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Of the Japanese directors in the postwar era that confronted social issues in their films, none was as unrelentingly consistent as Masaki Kobayashi. He dramatized his country's reaction to the American occupation and lamented the growth of corporate power that has changed democracy to a system more closely resembling Feudalism. Although he went through his own period of official censure, Kobayashi made protest his main theme. That's very unlike the situation in America, where a political purge had marginalized socially critical films in America, effectively criminalizing dissent.
Kobayashi won a job at Shochiku in 1941 but was almost immediately drafted into the Army. His war experience in Manchuria and a Russian prison camp would later lead to his 3-part, 9-hour masterpiece The Human Condition. Returning to Shochiku, Kobayashi apprenticed under the successful and respected director Keisuke Kinoshita. He began making his own films in the early 1950s, and when he earned the right to choose his own projects turned to highly controversial film subjects. Eclipse's four-disc collection Masaki Kobayashi Against the System groups three of his strongest 1950s efforts with a similarly scathing 1962 film, made amid other celebrated successes as Harakiri and his atypical color ghost story, Kwaidan.
The director's films don't give the impression of an artist rebelling for rebellion's sake. If anything, he avoids obvious sensationalism and satirical exaggeration. The real villain in his films appears to be human nature itself, an attitude that makes his protest films all the more moving and convincing.
Made immediately after the end of the American Occupation, The Thick-Walled Room (Kabe atsuya heya) was considered so problematic that its release was held up for over three years. It's about the harsh sentences doled out to lower ranking convicted war criminals, while officers and policy makers remained untouched. The message is that the rich and powerful buried the truth about wartime crimes by locking away these scapegoats.
The situation in Sugamo Prison, 1949, is hell. U.S. Army MPs are in charge. Some men go crazy and commit suicide. Others bitterly recall how they were tortured into confessing. Their war crimes consist of following orders under threat of death. One soldier was ordered to kill an innocent native by an officer, who later testified against him. We hear of Koreans fighting with the Japanese given even worse deals. Soldiers are also ordered to bayonet prisoners to death. Although they had no choice but to obey, the fighting men were used to prove Japan's contrition to the Americans. Inmate Yokota (Ko Mishima) concludes that, "Prison isn't a place to drive the sins out of humanity. It drives the humanity out of sin."
The men remain locked up even after the Occupation is ended. Yokota's brother, an outside union activist, declares that America ended the Occupation so it could militarize Japan as an ally against the communists. He's on the side of the North Koreans.
Yokota served as a translator in a camp for American POWs, and was forced to mistreat them. He found peace only when hauling dead bodies to a crematory -- the cremator's daughter (Keiko Kishi, of The Yakuza and several more Kobayashi pictures) is there. She offers flowers for a dead American, earning their respect. The latter part of the film sees a prisoner named Kawanishi (Kinzo Shin) consider using a furlough from prison to take revenge on the officer who betrayed him -- and who continues to harass what's left of his family. A prisoner is told that he shouldn't expect to get back with his girlfriend again, as she's been "colonized" by the Americans. Radical Japanese do not consider the occupation to have ended at all.
The film experiments with stylized imagery in several flashbacks, with distorted viewpoints and Dali-like surreal irruptions like a giant eye watching in the background of a scene. Flowers wilt at the touch of a shamed soldier. Although restrained, we won't see images like this in Kobayashi films until Kwaidan.
The film fully acknowledges war crimes, but claims that the guilty parties are the "conglomerates, the military and their minions that started the war." The Thick-Walled Room contains material that the Japanese authorities wanted suppressed, to appease the American conquerors but also to hide away the dirty truths of the war. Kobayashi includes scenes I thought I'd never see in a Japanese production from this era -- we actually see American airmen being savagely abused and beaten. The Thick-Walled Room ended up being kept out of sight, just like the convicted "war criminals" themselves.
Talk about asking for trouble -- the second Masaki Kobayashi picture dares to attack big-league baseball, the Great American Pastime that conquered Japan a decade before the war. I Will Buy You (Anata kaimasu) is a scathing indictment of corruption that goes beyond individual outrages, to show that professional sports is a racket that hurts everyone.
The film begins as an exciting drama about the competition between several baseball teams to sign Goro Kurita (Minoru Ooki), a handsome college athlete who shows great promise as a star player. Everybody wants him, which means that Kurita's unscrupulous manager Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito) can play the teams off one another. Every visit from a scout means an expensive gift, which Kyuki always takes. Scout Daisuke (Keiji Sada) of The Toyo Flowers overwhelms Kyuki with gifts, asking to contact Kurita and his family, who live out in the sticks. The bribery gets so expensive that the scouts that fail can expect to lose their jobs. Daisuke has an inside track because he's offering Kyuki a side deal. The Toyo Flowers' bid comes with a promise of a job and a huge signing bonus.
But things get more complicated. No longer a country bumpkin, Kurita is keeping his nose clean and letting Kyui be the "leech". Kurita's girlfriend Fueko (Keiko Kishi, again) wishes he were still the idealistic guy she met two years before. And Kurita's country relations fall victim to greed, when the other scouts begin offering each of them side deals to influence Kurita's decision. As the signing deadline draws nigh, Daisuke discovers some things about Kyuki that destroy any semblance of trust. The pressure of the signing taints everyone, and even leads to violence.
I Will Buy You is amazing in that we have yet to see any American film so open and honest about the kinds of dirty scandals that blacken many professional sports. Even the respectable Hoop Dreams emphasizes the glamour and glitter of the dream of getting into the Pro leagues. In this show we barely see any baseball action. We instead have the tireless Daisuke, forever toting some expensive gift. Every time Kyuki is treated to a trip or a night out, he's slipped an envelope full of cash. It's all bribery and quiet deals made behind the athlete's back. The "guileless" relatives are easily corrupted and turned against each other. In choosing the life of a big star player Goro Kurita will have to give up his girl and learn to stop trusting people.
If Daisuke had the time he might fall in love with the beautiful Fueko, but she's too disillusioned to separate what a man says he is, from the things he does. The show is an unflinching look at what should be an idealistic sport, ruined by money. If this is what Payola does to a damn ball game, imagine the harm it does to politics. Without the hype and satire of Yasuzo Masumura's stylish Giants and Toys. Kobayashi keeps things at the human level.
Amusingly, when Daisuke meets the player's thuggish older brother, he realizes that the man won't be any pushover: "He's like Godzilla. A real piece of work."
With Black River (Kuroi kawa) Kobayashi scores Tatsuya Nakadai, the actor who would later star in his epic The Human Condition. Here Nakadai plays Killer Joe, a flashy gangster making dirty deals in a sleazy red light district just outside the gates of the Naval Air Station at Sugi. Black River is one of the first Japanese films to decry the effects of what a Kobayashi character would call a "militarized" Japan that debases itself to service the vices of American soldiers. The main little community is a tangle of decrepit shacks, "love hotels" and bars with names like Monterey and Black Cat. A greedy landlady nicknamed White Pig rents a miserable room to student Nishida (Fumio Watanabe). Even as she takes his deposit she's helping Joe arrange to have the place condemned, so yet another love hotel can be built in its place. Joe's gang has the job of getting to residents to sign away their occupancy rights.
Nishida soon learns that being poor is not ennobling. One of Joe's thieves lives in the building and steals from Nishida. Another foolish neighbor doesn't realize that his young wife works as a prostitute during the day while he's at work. The apartment organizer, a communist, can't get cooperation from any of the tenants, who continue to selfishly look after their own interests. A woman would rather let her husband die than give him her blood. The capper is that the Air Base refuses to pay for the electricity it uses, so the rates charged around the base are exorbitant. At one point Nishida works for a pimp, helping to sneak Americans off the base and into the brothels. In one unpleasant scene a resident saves money by not paying the honey wagon man -- a cleanup guy who carts sewage away. Squalor can't get any more basic than that.
Driving the story is a cruel romantic triangle. Nishida meets a nice girl in the street, a secretary named Shizuko (Ineko Arima). But Joe's already has his eye on her. His solution to the problem is to rape Shizuko and then shame her into not reporting the crime. He then takes her when he wants her and has her watched night and day. Shizuko feels too debased to ask Nishida for help, and Joe would murder the boy anyway. The perverse relationship is pretty extreme. Joe becomes fixated on Shizuko, and she also cannot deny her sexual addiction to him. She eventually decides that she'll be free only when Joe is dead.
The Americans are always there but Kobayashi reserves his ire for the corrupt Japanese themselves. When Joe and White Pig set up the deal that will evict several dozen people, they exchange conspiratorial smiles: "Let's give Democracy a try. Give and Take." It must be a phrase from Occupation propaganda.
Jumping ahead to 1962, The Inheritance (Karami-ai) is the most conventionally entertaining film in the set. It plays out mostly in the lavish suburban house of a successful industrialist. In place of the topical targets of the earlier pictures, this show zeroes in on the universal vice of greed itself. If the message is that People Are No Damn Good, The Inheritance is 100% successful.
In a typical "reading of the will" tale potential heirs kill each other in an old dark house. Mario Bava may have initiated the ice-cold mechanical murder epic with Twitch of the Death Nerve, about greedy people killing to inherit a valuable piece of property. Kobayashi's film begins with an executive Senzo (So Yamamura) announcing that he's dying. He instructs his wife and business associates to search out three illegitimate children that he's lost track of, in case any of them would make suitable additional heirs. Much to his wife's chagrin, he also asks his private secretary Yasuko (Keiko Kishi, now top-billed) to move into his house to help him wrap up his business work.
What follows is a terrific suspense story, as most everyone involved tries to defraud Senzo and circumvent his proposed will. Ambitious underling Furukawa (Tatsuya Nakadai) discovers one illegitimate daughter working as a nude model in a cheap photo shop, and coaches her so she'll appeal to Senzo's generosity. Another heir is an outright impostor, and a third is a juvenile delinquent. Various alliances form to snatch a piece of the action, and even Senzo's wife gets herself involved. A legal consultant offers Yasuko a bribe to help him sell Senzo on the idea of a charitable Foundation, which the consultant could loot at will. Yasuko goes through worse trials when the domineering Senzo rapes her and then pays her for additional sexual favors. The relationship continues even after he becomes unable to physically make love. The conniving schemers around the deathbed suspect that Yasuko is angling for a piece of the inheritance as well.
The show plays out to a satisfying finish that in its own way is just as bleak as the other, darker movies. Masaki Kobayashi may be 'against the system', but he consistently frames his stories as complex moral arguments. He of course outdid himself with The Human Condition, which is perhaps the strongest anti-war film ever made.
Eclipse's 4-DVD set of Masaki Kobayashi Against the System gives us near-perfect encodings of these terrific, unfamiliar movies. All are in B&W and the first three are flat full frame; the 1962 show is in crisp enhanced widescreen. One brief shot in I Will Buy You looks as if it was damaged and had to be replaced from a scratchy print. I noticed no other appreciable flaws. The English subtitles are removable. The Inheritance offers a catchy jazz soundtrack from none other than the legendary composer Toru Takemitsu.
Eclipse offers no extras but the liner notes by Michael Koresky are again exceptionally clear and informative. Kobayashi sounds like a highly interesting director, a serious fellow that kept working through a lot of career setbacks. We're told that when The Thick-Walled Room was shelved for four years, the director quietly reverted to making non-political entertainments more in keeping with the Shochiku house style. They apparently believed in the director enough to allow him to return to topical controversy later.
Now, someone at Eclipse needs to sneak a note to the Criterion cubicle next door ... we want to see Kobayashi's Kwaidan reissued in a deluxe Blu-ray !
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Masaki Kobayashi Against the System rates:
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