Masaki Kobayashi (1916-1996) was a Japanese film director best known for injecting social criticism of Japanese traditions and norms into his chosen art form. He made each of his films carefully, meticulously. As a result, his body of work is not large in comparison with that of his contemporaries, but he remains an important figure nevertheless.
"Renowned for powerful critiques of ethical issues and a strong sense of visual detail, Kobayashi's films are surprisingly political compared to his contemporaries in Japanese cinema," wrote Mike Pinksy on the DVD Verdict website. "Although Kobayashi is not as well known abroad as some other Japanese directors, his critical reputation is based on his uncompromising scrutiny of personal responsibility and his desire to expose the uncomfortable truths about social corruptions."
Early Career Interrupted by War
There is seemingly no documentation of Kobayashi's early life or personal life other than noting he was born on January 14, 1916, in Otaru, Japan, and spent his youth on the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan, in the port city of Otaru. In 1933 Kobayashi entered Waseda University in Tokyo where he began studies in philosophy and art. He was particularly interested in Buddhist sculpture. Kobayashi had planned to continue studying art history, but the Pacific War had already begun. "In art history I knew it would require many more years of painstaking research for me to make a contribution, and the war made the future too uncertain," said Kobayashi in World Film Directors. "But with film, I thought there might be a chance of leaving something behind."
Upon Kobayashi's graduation in 1941, he went to work at Shochiku Film Company in Ofuna. His job was short-lived with the advent of Japanese involvement in World War II. Kobayashi, who is often described by film historians as having been a pacifist, was drafted by the Japanese Imperial Army in 1942. He loathed the military and as a form of protest, Kobayashi refused every promotion offered to him. He was dispatched into combat first in Manchuria, then to the Ryukyu Islands. Kobayashi was captured and taken as a prisoner of war on Okinawa. He remained on Okinawa until the war ended.
Career Resumed with Lengthy Apprenticeship
Following the war, Kobayashi was able to resume his career in film and rejoin the staff at the Shochiku studios. Beginning in November 1946, he commenced what would be a six-year long apprenticeship as an assistant director. Kobayashi worked under Keisuke Kinoshita on 15 films. Kinoshita was not only Kobayashi's supervisor, he also served as his mentor. The two directors wrote one film together in 1949.
Kobayashi made his directorial debut in November 1952 with Musoko no seishun (My Sons' Youth). The film followed a middle-class family with two teenage sons who were about to go on their first dates. For Kobayashi's second effort, he used a script written by his mentor titled Magakoro (Sincere Heart). The script was a gift given by Kinoshita to commemorate Kobayashi's promotion within the studio.
"Kobayashi's instinct for self-preservation within the Shochiku system was correct," according to Audie Bock in World Film Directors. "In Kinoshita he had an excellent teacher and powerful patron. While none of the early films he made under direct Kinoshita tutelage are bad films, they are more his mentor's late style than his own, and very different from what Kobayashi already knew he wanted to do as a director."
That same year, Kobayashi decided it was time to embark on his own. The result was an independently made film called Kabe atskui heya (Room with Thick Walls). For the making of this film, Kobayashi started his own production company, Shinei Productions. Shochiku Film Company agreed to distribute the film. The subject he chose to examine for this film was an unvarnished look at Japanese wartime atrocities. The script, by the novelist Kobo Abê, was based on the diaries of lower level Japanese war criminals. The film was not released until 1956. The studio feared offending Americans with its subject matter. Ultimately, the film won the nation's Peace Culture Prize for that year.
Explored Controversial Subjects in Several Films
Kobayashi went on to make four more films with Shochiku. By 1956 Kobayashi considered himself to be sufficiently well established in his career, comfortable enough to make what would be a controversial film about corruption within professional baseball, Anata kaimasu (I'll Buy You). The film that followed it was no less controversial. Kuroi kawa (Black River, 1957) was another expose. This time Kobayashi peeked into the corruption and criminal elements surrounding the military bases in Japan.
The controversy these films stirred up dimmed in comparison to that caused by the epic film Ningen no joken (The Human Condition). The epic set in World War II was based on the six-volume novel by Jumpei Gomikawa. The film follows a single male character from the period of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria through the capture of Japanese soldiers by the Russians in 1945, after the Japanese surrender. As Pinksy wrote on the DVD Verdict website, "Kobayashi was likely drawn to the material because it parallels his own wartime experiences.
" The Human Condition feels above all uncompromisingly real. Effective use of exterior locations, detailed sets, minimal use of music, and an unflinching look at the horrible effect of war on human bodies (we are shown corpses killed by steam, torture, even executions on camera) force us to confront the realities of war," wrote Pinksy. "All this adds up to a strong sense that we are watching something true, like a documentary in narrative form."
Kobayashi chose to break the film into three parts, each of which was three hours or more in length. The film was ultimately entered into the Guinness Book of Records as the longest film in existence. The first film in the trilogy is known as No Greater Love (1959), set in 1943. It won the San Giorgio Prize at the Venice Film Festival and is regarded as a masterpiece. The other two films in the trilogy are Road to Eternity (1959) and A Soldier's Prayer (1961). Stanley Kubrick, the noted British director of films including 2001 and Dr. Strangelove, was said to have been inspired by the latter film in the trilogy, portions of which he used in creating the first segment of his own war film Full Metal Jacket.
Decade of Frustration Followed Successes
Kobayashi made a couple of other films before choosing to make a big budget picture. This blockbuster was Kwaidan (Kaidan, 1964), a film composed of four distinct ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn, which were based on traditional Japanese tales. The project had been in the planning for years. With Kaidan Kobayashi also abandoned the gritty realistic style for which he had become well known in favor of exploring beauty in a more stylized manner. It was also his first color film and is regarded as his most successful. The picture won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
His work in the 1960s was among his best. An essay in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers names Seppuku (Harakiri, 1962) and Joiuchi (Rebellion, 1967) as "Kobayashi's two finest films." These films utilize "historical settings to universalize his focus on the dissident individual. The masterly blend of style and content, with the unbending ritual of samurai convention perfectly matched by cool, reticent camera movement and elegantly geometric composition, marks in these two films the peak of Kobayashi's art."
The 1970s were difficult for Kobayashi. His films were categorically rejected by the studios for their social critiques. The industry had taken a distinctively different turn, favoring exploitation films over serious art. Kobayashi, Akira Kurosawa [best known for his films Seven Samurai (1954) and Rashomon (1951)], and two other filmmakers formed Yonki no Kai ("The Club of the Four Knights"). The idea was for the four to collaborate on a single film project. The partnership was aborted when the filmmakers could not reach consensus. With the effort's failure, each of the participants reluctantly decided to make a film for television.
For Kobayashi, the result of this was Kaseki, a television film based on the book by Yasushi Inoue. The project consisted of eight, one-hour segments. Filming took Kobayashi to different locations, including Europe. The project aired on television in 1972. According to the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Kobayashi is said to have considered the televised version "rough footage" for the cinema version. The series was later edited to 213 minutes and released as a feature film in 1975.
Chronicled War Crimes in Documentary
Kobayashi's next project was a disappointment, but the director redeemed himself with the film Tokyo saiban (The Tokyo Trials, 1983), a four-and-a-half-hour documentary epic. The film chronicles the events of the Pacific counterpart to the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials. During these war crimes trials before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, 28 high profile Japanese who had been in the military or politics during the Second World War were tried by the Allies. All were found guilty. Seven, including Hideki Tojo, the former Japanese Prime Minister, were hanged. For this documentary, Kobayashi combed thousands of reels of news footage, including 30,000 reels from the United States Pentagon.
Joan Mellen in The Nation explains that the film "looks at the Tokyo war-crimes trial in light of the American adventure in Vietnam; the film closes with shots of the Hiroshima bombing. So much for war guilt." It was released in the United States in 1984 and also won the FIRPRESI Award at the 1985 Berlin International Film Festival.
The last Kobayashi film was Shokutaku no nai ie (variously translated as either The Empty Table, House Without a Dining Table, or Fate of a Family, 1985). The work is fictional, based on real events involving a stand-off between police and radical Japanese terrorists. In the film, many of the radicals' parents are shown apologizing publicly for their children in order to save face. One of the parent's refuses, thus, Kobayashi is able to make a larger comment on contemporary society's insistence on tradition.
Remembered for Perfectionism, Social Commentary
Among his frequent collaborators was Toru Takemitsu, a composer, and actor Tatsuya Nakadai. Kobayashi and Takemitsu began working together in 1962 on Karamiai (The Inheritance). Shokutaku no nai ie was the last film for both masters.
Kobayashi was known as a perfectionist. He took his time on the set, possibly completing only three final takes in a day's work, which would be considered a slow pace for a director. Each of his films was carefully crafted. He even went so far as to paint sets himself.
Kobayashi's volume of production is not large compared to some of his contemporaries, such as Kurosawa, but his films are considered an important body of work. In a website dedicated to a Kobayashi retrospective at Columbia University, the corpus of his work is described as being wholly based on his experiences during the war. "Whether historical dramas or stories set in modern Japan, they reflect the director's rejection of military or social authority wielded at the expense of the individual. Few artists of any time or any culture have argued more passionately than Kobayashi against the abuse of power. None has revealed more dramatically the cost of such power for a society or an individual."
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, St. James Press, 1996.
World Film Directors, Volume 2 1945-1985, The H.W. Wilson Company, 1988.
Asia Africa Intelligence Wire (From The Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri), August 8, 2002.
The Nation, November 10, 1984.
"Deep Focus: Masaki Kobayashi (1916-1996)," DVD Verdict, October 11, 2000, http://www.dvdverdict.com/columns/deepfocus/kobayashi.shtml (February 10, 2003). □
Nationality: Japanese. Born: Hokkaido, 4 February 1916. Education: Educated in Oriental art at Waseda University, Tokyo, 1933–41. Military Service: Drafted into military service, served in Manchuria, 1942–44; following his refusal to be promoted above rank of private as expression of opposition to conduct of war, transferred to Ryukyu Islands, 1944, then interned in detention camp on Okinawa. Career: Assistant at Shochiku's Ofuna studios for 8 months prior to military service, 1941; returned to Shochiku, 1946; assistant director on staff of Keisuke Kinoshita, 1947–52; directed first film, 1952. Awards: Recipient, Special Jury Prizes, Cannes Festival, for Seppuku, 1963, and for Kwaidan, 1965. Died: 4 October 1996, in Tokyo, Japan, of cardiac arrest.
Films as Director:
Musuko no seishun (My Sons' Youth)
Magokoro (Sincerity; Sincere Heart)
Mittsu no ai (Three Loves) (+ sc); Kono hiroi sora no dokokani (Somewhere under the Broad Sky)
Uruwashiki saigetsu (Beautiful Days)
Kabe atsuki heya (The Thick-walled Room) (completed 1953); Izumi (The Spring; The Fountainhead); Anata kaimasu (I'llBuy You)
Kuroi kawa (Black River)
Ningen no joken I (The Human Condition Part I: No GreaterLove) (+ co-sc); Ningen no joken II (The Human ConditionPart II: Road to Eternity) (+ co-sc)
Ningen no joken III (The Human Condition Part III: A Soldier's Prayer) (+ co-sc)
Karami-ai (The Entanglement; The Inheritance); Seppuku (Harakiri)
Nihon no seishun (The Youth of Japan; Hymn to a Tired Man)
Inochi bo ni furo (Inn of Evil; At the Risk of My Life)
Kaseki (Fossils) (originally made for TV as 8-part series)
Tokyo saiban (The Tokyo Trials) (documentary)
Shokutaku no nai ie (The Empty Table)
By KOBAYASHI: articles—
"Harakiri, Kobayashi, Humanism," interview with James Silke, in Cinema (Beverly Hills), June/July 1963.
"Cinq japonais en quête de films: Masaki Kobayashi," interview with Max Tessier, in Ecran (Paris), March 1972.
Interview with Joan Mellen, in Voices from the Japanese Cinema, New York, 1975.
Interview with A. Tournès, in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), April 1985.
Interview with G. Bechtold and A. Meyer, in Filmfaust (Frankfurt am Main), January-Feburary 1987.
Interview with H. Niogret, in Positif (Paris), December 1993.
On KOBAYASHI: books—
Bock, Audie, Japanese Film Directors, New York, 1978; revised edition, Tokyo, 1985.
Blouin, Claude R., Le Chemin détourné: Essai sur Kobayashi et lecinéma Japonais, Quebec, 1982.
On KOBAYASHI: articles—
Richie, Donald, "The Younger Talents," in Sight and Sound (Lon-don), Spring 1960.
Iwabuchi, M., "Kobayashi's Trilogy," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1962.
Esnault, Philippe, "L'Astre japonais," in Image et Son (Paris), February 1969.
Kobayashi Section of Cinéma Québec (Montreal), February/March 1974.
Tucker, Richard, "Masaki Kobayashi," in International Film Guide1977, London, 1976.
"Masaki Kobayashi," in Film Dope (London), January 1985.
Gillett, John, "Masaki Kobayashi: Power and Spectacle," in National Film Theatre Booklet (London), July 1990.
Niogret, Hubert and Eithne O'Neill, "Masaki Kobayashi," in Positif (Paris), December 1993.
Gräfe, Lutz and Olaf Möller, "Die Ethik der nackten Klinge," in Film-Dienst (Cologne), 28 February 1995.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), 21 October 1996.
Obituary, in Séquences (Haute-Ville), November/December 1996.
Obituary, in EPD Film (Frankfurt), December 1996.
Obituary, in Film en Televisie + Video (Brussels), December 1996.
Minks, Patrick, "Masaki Kobayashi (1916–1996)," in Skrien (Am-sterdam), December-January 1996–1997.
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The dilemma of the dissenter—the individual who finds himself irrevocably at odds with his society—is the overriding preoccupation of Kobayashi's films, and one which grew directly from his own experience. In 1942, only months after starting his career at Shochiku studios, Kobayashi was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army and sent to Manchuria. A reluctant conscript, he refused promotion above the rank of private and was later a prisoner of war. Released in 1946, he returned to filmmaking, becoming assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita, whose flair for lyrical composition clearly influenced Kobayashi's own style—though he succeeded, fortunately, in shaking off the older director's penchant for excessive sentimentality.
Initially, Kobayashi's concern with social justice, and the clash between society and the individual, expressed itself in direct treatment of specific current issues: war criminals in Kabe atsuki heya—a subject so sensitive that the film's release was delayed three years; corruption in sport in Anata kaimasu; and, in Kuroi kawa, organized crime and prostitution rampant around U.S. bases in Japan. This phase of Kobayashi's career culminated in his towering three-part, nine-hour epic, Ningen no joken, a powerful and moving indictment of systematized brutality inherent in a militaristic society.
The ordeal of the pacifist Kaji, hero of Ningen no joken (played by Tatsuya Nakadai, Kobayashi's favorite actor), closely parallels the director's own experiences during the war. Kaji is the archetypal Kobayashi hero, who protests, struggles, and is finally killed by an oppressive and inhumane system. His death changes nothing and will not even be recorded; yet the mere fact of it stands as an assertion of indomitable humanity. Similarly, the heroes of Kobayashi's two finest films, Seppuku and Joiuchi, revolt, make their stand, and die—to no apparent avail. In these films Kobayashi turned the conventions of the jidai-geki (period movie) genre to his own ends, using historical settings to universalize his focus on the dissident individual. The masterly blend of style and content, with the unbending ritual of samurai convention perfectly matched by cool, reticent camera movement and elegantly geometric composition, marks in these two films the peak of Kobayashi's art.
By Japanese standards, Kobayashi made few films, working slowly and painstakingly with careful attention to detail. From Seppuku onwards, an increasing concern with formal beauty characterized his work, most notably in Kaidan. This film, based on four of Lafcadio Hearn's ghost stories, carried for once no social message, but developed a strikingly original use of color and exquisitely stylized visual composition. The crisis that overtook Japanese cinema in the late 1960s hit Kobayashi's career especially hard. His uncompromising seriousness of purpose and the measured cadences of his style held little appeal for an industry geared increasingly to flashy exploitation movies. Few of his projects came to fruition, and Kaseki had to be made first for television, a medium he disliked. He refused to watch the eight-hour TV transmission, regarding it merely as rough footage for his 213-minute cinema version.
Kaseki, in which a middle-aged businessman confronts the prospect of incurable cancer, seemed to mark a move away from Kobayashi's wider social concerns—as did the far weaker Moeru aki. Tokyo saiban, though, found him back on more characteristic ground. A tour-de-force of editing, it used archive and newsreel footage to make compelling drama of the Allied trials of Japanese wartime leaders. With Shokutaku no nai ie, his final film, Kobayashi returned to his central preoccupation, with a principled individual (Nakadai once again) standing out against daunting social pressures. Though lacking the impact of Ningen no joken or Seppuku, it evinced his undiminished skill in exploiting the tension between outward formality and inner turmoil and reaffirmed the austere integrity that informed all his work.