Kobayashi Against the System

“Seppuku” (known here as “Harakiri” (1962) and the “Human Condition” trilogy (1959-61, based on Kobayashi Masaki’s wartime incarceration in a Manchurian forced labor camp) are among the most harrowing films I’ve seen, carried by superlative-deserving performances by Nakadai Tatsuya (who went on to play the central role in the last two great Kurosawa films, “Kagemusha” and “Ran”). Nakadai also appeared, as unsavory characters rather than heroes, in three of the Kobayashi movies in the Criterion Eclipse (without bonus feature) set “Masaki Kobayashi Against the System,” as well as in Kobayashi’s best-known one, the 1964 ghost story “Kwaidan,” the only one I’ve seen not under Criterion auspices, and in “Samurai Rebellion” (1967).

All four films on the Criterion set of “Kobayashi Against the System” movies are very critical of Japanese conduct, during and after the Pacific War (WWII). I’ve already posted on the early (1952) suppressed (until 1956) “The Thick-Walled Room,” dealing with some low-level accused war criminals.

Long before “Moneyball,” Kobayashi made a “baseball movie” with hardly any baseball on display, “I Will Buy You,” focusing on finding and assessing talent. Kobayashi’s 1956 movie was considerably more cynical, focusing on greed.


The protagonist is a struggling scout Kishimoto Daisuke (Kinoshita regular Sada Keiji). He goes to sign a promising pitcher (with a very greedy family), only to find that the man has lost a finger in an industrial accident. He moves on to a college star, Kurita Goro (Ooki Minoru) who is being pursued by many teams. I don’t think it needed nearly two hours to make the points about greed and mendacity, though the revelation of Kurita’s decision is edited with great panache.


Black River” (Kuroi kawa, 1957) is especially notable for making Nakadai Tatsuya a star. He plays “Joe,” a surly and sadistic gangster (yakusa) who rapes the heroine, Shiziko (Ineko Arima, fresh from Ozu’s “Tokyo Twilight”) after an elaborate seduction plot involving his saving her from being raped fails.

The lanky young Nakadai is also involved in scheming with the landlady of a ramshackle boarding-house (called “White Pig,” played by Yamada Ishizu, fresh from her Lady Macbeth turn in Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” outfitted with hideous dentures) where Shiziko (Ineko Arima, fresh from Ozu’s “Tokyo Twilight”) and her earnest student suitor Nishida (Watanabe Fumio, who would appear in the middle “Human Condition” film (“Road to Eternity”) and would later play the second lead in Ôshima’s “Death by Hanging”) live to evict the tenants and demolish the building, so that a “love motel” for US soldiers at the nearby military base (the Naval Air Station at Sugi) can be serviced.

Nishida is pure of heart, but pretty much everyone else is sordid (Shiziko unbalanced by her rape), very much reminiscent of Kurosawa’s version of “The Lower Depths” (though that was shot at the same time and could not have influenced “Black River” and it was made four years before Imamura’s “Pigs and Battleships,” another indictment of Japanese cravenness to the occupiers). BTW other than a drunken black GI hitting on a dance-hall “girl,” and a US military truck, the Americans whom the Japanese are servicing do not appear in the film. Again, as in “The Thick-Walled Room,” it is far less the US occupation than the venality of Japanese (from the government to the very marginal residents of the boarding house) that Kobayashi was criticizing in “Black River.” As the late and much-lamented Donald Richie wrote, “The villain was not America for having camps in Japan but the Japanese social system, which permitted such lawless behavior to go unpunished.”



After the “Human Condition” trilogy, Nakadai was back, albeit in a much less flamboyant part in “The Inheritance” (Karami-ai, 1962), as one of those intriguing to commandeer the estate of a rather nasty dying tycoon, Senzo (Yamamura So) who has no legitimate children, a scheming youngish wife (Satoe, played by Watanabe Misako), a scheming secretary (Yasuko played very effectively by Kishi Keiko) who is his last sexual partner, and had three unacknowledged (born out of wedlock) children. Furukawa (Nakadai) finds a daughter working as a nude model in a shop that provides models for amateur pornographers (prefiguring the banality of porn-making in Imamura’s “The Pornographers”). This time, the only really sympathetic character is a twelve-year old girl who is being advanced as a daughter of Senzo (but is really the love child of his wife and Senzo’s lawyer, played by Hamamura Hun). She does not know she is party to a fraud. The cynical secretary Yasuko is not unsympathetic, but other than suffering from terminal cancer Senzo is as nasty a piece of work as any of those scheming to get his estate. A noirish look at greed, I see it as at least partially a black comedy in which pretenders to the fortune are knocked out (but not killed as in, for instance, “Kind Hearts and Coronets”… or “Richard III”).


All four films are in black and white. Only “Black River” was shot in a 2.40:1 aspect. It also has a jazzy soundtrack that does not sound like the more famous (later) ones by Takemitsu Toru. Had I not been paying attention during the opening credits, I’d not have guessed this.

The liner notes by Michael Koresky on each movie’s box’s inside cover (and online at the Criterion website) are helpful in orienting viewers… and the only bonus feature, this being an Eclipse box. The most recent of the four films, “The Inheritance,” looks the best and is also the most visually diverse one. The print used for the transfer of “The Thick-Walled Room” is noticeably inferior to it.

I think all four films are essential for those interested in postwar Japanese culture in general, cinema in particular. They are not as great as the “Human Conditions” trilogy and “Harakiri,” but not many movies are! And Kobayashi is definitely one of the essential filmmakers ever and from anywhere. I hope Criterion will undertake making Kobayashi’s late-career four-and-a-half-hour documentary “Tokyo Trial” (1983) available, but am grateful to Criterion for the Kobayashi discs they have done.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


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