Tag Archives: Kobayashi

The Hearn/Kobayashi/folklore “Kwaidan”/”Kaidan”

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Kwaidan” (1964—the “w” is silent) may be the first Japanese film I ever saw (the also popping colors of “Gate of Hell” is the other possibility). There is no possibility that I saw the full 183-minute version. It would have been either the 161-minute cut or one with the second of the four tales excised. Kobayashi Masaki cut 22 minutes hoping that Cannes would stretch its two-hour running-time rule to show it. Perhaps the second rather than the fourth episode was then cut because it is the longer of the two (though, IMHO much better).

Over the course of subsequent decades I have seen fifteen other films made by Kobayashi Masaki (1916-96), who is a member of my pantheon of Japanese film directors. Fourteen of these were black-and-white movies, thirteen made before “Kaidan.” None of them strikes me as being as slow-moving as “Kaidan” is, and none is as beautiful. The movie was entirely shot in a Kyoto airplane-hanger turned into a studio with painted backdrops. “Stylized”? For sure: very, very stylized, especially “Hoichi, the Earless,” the third and longest episode, which includes paintings of the culminating Dan-no-ura 1185 battle of the Genpei War.

To me, the restored images of the first and fourth episodes look a bit overexposed, and the pace in all four is slow even for Japanese historical movies. Or ghost stories. “Kai” means uncanny, a wider term than “ghost” (“dan” is an oral story). I think “The Black Hair” could have been shown in half the time, and don’t see that “Cup of Tea” needed to be included. The first is obvious/predictable. The last has suspense in that even after it one does not know how the story ends.

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I liked the middle two better. “Woman of the Snow” (or “Snow Maiden”) looks gorgeous, though the predominant color is the white of snow. In the former, the woodcutters Minokichi and Mosaku are caught in a blizzard. When they come to the river, the ferry boat is on the other side of the river. They take refuge in the ferryman’s hut (which must be as cold as outdoors, though the roof catches the snow). Minokichi (Nakadai Tatsuya, whom Kobayashi had made a star in “The Human Condition” trilogy and “Harakiri”) wakes up to see a woman (Kishi Keiko) petrifying his older companion with killer breath. She then comes over to him and decides to let him live, so long as he promises never to tall anyone what he saw, not even his mother. He keeps his promise past his mother’s death. Somehow he does not recognize that the stranger who becomes his wife and mother to their three children is the same woman (phantom). Eventually he tells her about his experience in the ferryman’s hut. She is furious, but spares him again, to raise their children.

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Hoichi, the Earless” is blind but has ears at the start. Hoishi Nakamura Katsuo) is new to a Buddhist monastery, but is an accomplished biwa player who recites from the Tale of the Heike. He is commandeered by the ghost of a Heike warrior (Tamba Tetsurô) to sing the song of the clan’s destruction for a gathering of the ghosts of the Heike court. Not being able to see, Hoichi does not see anything amiss. Eventually, the abbot of the monastery (Shimura Takashi) realizes Hoichi has been subordinated to a ghost and writes the heart sutra on Hoichi’s face and body, neglecting the ears. They are all the warrior sees and he takes them back to explain his failure to return with the biwa player. Alive, if earless, Hoichi becomes famous and people from all around come to hear him, eventually including the dead Heike (earlier, he went to their graves, where they materialized from the tombstones).

Takemitsu Toru provided some interesting sounds, though there are many scenes in which the lack of any musical backdrop is noticeable.

I’m not into “ghost stories” or “horror movies,” but there are Japanese ones I like better (Onibaba, Ugetsu, Ringu, Kuronekô,Yotsuda the Phantom). Beautiful images are not enough for me. Moreover, I don’t see anything that makes the four stories cohere into anything, that is, why it is an entiry (a movie) rather than 4 stories with very stylized, colorful stories. The aesthetics are the same, the ethics similarly cloudy, but I don’t see a unity (I’ve already complained about the slow flow)… or a point

 

The Criterion Collection edition includes a somewhat interesting interview by Shinoda Masahiro of Kobayashi (mostly about financing difficulties and finding a place big enough for shooting) a more informative set of recollections by assistant director Ogasawara Kiyoshi, a piece on writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) who married a Japanese woman, lived in Japan is st fourteen years, and published tales that were still being told in Japan during the late 19th century (four of which were reappropriated in this Japanese movie adaptation of Hearn’s collection of the same name). There is also a commentary track by Stephen Prince that I have not heard and a booklet essay by Geoffrey O’Brien that I have not seen.

BTW, the two-hour version won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes (losing the Palme d’or to “The Knack, or How to Get It.” “Kwaidan” was nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar, losing (much more justifiably) to “The Shop on Main Street”). It was also the biggest box-office grossing Kobayashi movie.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Harrowing critique of samurai ethos: “Harakiri”/Seppuku”

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“Seppuku” (“Harakiri,” 1962, directed by Kobayashi Masaki), is a bit too long. It takes a while to get going, but becomes enthralling (if more than a little horrifying), and all too relevant to organizational dissembling in other times and places than Pax Tokugawa Japan ca. 1630. Like Kobayashi’s excellent and excruciating “Human Condition “trilogy, the movie’s convincingness depends on the great Nakadai Tatsuya (who also played the gunslinger in “Rashomon” and the central roles in Kurosawa’s last great historical movies, “Kagemusha” and “Ran”).Kobayashi’s “Samurai Rebellion,” in which Nakadai played an important part, but Mifune Toshiro played the central role akin to Nakadai’s in “Seppuku,” is not quite as horrifying (it is similarly withering a critique of the bushido code that the humiliated heroes live and die by). As the younger ronin Ishihama Akira (Boyhood, My Sons’ Youth,  The Rose on His Arm) is also extraordinary.

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The gruesome, extremely unerotic suicides in  are motivated by parental and uxorial love (and the samurai honor code). The first suicide (with a bamboo sword, a scene that made a number of those in the audience of the film’s première at Cannes faint) stems from a desperate father (Motome portrayed by Ishihama),trying to feed his sick wife and child. This story is told in flashback by  Nakadai, as Tsugomo, a ronin who spends most of the movie immobile kneeling in the center of the same courtyard, seething with bitterness and guilt and discomfiting Iyi Clan elder, Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni).

After telling Motome’s story and his relationship(s) to Motome, Tsugomo takes many Iyi retainers with him. It is a stunningly acted and photographed film with Takemitsu Tori’s first soundtrack (a very innovative one), bravura cinematography by Kobayashi regular Miyajima Yoshio, and one of many mesmerizing performances by Nakadai.

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The alternation of Takemitsu Toru ‘s haunting, spare music and lack of any background music is very effective and the visual compositions are very impressive (as in “Samurai Rebellion” which is even more geometrical). The suppressions and explosions of emotion are very Japanese, as are the seppuku rituals, the glorification of suicide, and the rigidly frozen assemblies. Like the “Human Condition” trilogy, it is a forbidding masterpiece, but definitely a masterpiece.

There is a superbly remastered Criterion edition (Bluray and DVD), with a second disc that includes interviews with Kobayashi (interviewed by Shinoda Masahiro, and less voluble than Shinoda), Nakadai, and screenwriter Hashimoto Shinobu (the latter two are forthcoming, providing insights into their processes and the making of the movie).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kobayashi’s Magnum Opus: “The Human Condition” trilogy

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Perhaps there are many Japanese movies that have not been exported about the perilous situation of Japanese soldiers at the time of the empire’s surrender concluding World War II. Counting Kobayashi Masaki’s “Ningen no joken” (released as the trilogy “The Human Condition” in the West, as a tetraolgy in Japan) as one, there are three stunningly photographed and emotionally devastating late-1950s Japanese movies about the end of the war for soldiers at the edges that did make it to international audiences: Ichikawa’s “Harp of Burma” (obviously set in Burma, though mostly filmed in Japan), Ichikawa’s “Fire on the Plains” (set in the Philippines), and Kobayashi’s ten-hour portrayal of the sufferings of Kaji (Nakadai Tatsuya) in Manchuria.

The full impact (wallop!) of the movie requires not knowing what difficulties are going to befall Kaji next, so I recommend skipping my plot discussion (even though I am not going to reveal the ending), blocking out the ten hours (the first DVD runs 208 minutes, the second 181 minutes, the third 190 minutes) and watching the whole thing. Beginning in 1961, there was a theater in Tokyo that showed the whole thing every night for two years. I don’t know if any suicides resulted, though it would be easy to understand them. One DVD at a time seems harsh enough a regimen to me, though the finale is heartbreaking even with a week between each part, the way I saw it.

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Although a war movie, one of the greatest ones ever made, indeed, it takes roughly seven hours to get to a battle. The first part (“No Greater Love“) shows Kaji in 1943 as a fresh-faced idealist advocating more humane treatment of slave labor and in love. He is exempted from the draft and sent into northern Manchuria to try out his ideas in a slave labor (mining) camp. Productivity rises with (Japanese) prostitutes servicing the (Chinese) laborers. Arrangements are complicated considerably when prisoners are consigned to hard labor. The military commanders don’t care how many prisoners die, so long as none escape. Kaji attempts to protect all the workers and the conflict with the military culminates in his being tortured by the military at the end of the first part.

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The second part (“The Road to Eternity“) shows Kaji survived the torture, but was thrown into the army. He again gets in trouble with the brutal veterans trying to protect a sad-sack fellow draftee (Tanaka Kumie) in whatever Japanese boot camp is called. The physically and emotionally strong Kaji is then put in charge of a new group of recruits. In the second part, he is beaten up by Japanese soldiers denied taking out their aggressions on the new draftees. Kaji and half the new soldiers, including one transfixed with the full samurai honor code, Terada (Kawazu Yusuke) are out on a ditch-digging assignment when the Soviet Union declares war on Japan and its troops swarm into Manchuria.

Soviet tanks roll over the Japanese position, but do not notice Kaji and Terada. The third part (“A Soldier’s Prayer“) shows their difficult journey south. Various other refugees (including some “comfort women”) join them, as Kaji again takes responsibility for trying to save others. He expels a trio of marauding Japanese soldiers from the group, and an old friend of his who is a True Believer in communism goes off to surrender. Kaji and Terada become Soviet prisoners, and find the Japanese soldiers they expelled have positions as trustees in the Soviet prison/slave labor camp in which the other Japanese are being starved. Before they are all shipped off to Siberia (where survivors were held eight years), after failing to save Terada, Kaji escapes with the aid of his friend (whose faith has only slightly been shaken by the egregious mistreatment of the Japanese POWs) and sets off across a frozen hell. Even with all the suffering Kaji has seen and endured, indeed, in that he has survived so much and is resolute in his determination to get back to his wife Machiko (Aratama Michiyo, last seen on a visit to the army camp in the middle of the second part), Hollywood-raised audiences anticipate the final triumph of the great-souled Kaji… But this is not a Hollywood movie.

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The incidents shown are searing. Nakadai Tatsuya—who was discovered by Kobayashi and starred in most of his movies and was also in more Kurosawa movies than Mifune was, played the main characters in the towering late Kurosawa masterpieces “Kagemusha” and “Ran”—is more than charismatic as he attempts to hold onto humane ideals and a sense of social responsibility in very extreme conditions. His interruption of beheadings in the first part, the visit of his wife when they are allowed a night in a warehouse with no blankets, his conduct on the battleground and in trying to save as many people as he can in the trek south and inside the Soviet prison camp are heroic in a very stoical way. Both his patrons and those outraged by Kaji’s treatment of enemies (and Japanese subordinates) as human are strikingly portrayed, with Kawazu Yusuke’s changes in the part of Terada especially compelling. Aratama Michiyo does not have a whole lot to do, but her own bravery in visiting her suspect husband is unmistakable.

The final part provides the most stunning vistas and grimmest images (though the botched beheading in part one is not easily forgotten). The cinematography by Miyajima Yoshio is superb throughout, flashiest in “A Soldier’s Prayer.” The musical score by Kinoshita Chuji is markedly restrained in contrast to the bombast of Hollywood war movies (recent ones as well as those made during World War II) and the sentimentality of other soundtracks for his brother Keisuke’s films or for Kobayashi’s earlier ones.

The set of movies is based on a novel by Jumpei Gomikawa, but also upon Kobayashi’s experiences while stationed in Manchuria at the end of the Second World War. Although running ten hours with intermissions, “The Human Condition” does not drag (as Kobayashi’s movie best-known in the West, “Kwaidan,” seems to be to do, though its visual composition in color are remarkable). The middle part is a bit baffling, and perhaps suffered some cuts, though the basic situation and trajectory are clear.

The print and soundtrack used were somewhat compromised by age (and 2.2:1 is not quite the original aspect ratio), but they are more than adequate to show what a stupendous masterpiece Kobayashi wrought. (There are Japanese side-titles for Chinese speech and English subtitles under the picture.) “The Human Condition” makes “The Bridge on the River Kwai” look quite silly in comparison, with an indictment of Japanese militarism (and licensed mayhem) that is both more credible and stronger than that much-honored movie.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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”).

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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

 

Kobayashi’s 1956 “Izumi” (Spring/Fountainhead)

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For me, the most interesting part of Kobayashi’s 1956 “Izumi” (a title that means “a spring” or “a fountain” but that has been rendered in English as “The Fountainhead”, a title already used by Ayn Rand for her 1943 novel and the 1949 movie adaptation of it, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal) is the rural-urban clash.

The beginning and end of the movie are set in the countryside, where a Tokyo development company owns a reservoir that has cut off the water used to irrigate rice paddies and supply it to getaway second homes of affluent city-dwellers. The outraged farmers regularly sabotage the water pipes (probably using the resulting runoff, though this is not shown).

A botanist and his research assistant (Sada Keiji) are visiting the largest mansion, owned by a nobleman (an earl before such titles were abolished by the US occupation). The aristocrat (Saburi Shin) is estranged from his wife (whom we will later learn had a child fathered by someone else) and is flirting with flirting with his secretary, who is more attracted to the graduate student. Based on the flora, the latter thinks there is probably a water source, an underground spring, that could supply the water the farmers need.

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A ruder real estate magnate, who will more or less inherit the secretary Arima Ineko) and is much more blunt about wanting her to be his mistress, is unwilling to explore the alternative water source unless the deluxe development properties should need more water than the reservoir can supply them.

The young botanist takes a position at a provincial museum in part to get away from the older woman he loves and also a younger one who wants to marry him, though he has never even spoken to her and has refused an intermediary’s attempt to introduce them. By the time the botanist decides he is interested in the young woman who had stalked him for more than two years, she has gotten over her infatuation and its back into the emotional maelstrom with the older woman, back in a confrontation in the countryside. This love triangle, complicated by the rich men for whom the secretary successively works make for a boring soap opera that takes up too much of the 122 minutes of the movie. There’s a plethora of “God’s eye” shots down at the characters.

To the surprise of I would guess no movie-viewer, the botanist was right about the potential water source, though the exploration by dynamite provides more tensions, centering on two young rural men who, like Kobayashi, were held prisoners by the Soviets after the war and loathe each other. The one who was malnourished and now works for the company catches the interest of the secretary. The other one is the most intransigent of the local opposition to the development (beyond contention for water).

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G2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kobayashi’s yearning youth “Somewhere under the wide sky” (1954)

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The title of Kobayashi Masaki’s 1954 movie “Somewhere under the wide sky” (“Kono hiroi sora no dokoka ni”, also rendered “Somewhere beneath the broad sky”) is something the younger brother, Noboru (Ishihama Akira), tells his impoverished and now tubercular classmate, Mitsui. Noboru continues with “there is someone who will love me.” It is sort of odd that he does not have a girlfriend, since the same actor (born at the start of 1935) was in love already in two earlier Kobayashi movies (My Sons’ Youth, and Sincerity/A Sincere Heart). Although Noboru is somewhat spoiled by his mother and his older half-brother, Ryoichi (Sada Keiji) who is the head of the family and proprietor of the Morita Liquor Store in Kawasaki (across the Tawa River from Tokyo), his sunny disposition mostly cheers those around him and is accompanied by genuine empathy. Noboru is an advocate for helping others and for his somewhat frivolous sister-in-law, Hiroko (Kuga Yoshiko), against his censorious mother (Aroko Kumeko) and crippled (in an aerial bombing during WWII) older (half-?)sister Yasuko (Kinoshita regular Takamine Hideko).

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Yasuko is hyper-conscious of her limp and that, at the advanced age of 28, she should have married out by now (she has a suitor almost as optimistic and even more solicitous in the countryside, Shun-don (Ôki Minoru), whom she avoids… until she doesn’t). Despite the stepmother’s and sister-in-law’s outrage and suspicion about a Hiroko entertaining a visitor, an ex-suitor from her home town, Ryoichi takes that in stride. He married for love (rather than having a properly marriage-broker-arranged marriage) and has tolerance for the foibles of everyone, while working hard to support the family.

The social criticism, which would become biting in later Kobayashi movies, had not emerged yet (or he’d been forced to back off by the studio’s refusal to release “The Thick-Walled Room”), despite some focus on class differences, in particular the lesser life chances of those who have not inherited a family business and don’t have the support of a loving family. Ryoichi and Noburo are so amiable and empathetic that the movie is like a whole season of a 1950s family series (The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver) compressed into an hour and a half (without a father, though Ryoichi pretty much functions as one). There aren’t a lot of laughs—the movie is more family drama than comedy—, but the movie is a pleasant spectacle of a family overcoming problems in postwar (rubble-cleared) Tokyo. It is well-acted and the viewer can bask under the virginal Noburo’s dazzling smiles. It was shot by Morita Toshiyasu, who would have more scenery to work with in Kobayashi’s “Izumi” (1956), which also starred Sada Keiji and has not-too-annoying music by Kinoshita Chûji, whom Kobayashi would continue to use. “Under” was scripted by the wife of cinematographer Kuuda Hiroshi (and sister to the composer and to the director Kinoshitas) Kusuda Yoshiko, the first of eleven screenwriting credits for her.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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