Crime · Drama · Eclipse Series · Film Noir · Japan

Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System

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Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System

 

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The Thick-Walled Room

1956 // Japan // Masaki Kobayashi

Originally made in 1953, The Thick-Walled Room, the third feature made by Masaki Kobayashi, was shelved by the studio until 1956, in fear of any taboo subject of war criminals offending the Americans. Kobayashi was offered the chance to cut some scenes out, but he chose shelving the film in entirety rather than butchering his artistic view and social implication. Included in the Eclipse box-set with three other films spanning from 1956 to 1962, together they are named “Masaki Kobayashi Against the System”. These films are the result of Kobayashi’s constant indictment against any corrupted system, best exemplified in his nine-and-a-half-hour drama The Human Condition (1959-61).

The Thick-Walled Room bears the closest subject to that mammoth humanist drama, the deprivation of humanity in war. It tells the stories of a group of postwar Japanese prisoners, sharing the same cell, jailed as the war criminals, partly due to their cruelty acts during the war time as soldiers and partly due to the abandonment by their superiors and country as the scapegoat. Kobo Abe, the renowned novelist who later provided the story and screenplay for Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Pitfall (1962), Woman in the Dunes (1964) and The Face of Another (1966), written the script based on the writings of B-and C-class war criminals, suffusing with sympathy but not lacking remorse and realization of the evilness their country had committed.

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There are multiple flashbacks in depicting the war time experienced by the two main characters. Yokota (Ko Mishima), a translator at war with empathy towards the western prisoners, was forced to whip one who stole food due to starvation. Similar situation happened to Yamashita (Torahiko Hamada), he was ordered to shoot a unarmed villager after his unit was served with hospitality, and later betrayed by his superior with false testament. Dehumanisation and depersonalisation of military orders once again showing the banality of evil, causing suffering physically and psychologically. In the most memorable and haunting scene, Yamashita’s mental breakdown was visualized as sudden gun-shot punch hole on the wall, and through the hole Yamashita’s past is replayed.

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The film indeed diluted the reason behind each soldier in joining the war, were they simply drafted by no choice, or believed in the views of imperial Japan? There was even a Korean prisoner who maybe born under the most untimely present, this bring to my mind of the situation of Taiwan, which was colonized by Japan way earlier than the start of World War II. Kobayashi regarded himself as a pacifist, he was drafted into the army but refused any promotion as a way of resistance. There’s a bigger question raised in the film, who should be responsible for the crime of war? Could no one be truly innocent for the account of the events? At the end of the film, Kobayashi provided moment of redemption for Yamashita, not the cleansing of soul type, but the reestablishment of belief in humanity, even slightly.

Film Rating: 4/5

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I Will Buy You

1956 // Japan // Masaki Kobayashi

The second entry of the “Masaki Kobayashi Against the System”, I Will Buy You, is a baseball-player-scouting drama. Unlike other typical sports drama, it is not the inspirational underdog triumphant story. Instead, I Will Buy You is another vehicle for Kobayashi’s critical dissection on the exploitation social system (from the unflinching hierarchy classes in Harakiri (1962), injustice of war criminals in The Thick-Walled Room (1956), to the capitalistic professional baseball enterprise) and the corrupted human mind.

Kishimoto (Keiji Sada), a relentless baseball scout had his mind set on the up and coming college baseball star Kurita (Minoru Ooki). The near two-hour scree time was mainly the negotiations and mind tricking games between Kishimoto and Kurita’s personal trainer and guidance Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito), Kirita’s girlfriend Fueko (Keiko Kishi), as well as Kurita’s family members resided far away from the city. Every person has his/her own agenda, even Kishimoto, arguably the protagonist we followed in the film, admitted that his job traded people as commodities. Even sports is just another form of capitalism.

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Kishimoto tried to bride every person connected to Kurita with money and advantages, but he was not the only one eyeing for Kurita. It eventually leaded to the last act, a battle with gifts and money as weapons in Kurita’s rural home, where every personal interest was put against the ultimate cause: Kurita’s future. Kyuki maybe the one that bought Kurita to fame, but he was more than only a flawed person, he exploited the situation for money by pretending sick, he also had an unethical relationship with Fueko’s older sister Ryoko (Mitsuko Mito). Kishimoto admittedly trusted no one, but he and Kyuki eventually formed a bond that both considered essential for their best interest. Fueko was the only person who genuinely cared for Kurita, but it deemed unnecessary by Kurita.

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Kobayashi, with the script by Zenzo Matsuyama (conscript writer of The Human Condition), portrayed one of the bleakest immoral adult world in the cinema. However, there were too much repetition in the storytelling at the first half of the film that felt over-dragged and dully flat. The role of Kurita lack enough characterization for the audience to care his future, further reducing the final impact of the ending. Using a twisted commercial field in baseball, the most popular sports in Japan, Kobayashi showed that the country had not gone too far away from the cause of its decline since World War II, unless people take action in reforming. Cinema is Kobayashi’s battlefield, after “comprising” for the mediocre family drama in the Shochiku Studios between 1953-56, he returned to his war against the system, finally reaching the first climax in The Human Condition a few years later.

Film Rating: 3/5

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Black River

1957 // Japan // Masaki Kobayashi

Black River, as its title suggested, invokes a story of darkly grimed noir-ish melodrama. With the opening credit of jazz music and geometric figures of newspaper cutting, reminding me of the title sequence by Saul Bass in, for instance, The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and Anatomy of Murder (1958), created a unruly and sensual atmosphere that suffused the film. The film took place at a residential area mixed with red-district-like cafes around a US military air-base, with occasional background sound of air-jet sweeping through the sky. Although US soldiers were shown at the beginning of the film capturing black marketeers, or residents complaining of paying fee for the share of army camp, Kobayashi did not intend to concentrate on the effect of US occupation alone. Instead, he was more inclined in exposing the Japanese underlying greed and selfishness, as shown throughout this “Masaki Kobayashi Against the System” boxset.

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Scripted by Zenzo Matsuyama (I Will Buy You (1956), The Human Condition (1959-61)), the film blended a love triangle story between a reserved student Nishida (Fumio Watanabe), an innocent waitress Shizuko (Ineko Arima) and a ruthless gang leader Joe (Tatsuya Nakadai, his first major role), with an illegitimate land selling conspiracy behind Joe and the metal-tooth-fixed heartless landlady (Isuzu Yamada). The film took the time to introduce each characters, and in a broad stroke, portrayed the lower citizens life in satirical, larger than life images, including an eloped couple whose wife secretly worked as a prostitute, a housewife who afraid to transfer her blood to the moribund husband, and even a communist who maybe the most practical and realistic person in the entire film. But their living apartment was basically a “slum” where Nishida, the new resident, lived there for the sake of saving money. Although the film sympathized with the residents’ terrible living condition and their ultimate eviction, Kobayashi also emphasized their own faults in being selfish and uncaring (exemplified in the “blood transfusion” scene) to be the cause. Still, the villainous landlady and Joy were the ones to be blamed.

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Joe not only involved in illegal activities, his passion on Shizuko also led to a horrible rape scheme that forcefully bound Shizuko to him. Shizuko was the one and only one tragic figure that was truly innocent. The relationship between Joe and Shizuko was a type of Stockholm Syndrome, while Nishida and Shizuko was like a pure love. Undoubtedly, we would root for Nishida, but instead of a stereotype of courageous hero saving his lady, Nishida was like a bystander at the climax. It’s Shizuko who took the final move. Yet, the one that stole the show was the presence of Tatsuya Nakadai, his wicked smile and rebellious coolness, connected to the trend of “Sun Tribe” in the postwar Japan, were enthralling. Black River deservedly to be the righteous starting pointing of Nakadai’s fruitful career. Kobayashi’s craftsmanship was more mature and confident in Black River, showcasing a balanced storytelling and stylish music and cinematography. The climax at the dark wet traffic road was upheld long enough to create a suffocating tension, and once released, a sigh was all I have, for a good reason.

Rating: 4/5

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The Inheritance

1962 // Japan // Masaki Kobayashi

The last film included in the Eclipse boxset “Masaki Kobayashi Against the System”, unlike the previous three films in the boxset, The Inheritance was made in 1962, in-between the epic nine-and-a-half-hour The Human Condition (1959-1961) and the samurai masterpiece Harakiri (1962), Masaki Kobayashi first venture into Jidaigeki. The Inheritance also differs from the preceding films for its setting in a bourgeois/wealthy family. Still, the corruption of human upon greed and desire was nonetheless as realistic and powerful as, if not more, than I Will Buy You. If the bride from the baseball scout was the main reason for people became blindly greedy, in The Inheritance the driving force would be the inheritance from the near death bed businessman Senzo Kawara (So Yamamura).

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The household drama was told as a flashback from the perspective of Yasuko Miyagawa (Keiko Kishi), Senzo’s youthful and foresighted secretary. From her elegant look in the present, one could easily assume Yasuko won the final “lottery”, but how? That would be the question to be answered at the end of the film. Apart from his young but untrustworthy wife Satoe (Misako Watanabe), Senzo intended to share his inheritance to his three illegitimate offsprings that had been kept for secret. Senzo’s employees, including Yasuko, Fujii (Minoru Chiaki) and Furukawa (Tatsuya Nakadai), were sent to search for their whereabouts. The film slowly unfolded the condition of each potential successors, alliances were formed and broken according to the characters’ interest. Each person had his/her own agenda in the effort for the possible largest share. To go further into the plot would spoil the entertainment, but frankly I found myself losing track of certain characters, or even confused with their intention and method from time to time. The multi-characters story arcs were uneven and perplexing, maybe it’s only my own problem in logical understanding.

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By and large, I was totally hooked by the storyline, thanks to the atmospheric jazz score by Toru Takemitsu and the tightly framed cinematography by Takashi Kawamata, providing a layered composition when multiple characters appeared in a sizable room sitting, standing, or in Senzo situation, often lying on a sick bed. Most of the characters were one-dimensionally hideous, lacking any comedic moments found in Black River (1957) or sympathetic qualities of the war criminals in The Thick-walled Room (1956). The only standout was Yasuko who had a more well-formed character arc, from a bystander with nothing to the one with the final bargaining power. Keiko Kishi gave a balanced performance with increasing wickedness from beginning to the end without drawing distastefulness. Overall, The Inheritance told a story that had been told numerous time, nothing new and nothing less, greed is neither good or bad, but that’s what human being has.

Rating: 3.5/5

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