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The japanese identity of Masaki Kobayashi's movies



Of all talented Japanese movie directors, perhaps nobody is as overlooked by the Western audience as Masaki Kobayashi (1916-1996), whose anthologized work, nonetheless, had won him acclaim at numerous, prestigious film festivals, like Berlin, Cannes and Venice. Predominantly known in Japan, Masaki Kobayashi belongs to the same category of distinguished, unique, controversial, innovative and humanizing directors, alongside the renowned Ozu, Kurosawa and Ichikawa Kon, while in the Western world he can be rightly associated through his cinematic themes and vision with Coppola and Spielberg. Film critic Joan Mellen wrote about his artistic achievement that, “like other great revolutionary artists from Eisenstein to Brecht, [Kobayashi] integrates his powerful social perception and radical passion with an abiding and inventive command of film as an art form” (Mellen, 1975, p. 137). Two of Kobayashi’s movies stand out from all others due to their spellbinding cinematography, poetical overtones, fascinating performances and socio-political criticism. These two movies, Ningen no Joken (The Human Condition, 1959-61) and Seppuku (Hara-kiri, 1962), posses unusual sensitivity and insight, are gracefully expressive, emotionally uplifting and historically illuminating. Through these movies, Masaki Kobayashi manages to portray two different Japans at crucial turning points on the axis of history: a modern Japan, specifically one caught in the violent, oppressive and humiliating storms of fascism, WWII and the Post-War period, and an early modern Japan, in particular one ruled by feudal principles and distorted samurai values under 265 years of Tokugawa administration. Although they portray contrasting settings, both movies share the common theme of individual emancipation and search for redemption and authenticity in a despotic environment of extreme nationalism; moreover, the two movies dispel preconceived, misguided beliefs about the real meaning of samurai integrity and the unrecognized, pessimistic individualism of Japanese war soldiers. In Kobayashi’s words, “each of this films was a study of the individual against society” (Mellen, 1975, p. 138).
Because the samurai’s overstated, mythological characteristics (its virtuous incorruptibility and resolute, self-sacrificing devotion to the higher, ruling authority) played an important role in the unfolding of Japan’s fascist development, it is necessary, first of all, to analyze Kobayashi’s movie Seppuku. Commonly regarded as an ‘anti-feudal’ movie, Seppuku depicts the alteration or moral disfigurement of the upper-class institution in a medieval, conservative environment that oppressively stifles individual decency and consciousness. Here, just like in the preceding Ningen no Joken, Kobayashi’s “concern for action at all costs is tempered by a very real concern for social criticism” (Richie, 1961, p. 133).
The movie’s action takes place in 1630, almost 30 years after Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan and transferred political power from the emperor to the shogun, or military commander. Over 250 years of peace followed, in which the samurai warriors ceased to play an important role over governmental, historical matters. They were reduced to a life of contemplation, gratification and destitute living, while the high-ranking daimyos, or feudal lords who owned vast properties and land, attained the most privileges and prosperity, were involved in political affairs and made sure life went on according to their rules. Thus, class distinction was kept and the long-established etiquette was yet entirely observed and obeyed. It is in this social environment that the ronin, or masterless samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo, played by the 2nd most popular Japanese actor (after Toshiro Mifune) Tatsuya Nakadai, arrives at a feudal domain and asks to be hired or offered food, otherwise he will disembowel himself, or commit the ceremonial act of seppuku. The lord of the domain refuses to help, but allows Hanshiro to perform the ritualistic suicide as a point of honour. While he prepares for the final act, Hanshiro tells the gathered witnesses about another ronin, who arrived at the domain some time before, and asked for the same treatment, but was forced by the damiyo’s retainers to disembowel himself with a bamboo sword in a terrifying display of blood-spilling and agony. Eventually, Hanshiro reveals to those present that the previous samurai was his son who, because of hardship and distress, had come to the domain in the hope of finding a job in order to ameliorate the sufferings of his wife and child. In addition, Hanshiro presents the lord of the domain with three topknots, “the symbols of samurai manhood” (Varley, 2000, p. 323), which he had cut off from the ones that were directly involved in his son’s suicide. Revolted, the daimyo orders his samurais to kill Hanshiro who, in an overpowering outburst of sword-clashes and blows, falls to his death only after the soldiers, unable to restrain him, shoot him down with Portuguese rifles.
Far from being a conventional movie that glorifies the life and spirit of the samurai, Seppuku “argues that the conscience of the individual and his worth as a human being supersede in value the mentality of the clan” (Mellen, 1976, p. 86). Kobayashi knows that the popular, clichéd samurai image is obscured in real life by a fake mask of hypocrisy, pretense, corruption and insensibility, so he uses these claims as the main catalysts for tragedy and historical revelation. The fearless, noble deed of seppuku, “an ultimate act of self-denial and self-justification” (Maynard, 1997, p. 10), becomes an instrument of misery and subjugation in the hands of high-ranking officials. By forcing Hanshiro and his son to ritualistic suicide instead of rooting out the source of social displeasure, injustice, humiliation and poverty, the influential politicians reject individual expression and a person’s basic need for dignity and righteousness. For them, life is nothing more than a continuous submission to commanding authority, an ongoing obedience from which the lesser, individual powers cannot break free. Kobayashi’s Seppuku shows the outright absence of the unique, personalized expression of loyalty, incorruptibility and simplicity, the three trademarks of the celebrated Samurai character. It is because of this undeniable, moral scarcity that Hanshiro shouts disapprovingly at the officials who patiently await his ceremonial death: “Our honour merely adorns the surface”. It is because of this profane disrespect for the individual life that Hanshiro pulls down, before his ultimate death, the daimyo’s relics of the ancestors, symbolically destroying the icon of despotism and human repression in a last act of self-liberation. The ruthlessness of the feudal system and its poisonous authoritarian power are critically condemned at the end of the movie, while Hanshiro’s death “presages the end of the Samurai class” (Mellen, 1976, p. 90). Nevertheless, Kobayashi ends the movie on a hopeful, enthusiastic note: “I tried to express the possibility that human beings can overcome the tragic events of the world…[that] the tenacious human resilience continues to defy this extreme pressure” (Mellen, 1975, p. 147). Perhaps, it is this concern for human freedom, social justice and a deep sense for truth, honesty and virtue that Kobayashi managed to win with Seppuku the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, and other seven esteemed awards.
The same theme of ‘individual vs. society’ was explored in the epic masterpiece Ningen no Joken, completed the previous year before Seppuku. This time, however, Kobayashi chose a different, poignant subject and environment within the nebulous Japanese history, in order to present a personal “social consciousness” and his “strong conviction that I must resist authoritarian pressure“ (Mellen, 1975, p. 138): the military, life-changing experiences of a Japanese soldier during the Manchurian occupation, WWII and post-war period. What was to become “the first war film to show Japanese army as it actually was…and one of the most controversial productions ever made in Japan” (Richie, 1961, p. 134), was soon to represent Kobayashi’s magnum opus and the finest achievement in cinematography, acting, art direction and score to be enmeshed in a visual spectacle of moral themes and emotional message.
Once again, Kobayashi’s favourite actor, Tatsuya Nakadai, returns as the protagonist of movie. He plays Kaji, a young man who finds himself constantly at odds with his identity as a Japanese soldier, belonging to a nation politically predisposed to atrocities, brutality, enslavement, corruption and wickedness. The 9-hours movie follows Kaji’s difficult journey, both physical and spiritual, from occupied Manchuria, to the Japanese outposts at the Russian borders, through the gruesome battlefields and the abandoned landscapes of China, to the labour camps of Siberia, and eventually ends with Kaji’s demise, or the death of “a purity that the world of his time cannot permit to survive” (Mellen, 1976, p. 187). For Kobayashi, Kaji signifies the resilient individual force fighting to survive, fighting to maintain a last drop of human authenticity, of compassion, innocence and virtue against “the culmination of human evil” (Mellen, 1975 p. 145) embodied in the despotic machinery of the fascist system.
In a sense, Kaji is the younger version of Seppuku’s Hanshiro in a different background, a lone warrior trying desperately to unmask the exploiting injustice of an administrative government which threatens, depreciates and belittles the individual element. In Ningen no Joken, the feudalistic features of authoritative powers are portrayed by the cold-blooded guards who show no remorse in torturing, beating, starving and decapitating the Chinese prisoners of a Manchurian labour camp. More than that, the Chinese prisoners are regarded as inferior beings, mere tools to be used for production, easily discarded if they loose their usefulness by disease or hunger. Kaji fights this injustice and brutality only to be sent, as a greater punishment than death, into active duty. Here, he witnesses “the flagrant, mindless, degeneracy of the Japanese Army and the illusory idea that Stalin’s state represented a humanitarian social advance for man and a refuge against authoritarianism” (Mellen, 1976, p. 183). Kobayashi mercilessly portrays with graphic visualization the sadistic treatment of new recruits at the hands of the veterans. Humiliation, sexual abuse, insults and perversions are the main progenies of an institution that places great emphasis on “fixed hierarchies, absolute obedience and extreme physical discipline” (Mellen, 1976, p. 185). Once again, Kaji protests against this mistreatment, only to suffer drastic consequences at the hands of his superiors. Lastly, in the third part of the movie, Kaji tries to fight the oppression of a Russian labour camp in which he had been imprisoned, only to realize with disappointment that the Stalinist system, of which he was an admirer, is just a return to feudal, enslaving, dehumanizing principles, similar to fascism. Hope for a better, kinder world seems an impossible dream. Witnessing Kaji’s ordeals and sufferings, the viewers cannot but acknowledge that life is composed of one discouraging defeat after another, a crooked macrocosm for hate, fear and moral impairment, a cesspool of sin, corruption and decadence, a cruel bondage for every distinct, authentic individual at the mercy of superior authority.
One by one, Kaji tries to distance himself from these atrocious manifestations of the human spirit. In the end, after persevering through many tribulations, he is engulfed by the inescapable reality. His most touching line in the movie is the turbulent echo of a person who finally broke the chains that have restrained his unbounded spirit to collective blindness and manipulation: “It’s not my fault that I’m Japanese, yet my worst fault is that I am.” Kobayashi wants his audience to know that the unwavering aspiration for social integrity and individual authenticity does not die with Kaji, but “with his death, he lives in the minds of people for a long time as a symbol of the hope that we can eradicate the human tragedy of war” (Mellen, 1975, p. 147). This stunning, emotional anti-war movie garnered 11 awards, while Kobayashi became one of the greatest, unsurpassed humanists of international cinema.
Seppuku and Ningen no Joken were both positively received by the audience. Masaki Kobayashi’s movies were “so direct and so honest that the Japanese government was (initially, at any rate) rather unhappy at their going abroad” (Richie, 1981, p. 146). The reason for their success was not so much the extraordinary style, the masterful operation of the camera, or the superb, flawless acting of their characters, but rather the heartbreaking, stimulating, contemporary theme of the human being rising against the injustice of the authority. Both movies “pose the same moral conflict in terms of the struggle of the individual against society” (Mellen, 1975, p. 148). “These [human] struggles,” Kobayashi states, “are the main drama of all my films” (Mellen, 1975, p. 148). Through Seppuku and Ningen no Joken, the Western audience was able to unveil a mythical Japan and expose its astonishing conventions and history to the light of objective truth. Masaki Kobayashi remains to this day a defender of social rightness, a moral man who, in Pierre Billard’s words, “demands a return to the authenticity of a moral law” (Mellen, 1975, p. 134).






CITED SOURCES

Maynard, Senko K. Japanese Communication: Language and Thought in Context. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.

Mellen, Joan. Voices from the Japanese Cinema. New York: Liveright, 1975.
The Waves at Genji’s Door. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.

Richie, Donald. Japanese Movies. Tokyo: Japan Travel Bureau, 1961.
The Japanese Movie. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1981.

Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000.

Film: Ningen no Joken I-VI - The Human Condition I-VI, 1959-61, dir. Masaki Kobayashi.

Film: Seppuku - Harakiri, 1962, dir. Masaki Kobayashi.






by Collin Rusneac    5/1/2007


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