Masaki Kobayashi rose to prominence directing films that exposed and criticized the failings of Japan and its power structures during and immediately following World War II. His great three-part war epic The Human Condition (1961) details the moral trials and gradual dissolution of a soldier and administrator in Manchuria. Criterion is following up their superb box set of this film with a collection of Kobayashi’s work from the same period, via their Eclipse line, called Masaki Kobayashi Against the System. The four movies included chart Kobayashi’s growth as a filmmaker while revealing some of the faults of the cynical yet earnest approach of his early efforts.
Kobayashi worked for Shochiku studios, known for producing modest and understated family melodramas and comedies. Though he fought with the studio by breaking out of their mold and creating the types of movies he and not they wanted to make, he always maintained a commitment to realism that was important to the studio.
But this was a hardened ‘50s noir realism, of a type that was being adopted by filmmakers around the world to depict postwar life. One can see it in Elia Kazan, The Third Man, the Italian Neorealists, British kitchen sink dramas, and cynical comedy-dramas like The Sweet Smell of Success. These movies use real locations and can be grimy and fragile with a modesty (often due to meager postwar financing) that seems to sneer at the epic excesses of the war they left behind. Oftentimes there is a creative tension between wanting to capture a documentary sense of reality and the expressionist visuals used to capture the characters’ psychological reality.
The Thick-Walled Room (1956)
Kobayashi’s movies share with the above films a strong sense of a person and a society trying to work through some heavy trauma. His first breakthrough film, The Thick-Walled Room (completed in 1953, but it’s release was delayed until 1956) is remarkable as a rebellious outcry against Japan’s war leaders. The script is “based on the writings of B- and C- class war criminals” and focuses on a group of cellmates in a prison overseen by American occupation forces.
As revealed through a series of at times abstract flashbacks, the soldiers were imprisoned for crimes that they were forced to commit by their superiors, who have gone unpunished. These flashbacks pull the narrative outside the prison into the wider world, using the prisoners’ stories to show the wartime experiences of confused, desperate peoples across a wide swathe of Eastern Asia. These portrayals of the complicated national and ethnic power dynamics of war make it a clear progenitor to Kobayashi’s ambitions with The Human Condition.
Though a bit uneven in its pacing and with some technical imperfections, The Thick-Walled Room has a tremendous power that increases as the film progresses; there is a pervasive sense of terror and vulnerability, which climaxes when Yamashita (Torahiko Hamada), released for one day to attend his mother’s funeral, threatens to murder his old commanding officer. Japan appears to be almost totally destitute and beat up, the prisoners can be seen as stand-ins for Japanese society at large, paying for the sins of their leaders, at the whim of the American victors. A village girl turned Tokyo prostitute succinctly says, “The war drove everyone insane. We’re still insane, you know?”
I Will Buy You (1956)
It would be several years before Kobayashi was allowed to direct another personal picture. I Will Buy You (1956), as the grip-you-by-the-throat title implies, attacks the emergence of cutthroat capitalism in postwar life, specifically within professional baseball. The anti-hero is the slick, young, ambitious talent scout Daisuke Kishimoto (Keiji Sada). We first see him chasing down an ace pitcher. But when he finds out he has lost a finger in a mining accident, we never hear about the pitcher again. Daisuke turns his attention to Goro Kurita (Minoru Ooki), a seemingly innocent college player who reveals a sharp streak once a bidding war breaks out between the major pro teams.
Kobayashi depicts a world where everyone – coaches, wives, blood relatives, country farmers – are out to use each other for the most gain. It opens and closes with chirpy depictions of a wholesome baseball game then fills out the middle with gambling, horse racing, sumo wrestling, and dogfights. There is perpetual talk of money and a constant threat of violence, Kobayashi films cars passing by like they’re about to mow down pedestrians. When someone criticizes Daisuke he exclaims, “But it’s my profession. I can’t stop.”
This movie is overtly cynical, but there is a thing as too much cynicism and too often the temptation when taking this kind of approach is to offer redemption through an equally exaggerated wide-eyed moral purity. Daisuke undergoes a moral awakening prompted by Kurita’s heart-of-gold sweetheart. But it is not very convincing and frankly not as fun as the maneuverings of the agents.
Black River (1956)
Black River (1956) is undoubtedly the standout of this set and what I would consider Kobayashi’s first great film. It appropriates noir stylizations, and has a fierce tightness in its pacing, framings, and script that are lacking in the other films. Set in a sleazy bars and brothel community on the outskirts of a U.S. military base, it captures a unique milieu and moment in history as it was unfolding.
As in The Thick-Walled Room, the Americans are an anonymous, bullying presence on the periphery of the characters’ lives. The Japan portrayed here has been brought to a low point of postwar poverty, self-destructive with a petty criminal-minded approach to survival. But Kobayashi gives all of the characters a degree of humanity that exceeds their cynicism. The two leads (Ineko Arima and Fumio Watanabe) are innocent lovers (at times too pure) resisting the criminal rackets of their squalid home. But the standout characters are the two villains, a small-time pimp named “Killer Joe” (Tatsuya Nakadai in his breakout role) and shantytown landlady (Isuzu Yamada) who conspire together. Though evil in their actions, the actors have a wonderful ability to capture the desperate amateurs trembling underneath their characters’ showy facades.
The Inheritance (1962)
The Inheritance (1962), the final movie in this set, was released after the Human Condition. It’s notable as a placeholder before Kobayashi directed a series of samurai and historical dramas in the ‘60s (Harakiri, Kwaidan, Samurai Rebellion) for which he is perhaps best known.
The Inheritance takes place in a world of rapidly accumulating wealth, opening with the main character Yasuko Miyagawa (Keiko Kishi) window shopping for jewelry. The movie is told through a long flashback. At a fashionable restaurant Yasuko tells a lawyer of how she, as secretary, managed to inherit the riches of her wealthy boss over the machinations of his wife, business associates, and illegitimately conceived children.
The story of how she does it sounds more interesting than its portrayal, which is a bit lead-footed despite some jazzy stylizations and the wicked cattiness of the main characters. Here Kobayashi allows his air of cynicism to acquire an element of (seemingly intentional) camp. But humor was never his strong suit, and he’s not able to bring off the brisk verve required to make the wicked satire snap. The film is most interesting in how Kobayashi portrays this world of riches, which seems to have been created by the main characters embracing shallow materialism as a way to escape the poverty and psychological stress of the ‘50s portrayed in his earlier films.
In Black River and The Thick-Walled Room, Kobayashi offers a more nuanced and hopeful promise for Japanese society. In the final shot of Room the prisoners are shown walking down the hallway of their prison together; in Black River the tenants of the landlady’s building fight back against its destruction. Neither movie offers anything like a confident vote for humanity, but in showing how a group of people can band together to try and form a just and compassionate community, there lies a sense of hope stronger than any surface cynicism.