Times Staff Writer

How gratifying it is to be able to say that Kon Ichikawa's "Ohan" (at the Kokusai) is one of the finest films of his distinguished but often difficult career.

In recent years his darkly comic sensibility had been restricted to witty Gothic horror and detective pictures, but then the director of "The Burmese Harp" (which he is to remake), "Conflagration" and "An Actor's Revenge" made a triumphant return to major films with "The Makioka Sisters." "Ohan" now consolidates his comeback as he nears 70.

With "Ohan," Ichikawa gives a perverse twist to a favorite world of the great film maker Kenji Mizoguchi, that of the exquisite but exploited Kyoto geisha. "Ohan" is even set in Mizoguchi's favorite period, the Meiji, and is ravishing to behold. The twist is that it's the wife who's jilted, rather than the geisha.

So dutiful is the demure Ohan (Sayuri Yoshinaga) that when her husband Kokichi (Koji Ishizaka) leaves her for the glamorous, ambitious Okayo (Reiko Ohara), she doesn't tell him that she's pregnant but divorces him at her mother's insistence. Their paths don't cross for seven years, but when they do the mutual attraction is so strong that they instantly become lovers, their clandestine meetings only heightening their renewed ecstasy.

Ichikawa has lots more on his mind, however, than sly eroticism. Although "Ohan" is based on a novel by a woman, Chiyo Uno, who spent 10 years (1946-56) writing it, the film is clearly the work of a mature man contemplating--savoring even--the eternal mystery of women with the profound sense of life's absurdity that characterizes virtually all of his work.

As "Ohan" progresses from dark comedy to tragedy, then on to exaltation and reconciliation, both Ohan and Okayo disclose new and surprising facets of their characters and personalities. Ohan seems passive to the point of contemptible ridiculousness, only to reveal the awesome strength of her martyrdom; every slight and turn of fate furthers her along the path to a kind of maddeningly smiling sainthood. Okayo, on the other hand, proves not so hard a woman as we had imagined.

Gradually it becomes clear that both these seemingly very different but similarly strong women love the very ordinary, decidedly weak Kokichi so much because they're able to make of him what they will; he is the common clay of their fondest fantasies.

Ichikawa draws from Yoshinaga and Ohara the kind of complex portrayals, at once amusing and touching, that we associate with George Cukor. There are two other wonderful performances from women--the veteran Chocho Miyako as Kokichi's sweet, bemused confidante and Michi Kagawa as Okayo's niece, a curious, ingenuous country girl who submits to a geisha's rigorous training. A stylish work of the utmost ambiguity and irony--it's quite conceivable that a second viewing might yield a whole new set of meanings--"Ohan" (Times-rated mature for adult themes) is a constantly unpredictable pleasure.

'OHAN' A Toho release of a Toho Eiga production. Director Kon Ichikawa. Screenplay Ichikawa, Shinya Hidaka; based on the novel by Chiyo Uno. Camera Yukio Igarashi. Music Shinnosuke Okawa, Tomiko Asakawa. Art direction Shinobu Muraki. With Sayuri Yoshinaga, Reiko Ohara, Koji Ishizaka, Chocho Miyako, Wataru Hasegawa, Michi Kagawa. In Japanese, with English subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.

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