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.
Columbia University: Japanese Film Masters, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ealac/jfm/ (February 10, 2003).
"Deep Focus: Masaki Kobayashi (1916-1996)," DVD Verdict, October 11, 2000, http://www.dvdverdict.com/columns/deepfocus/kobayashi.shtml (February 10, 2003).