Cinema exists at the meeting point of the contradictory relationship between stasis and movement. It moves when static and is static when moving. Masaki Kobayashi’s films fit into this cusp between pure perception and reactionary affect. The filmmaker was born in 1916 and died in 1996, which makes 2016 his birth centenary year.
Kobayashi’s films tread the thin line between aggressively socially aware cinema and painstakingly constructed aesthetic high art. His movies serve as a bridge between the self-consciously Japanese cinema of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi and the ultra-modernist approach of the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s. Kobayashi’s reactionary cinema, which is blatantly critical of authoritarian power, blurs the borders between form and content as well as realism and expressionism.
Best known for his nine-hour magnum opus released in three parts, The Human Condition (1959-61), Kobayashi’s cinema underlines the contradictions and hypocrisies of a post-war Japan ravaged by rigid and corrupt systems that caused a kind of malaise among the population.
In The Human Condition, Kobayashi reflects on his own act of rebellion as a soldier in the Japanese army during WWII, where he refused to be promoted to a higher rank as an act of dissent. These sentiments are reflected through his protagonist and alter ego Kaji (played by Tatsuya Nakadai, arguably Japan’s greatest living actor) and his pacifist views on a Japan that was being increasingly disfigured by values of hyper-nationalism.
Like most important Japanese studio directors of the ’40s and the ’50s, Kobayashi’s work constructs rebellion against authority within the codes of the studio system. Like his contemporary, the revered Akira Kurosawa, Kobayashi used the jidai-geki or period drama to reflect on contemporary Japan’s moral crisis.
This approach is best elaborated in his masterpiece Harakiri (1962). Originally titled Sepukku, the much more sombre word for ritual suicide, the film recounts the tale of a ronin, or a masterless samurai, who attempts to take revenge on his former lord under the pretence of committing ritual suicide before his court. Kobayashi choreographs the entire film like a samurai sword fight sequence, using elaborate camera movements between geometrical frames that fragment the theatrical movements of the ronin, who is played by Nakadai.
Kobayashi’s interest in using architecture as a means for representing social oppression is heightened in his second jidai-geki Samurai Rebellion (1967). This time Kobayashi subverts the action drama into a family film (shomin-geki) whose characters disturb the geometrical balance of ace cinematographer Kazuo Yamada’s visuals through their random movements.
Characteristic of samurai productions during this period was the destruction of the film set in the climax, stripping the narrative space of its artifice and forcing the audience to confront the “reality” of isolated characters, as they stand free from the authoritarian society to which they belong.
Within the confines and logics of this cinematic reality, Kobayashi’s movies are essentially the filming or re-construction of the war crime. This filming of the war crime is either through the use of a narrative space that explores the naked image of violation or through the deployment of documentary footage as “the real”.
For example, in his early work The Thick-walled Room (1953), about the secret notebooks of war criminals, Kobayashi elaborates the workings of a machine-like puzzle with several speeds and distances. On the other hand, in his late documentary Tokyo Trials (1983), on the trial of Japanese war criminals, he uses unmediated footage of battle to construct overt and subliminal meanings.
Slightly tangential is his early masterpiece, Black River (1957), an exploration of sordid corruption around an American military base. The film explores society’s underbelly through aesthetically constructed sequences of untidy and ugly interiors, which are contrasted against a naturalistic approach to the exteriors that further the blurring of “the real”. The film’s jazzy, atonal approach synthesises noir-tinged crime melodrama, and is arguably Japanese cinema’s first foray into genre cinema.
Amongst his other notable films was Kwaidan (1964), based on a series of ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn. The film shows Kobayashi’s training as a painter as it moves from the naturalistic Black River and the stylised Harakiri to a much more controlled visual and aural world of parallel realities. The film was the most expensive Japanese film in its day and was shot entirely on a hand-painted set inside an airplane hangar.
Following his exit from the studio system in the late ‘60s, Kobayashi formed a group with directors Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Kon Ichikawa called Yonki-no-kai or The Club of the Four Knights to produce quality films. The venture floundered following the box office failure of Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970).
The failed collaboration did eventually lead to the production of Kaseki (1975), a television film that Kobayashi termed “raw footage” for a more complete feature production. Kaseki, about a man with incurable cancer, uses cinema’s exploratory possibilities to reflect a society that is doomed to self-destruct, this time thanks to state-allied capitalism.
Kobayashi’s last work The Empty Dining Table (1985) possibly suggests terrorism as the only option to challenge state-led power. The film dramatises a confrontation between a radical youth terrorist group and the police. In a climactic sequence, all but one set of parents of the young men apologise for their behavior, reinforcing the director’s social critique.
Although his output was unprolific by Japanese standards, Kobayashi himself seemed to be sure of the longevity of his uncompromising approach. He stated in a 1993 interview with Peter Grilli, “The fact that I was able to fully complete my films, with no regrets, is a significant factor in why, watching them today, they don't feel dated, they remain relevant.”