The Kobayashi/Abe “Thick-Walled Room”

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All four films on the Criterion set of Kobayashi movies (Against the System) are very critical of Japanese conduct, during and after the Pacific War (WWII). Though drawn by Abe Kôbô from diaries of enlisted men imprisoned as war criminals, “The Thick-Walled Room” (Kabe atsuya heya) is quite clear that the central character, Kawanishi (Kinzo Shin), killed a civilian (Indonesian). The officer who ordered him to do so testified against him at the trial and is prospering out of prison in postwar Japan. The viewpoint of the film is very much that “conglomerates, the military and their minions that started the war” were responsible and that those responsible for the war and for the many atrocities committed mostly went unpunished, while ordinary soldiers were scapegoats. (There is a scene in which a general who was convicted of war crimes proclaims himself a “political prisoner” and disparages the soldiers convicted of committing war crimes as “common criminals.” And at least some of them seem to accept this condemnation of what they did under duress.)

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“The Thick-Walled Room” was set in 1949, in the US-run Sugamo Prison, though the Americans (who mostly don’t sound American to me!) are not particularly venal and are not the main object of criticism. (There are also flashbacks of captured American flyers being beaten and killed by Japanese soldiers.) Though the US Occupation had ended when the movie was in Kobayashi’s opinion ready for release in 1953, it was held back by the studio (Shochiku) for another four years to avoid riling the conquerors — although I’m sure that its criticism of the Japanese political and military elite also scared studio officials and was probably more central to the decision to hold back release of the movie. The studio, Shochiku, demoted Kobayashi, who sought and received protection from his mentor, Kinoshita Keisuke and made a few blander movies before returning to ones critical of Japanese conduct and mores.

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The film has some hallucinatory dream-memories, prefiguring both “Kwaidan” and “The Human Condition” (and Abe-written Teshigahara movies). Though not as harrowing as “The Human Condition” and “Harakiri” and having something of an upbeat ending, “The Thick-Walled Room” is pretty grim social criticism. A formula is suggested by Yokota (Mishima Ko), who leaked Kawanishi’s story to Yokota’s brother who wrote it up in a left-wing publication: “Prison isn’t a place to drive the sins out of humanity. It drives the humanity out of sinners.”

(Much later, in 1983, Kobayashi made a 277-minute documentary about the trials of higher-ups, “Tokyo Trial.”)

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

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