Eclipse Series 38: Kobayashi Against the System



Among all the important directors who emerged in Japan just after World War II, Masaki Kobayashi would distinguish himself as the most aggressively social-minded. He used cinema to speak eloquently against rigid and corrupt systems that denied or abused individual rights, and to indict a status quo that allowed amorality and venality to flourish. His three-part magnum opus, The Human Condition (1959–61)—an existential portrait of one man’s efforts to maintain his integrity in a rotten world, and a condemnation of the machine in which he is ultimately little more than a cog—marked the high point of the period early in his career when he began to grapple with these difficult themes, in a string of arresting, socially committed films set in contemporary Japan, none of the rest of which are widely known today. With these films, produced between 1953 and 1962, Kobayashi tried to make sense of a postwar nation that he believed had lost its bearings, and in the process became a mature morally and politically engaged cinematic artist.

Having studied philosophy and art history at Tokyo’s Waseda University, Kobayashi turned his attention to film after graduating in 1941, and got an assistant director position at Shochiku studios. Only eight months later, however, he was drafted into military service. While stationed in Manchuria and the Ryukyu Islands, the left-leaning, pacifist Kobayashi remained opposed to the actions of the Imperial Army, even declining to ascend past the rank of private when his superiors wanted to promote him. Deeply affected by his experiences in a war he would later call “the culmination of human evil,” he returned to Shochiku driven to express his dissent on-screen. First, though, he assisted on his mentor Keisuke Kinoshita’s middle-class comedies and domestic dramas, exemplars of the studio’s preferred style at the time and which influenced the largely apolitical content of his own first films, My Sons’ Youth (1952) and Sincerity (1953).

Kobayashi’s third film, The Thick-Walled Room, completed in 1953, was a different story. It demonstrated the seriousness of the filmmaker’s intent, and it was among the first films in Japan to deal openly with the nation’s wartime legacy. It concerns a group of B and C (second- and third-tier) war criminals—rank-and-file military men who acted on orders—who have been imprisoned and treated cruelly by members of the American occupying force, though their superiors have gone unpunished. The film, based on the diaries of real-life prisoners, treats the low-ranking soldiers not as innocents but as dupes of a system that will not assume responsibility for its actions. Rather than take a broad historical approach, Kobayashi turns this raw material into intimate drama, his immediate, exquisitely composed black-and-white images evoking his characters’ psychological anguish; meanwhile, the shadowy prison in which they’re held is effectively filmed as a looming character in itself.

Though the American occupation had ended in 1952, the Japanese government feared that The Thick-Walled Room’s incendiary content would offend the U.S. and demanded that Shochiku either cut or withhold it. Kobayashi was unwilling to trim the film, so it was shelved until 1956.



The controversy surrounding The Thick-Walled Room didn’t do much to ingratiate Masaki Kobayashi with Shochiku head Shiro Kido. For decades, Kido had fostered a specific house style in shomin-geki (contemporary stories of everyday life)—lyrical films about love and family directed by such auteurs as Yasujiro Ozu and Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi’s mentor. After The Thick-Walled Room was shelved in 1953, Kobayashi went back to this gentler mode of filmmaking, coming out with several sentimental films, including Three Loves (1954), Somewhere Under the Wide Sky (1954), Beautiful Days (1955), and The Spring (1956), works that in their affirmation of small-town values recalled Kinoshita’s megahit Twenty-four Eyes (1954), which regarded loneliness, war, and death from the perspective of a deeply moral schoolteacher. Kido was impressed by Kobayashi’s output, and the director eventually felt that he had enough support to set out again for the angrier, more political territory that was closest to his heart.

I Will Buy You (1956) was Kobayashi’s first step back in that direction. The subject matter—the machinations behind the scenes of professional baseball in Japan—may not initially seem particularly inflammatory. But this is hardly the kind of sports movie that we’ve become accustomed to in the West, with epic triumphs and last-minute redemptions, or even the kind that Japanese audiences were used to—the long popular supotsu-mono genre generally focused on disciplines like judo and karate. The suspense in this deliberately paced, scathing examination of the greed that drives the sports world is predicated not on how many home runs its star player will hit but on how much of his and his handlers’ souls will be lost in the process.

Baseball had been Japan’s favorite sport for decades by the time the film was released. Kobayashi fully intended to shock viewers with his takedown of the beloved institution. (The outrage his treatment of the subject conveys may seem quaint today, when we’re more cynical about sports’ corporate interests.) Adapted from a Minoru Ono novel, the film is told from the perspective of and narrated by Kishimoto (Keiji Sada), a ruthless scout hot to sign the up-and-coming college player Kurita (Minoru Ooki) to the major-league Toyo Flowers. Kurita, also being courted by the Handen Lilies, proves to be a tough sell, however, as the scout must appeal not only to him, his poor rural family outside Osaka, and his skeptical girlfriend, Fueko (Keiko Kishi), but also to his tough-minded and avaricious mentor, Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito), who acts as much out of slimy self-interest as Kishimoto does.

There’s little sports-film catharsis in I Will Buy You—and relatively little baseball. Most of the interactions are pitched like boardroom negotiations, shot by Kobayashi with clinical detachment and often in ominous shadow. The world Kobayashi depicts may be a hollow one (notwithstanding Kishimoto’s climactic crisis of conscience, when he states, “It is our job to be ruthless and unaccountable . . . Because we see people like Kurita not as players but as commodities”), but there’s an exhilaration to the film’s truth-seeking. In bearing witness as he saw his country losing its moral way, Kobayashi also demonstrated how trying times can serve as a crucible for art.



Black River (1956) kicks off with a jazzy, atonal score by Chuji Kinoshita over its opening credits, which are accompanied by Saul Bass–esque images of newspaper cutouts in irregular geometric shapes. This up-tempo intro promises a new dimension to the grim universe of Masaki Kobayashi’s morality tales; despite the film’s righteous anger, there is an entertaining looseness to it, a free-form technical bravado that sets it apart from the more static I Will Buy You, from earlier the same year. In place of that film’s chiaroscuro images representing the dark souls of its characters, Kobayashi here offers precisely composed, teeming canvases (prefiguring Shohei Imamura’s work in the even more chaotic and similarly themed 1962 film Pigs and Battleships). The Western inflection of the music is also appropriate to Black River’s narrative concerns: synthesizing noir-tinged crime melodrama with an indictment of the amoral behavior that was thriving around U.S. military bases in Japan following World War II, the film examines the influence of American culture on Japan.

Among the first images is one of a caravan of U.S. military trucks kicking up dust as it plows through a neighborhood near the gates of the Atsugi naval air base. It’s a place falling into disrepair, littered with bars bearing such Western monikers as Black Cat and Wonderland, and populated by shiftless men and weary women who have been co-opted into a thriving prostitution trade. The first dialogue we hear is in English, two American military policemen getting fresh with some local girls in a bar, before chasing down a suspected black marketeer. Despite this pointed beginning, Kobayashi’s film has less to say about the American forces than the country they occupy; as Donald Richie has written about Black River, “The villain was not America for having camps in Japan but the Japanese social system, which permitted such lawless behavior to go unpunished.”

Kobayashi demonstrates his growing cinematic ambition by deftly juggling the personal stories of multiple characters throughout Black River. Most prominent is a love triangle involving the wide-eyed bookseller Nishida (Fumio Watanabe), the local girl Shizuko (Ineko Arima), and a young yakuza kingpin in sunglasses, Killer Joe (a dashing, fresh-faced Tatsuya Nakadai). Meanwhile, Joe is hatching a plan with the unscrupulous landlady of a slumlike apartment building (Throne of Blood’s Isuzu Yamada), into which Nishida has just moved, to displace her residents and install a bathhouse. This provokes the mistreated tenants—who include a tubercular man and a good-natured husband whose wife is prostituting herself behind his back—to halfheartedly unite in protest and fight for their rights, which all comes to naught, perhaps the film’s ultimate expression of defeat.

Of all Black River’s compromised characters, Yamada’s landlady, twisted of soul and tooth (the actress is fitted with gnarled, rotten dentures), is perhaps the most representative of the film’s philosophy—she is someone whose dissolution has found a welcome outlet in a world gone badly awry following the Western invasion. In one scene, while she plots with Joe, Kobayashi frames her in front of a poster of an American cowboy, his guns aimed out at the audience; in this thoroughly corroded milieu, even we are implicated.



From 1959 to 1961, the three parts of Masaki Kobayashi’s greatest undertaking, The Human Condition, were released. A project Shochiku had refused to produce until the director threatened to quit, this mammoth expression of Kobayashi’s left-wing humanism, unsparing in its assessment of the actions of the Imperial Army during World War II, was thought by some to be scandalously anti-Japanese and earned its director a reputation in the industry as the filmmaker least likely to take prisoners.

For his follow-up to The Human Condition, Kobayashi turned to an intimate, character-driven story. As superficially different as the family-scandal melodrama The Inheritance (1962) may be from that nine-and-a-half-hour epic, it shares its moral sensibility. Whereas The Human Condition’s expressive use of its 2.35:1 frame seems to take in the whole, wide, wicked world, The Inheritance employs its 2.40:1 aspect ratio to peer into dark, shadowy corners inhabited by a few contentious people. Shot mostly in interiors, the film charts the quiet chaos that erupts after a dying businessman (So Yamamura) announces that the lion’s share of his fortune is to be divided among his illegitimate children, with only a small portion going to his much younger spouse (Misako Watanabe). The catch is that his offspring, who are unknown to his wife, associates, and lawyers, must be tracked down. This sparks a host of betrayals, as well as the ingenuity of the man’s seemingly passive secretary, Yasuko (Keiko Kishi).

The most destructive force in The Inheritance, as in I Will Buy You (1956), is the pursuit of riches. This is Kobayashi’s first drama set in an exclusively bourgeois milieu, and its visual condemnation of materialism is especially pronounced. From the opening sequence, in which Yasuko window-shops, glittering jewelry, handbags, and shoes catching her eye (a jarring juxtaposition with the closing images of Kobayashi’s previous film, of a man freezing to death in a vast wilderness snowstorm), it’s clear that the director is pointing an accusing finger at an unapologetically greed-driven capitalist society. Despite the anger of its message, however, the film floats along on sultry waves, thanks to Toru Takemitsu’s jazzy score (the first of several collaborations with Kobayashi) and the sensuality of its every expansive, black-and-white frame.

Later that year, Kobayashi would shoot Harakiri, a widely acclaimed samurai picture that began a string of films set in Japan’s past and ended the run of contemporary dramas that had established the filmmaker’s voice in the immediate postwar period. Although this was a conscious move away from realism on his part, Kobayashi was still commenting on contemporary truths. In his words, Harakiri is about “authoritarian pressure that smothered individuals”; his ghost story collection Kwaidan (1965) is about “the spiritual importance of human life”; and Samurai Rebellion (1967) is about “the relationship of an individual’s consciousness to his setting.” Kobayashi would continue to examine social realities for the rest of his working life; near the end of his career, his four-and-a-half-hour documentary Tokyo Trial (1983), about the international tribunal that tried the leaders of the Empire of Japan for war crimes, returned him to the themes of The Thick-Walled Room, that first expression of his political engagement thirty years before.

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