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Eclipse Series 38: Kobayashi Against the System

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Criterion’s Eclipse series of unjustly overlooked masterpieces has just put out a superb set of films by the great Japanese filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi, who is almost unknown in the West.

As critic Michael Koresky notes in a superb essay on the Criterion website, “among all the important directors who emerged in Japan just after World War II, Masaki Kobayashi would distinguish himself as the most aggressively social-minded. He used cinema to speak eloquently against rigid and corrupt systems that denied or abused individual rights, and to indict a status quo that allowed amorality and venality to flourish. His three-part magnum opus, The Human Condition (1959–61)—an existential portrait of one man’s efforts to maintain his integrity in a rotten world, and a condemnation of the machine in which he is ultimately little more than a cog—marked the high point of the period early in his career when he began to grapple with these difficult themes, in a string of arresting, socially committed films set in contemporary Japan, none of the rest of which are widely known today. With these films, produced between 1953 and 1962, Kobayashi tried to make sense of a postwar nation that he believed had lost its bearings, and in the process became a mature morally and politically engaged cinematic artist.

Having studied philosophy and art history at Tokyo’s Waseda University, Kobayashi turned his attention to film after graduating in 1941, and got an assistant director position at Shochiku studios. Only eight months later, however, he was drafted into military service. While stationed in Manchuria and the Ryukyu Islands, the left-leaning, pacifist Kobayashi remained opposed to the actions of the Imperial Army, even declining to ascend past the rank of private when his superiors wanted to promote him. Deeply affected by his experiences in a war he would later call ‘the culmination of human evil,’ he returned to Shochiku driven to express his dissent on-screen. First, though, he assisted on his mentor Keisuke Kinoshita’s middle-class comedies and domestic dramas, exemplars of the studio’s preferred style at the time and which influenced the largely apolitical content of his own first films, My Sons’ Youth (1952) and Sincerity (1953).

Kobayashi’s third film, The Thick-Walled Room, completed in 1953, was a different story. It demonstrated the seriousness of the filmmaker’s intent, and it was among the first films in Japan to deal openly with the nation’s wartime legacy. It concerns a group of B and C (second- and third-tier) war criminals—rank-and-file military men who acted on orders—who have been imprisoned and treated cruelly by members of the American occupying force, though their superiors have gone unpunished.

The film, based on the diaries of real-life prisoners, treats the low-ranking soldiers not as innocents but as dupes of a system that will not assume responsibility for its actions. Rather than take a broad historical approach, Kobayashi turns this raw material into intimate drama, his immediate, exquisitely composed black-and-white images evoking his characters’ psychological anguish; meanwhile, the shadowy prison in which they’re held is effectively filmed as a looming character in itself. Though the American occupation had ended in 1952, the Japanese government feared that The Thick-Walled Room’s incendiary content would offend the U.S. and demanded that Shochiku either cut or withhold it. Kobayashi was unwilling to trim the film, so it was shelved until 1956.

The controversy surrounding The Thick-Walled Room didn’t do much to ingratiate Masaki Kobayashi with Shochiku head Shiro Kido. For decades, Kido had fostered a specific house style in shomin-geki (contemporary stories of everyday life)—lyrical films about love and family directed by such auteurs as Yasujiro Ozu and Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi’s mentor. After The Thick-Walled Room was shelved in 1953, Kobayashi went back to this gentler mode of filmmaking, coming out with several sentimental films, including Three Loves (1954), Somewhere Under the Wide Sky (1954), Beautiful Days (1955), and The Spring (1956), works that in their affirmation of small-town values recalled Kinoshita’s megahit Twenty-four Eyes (1954), which regarded loneliness, war, and death from the perspective of a deeply moral schoolteacher. Kido was impressed by Kobayashi’s output, and the director eventually felt that he had enough support to set out again for the angrier, more political territory that was closest to his heart.

I Will Buy You (1956) was Kobayashi’s first step back in that direction. The subject matter—the machinations behind the scenes of professional baseball in Japan—may not initially seem particularly inflammatory. But this is hardly the kind of sports movie that we’ve become accustomed to in the West, with epic triumphs and last-minute redemptions, or even the kind that Japanese audiences were used to—the long popular supotsu-mono genre generally focused on disciplines like judo and karate. The suspense in this deliberately paced, scathing examination of the greed that drives the sports world is predicated not on how many home runs its star player will hit but on how much of his and his handlers’ souls will be lost in the process.

Baseball had been Japan’s favorite sport for decades by the time the film was released. Kobayashi fully intended to shock viewers with his takedown of the beloved institution. (The outrage his treatment of the subject conveys may seem quaint today, when we’re more cynical about sports’ corporate interests.) Adapted from a Minoru Ono novel, the film is told from the perspective of and narrated by Kishimoto (Keiji Sada), a ruthless scout hot to sign the up-and-coming college player Kurita (Minoru Ooki) to the major-league Toyo Flowers. Kurita, also being courted by the Handen Lilies, proves to be a tough sell, however, as the scout must appeal not only to him, his poor rural family outside Osaka, and his skeptical girlfriend, Fueko (Keiko Kishi), but also to his tough-minded and avaricious mentor, Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito), who acts as much out of slimy self-interest as Kishimoto does.

There’s little sports-film catharsis in I Will Buy You—and relatively little baseball. Most of the interactions are pitched like boardroom negotiations, shot by Kobayashi with clinical detachment and often in ominous shadow. The world Kobayashi depicts may be a hollow one (notwithstanding Kishimoto’s climactic crisis of conscience, when he states, ‘It is our job to be ruthless and unaccountable . . . Because we see people like Kurita not as players but as commodities’), but there’s an exhilaration to the film’s truth-seeking. In bearing witness as he saw his country losing its moral way, Kobayashi also demonstrated how trying times can serve as a crucible for art.”

This is a brilliant analysis of the film, and a brilliant film, as well. Kobayashi is absolutely unforgiving in his portrayal of the potentially corrupting influence on money in big time sports, and as with the other films in this Criterion set, particularly The Inheritance, his view of the world is bleak indeed, yet all too accurate in the final analysis. Far from being punished for their actions, the protagonists of both films occupy a world in which cunning and deception are the norm, and which almost rewards evil – there’s no sincerity of thought or action here, only sheer self-interest. As one might expect, the transfers of the films here are absolutely flawless, with meticulous subtitles, and an absolutely essential part of any cineaste’s collection.

It’s disconcerting to think that Kobayashi thought that he was making these films for posterity, as his testament to the world, and how black and white filmmaking has all but vanished, as well as film itself, and were it not for the efforts of Criterion, these films would never see the light of day. Kobayashi is a superb filmmaker, and his pitless vision of social commerce rings all too true in the current 99%/1% landscape of society on a worldwide basis. All of the films in this set are remarkable, but for me, I Will Buy You, beginning with the unambiguous directness of the film’s title, is a one-of-a-kind indictment of greed and human weakness, and makes American noir sports films like Champion seem weak tea indeed.

This is a box set that any serious film aficionado should get immediately.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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