’s monograph, he describes how Wada and Hasebe “stress the antagonism of the students toward their parents by emphasizing the portrayals of the vulgar teacher and the weak, ineffectual parents, so that the film makes rebellion credible.” He then goes on to note (emphasis mine) how such generational and social delineations facilitate the film’s two-fold capacity for both empathy and evaluation: “In contrast to the original story, which glorifies the youths’ irritation with and rejection of the impoverishment and cowardice of contemporary society, the film also powerfully shows the pain of those under critique. This complexity is its primary strength.”

It’s in such a deceptively minor gesture that Wada’s primary contributions can be most deeply felt across Ichikawa’s expansive oeuvre (even in a film as stylistically anomalous as the fantastical An Actor’s Revenge, extra-cinematic references to then-current and historical atrocities work to shade the day-glo theatricality). As one final point of reference, one might consider the director’s best known post-Wada film, The Makioka Sisters (1983), a rather lovely adaptation of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel that nonetheless feels notably less substantial––not to mention less subversive––than much of what preceded. In fact, the director is said to have consulted an ailing Wada, who would pass away soon after the film was completed, regarding the script’s ending, and the noticeably crestfallen tone of the entire production can feel at times inextricable from the couple’s own imminent reckoning.

Ichikawa spoke many times over the years of Wada’s input and their combined working method, which saw them collaborate in nearly every aspect of the research and development process, with Wada finally tasked with writing up the actual screenplay, an arrangement which seems to have suited the sensibilities of each but which may indirectly account for the authorial imbalance of their prescribed legacy. In the end, however, it may be a single remark Ichikawa made to Donald Richie, quoted in his profile of the director from the spring 1996 issue of Sight & Sound, that most simply and definitively outlines Wada’s enduring impact on her husband’s career: “Her influence is absolutely crucial,” he offers matter-of-factly. “Without her there wouldn’t be any Ichikawa film.”