This was the centrepiece of the retrospective of Kobayashi Masaki at the Leeds International Film Festival. This is a trilogy of films running for nine and half-hours in total. The films follow the physical and emotional journey of Kaji (Nakadai Tatsuya) through the Japanese occupation of Manchuria during World War II. The films offer the most potent expression of Kobayashi’s loss of faith in devotion to the traditional codes of honour and obedience. The Festival Catalogue quotes Philip Kemp’s question: “The dilemma of the principled dissident – how can someone who rejects the basic tenets of an unjust society remain within it and avoid being tainted and even ultimately corrupted by it?” A dilemma expressed in a line of dialogue by Kaji in the film, “It’s not my fault that I’m Japanese … yet it’s my worse crime that I am!” [English subtitle].
Like all of Kobayashi’s films from 1959 onwards the drama is presented with carefully designed mise en scène and with excellent widescreen compositions. The black and white Shochiku Grandscope cinematography is by Miyajima Yoshio and this is one of the finest aspects of the films. All three features were screened in good quality 35mm prints.
Ningen no jôken: (Daichibu: Jun’ai hen; Daishibu: Gekido hen) – The Human Condition: Part 1; No Greater Love, 1959, 208 minutes.
The film opens in 1943 in Manchuria where Kaji works for the South Manchuria Steel Company. The firm depends on Chinese and Manchurian labour. As a junior manger Kaji produces a report arguing that more humane treatment of the indigenous labour would actually increase production. Kaji is sent to the Loh Hu Liong mine to test out his theories. Though he receives support from a colleague he faces opposition from the military government (Kempeitai), the mine executives, the mine pit bosses and the Manchurian contractors who skim money off the workers. The focus of these problems are 600 Chinese prisoners who are forced to labour in the mine
The Chinese labourers are supplied with the services of local prostitutes and some individual relationships develop. One of these in particular comes back to haunt Kaji at the close of the film. There are also attempts at escape by some of the more active prisoners. This leads to a public execution with a military firing squad. Forced to go along with this Kaji is caught between his humanitarian concern for the labourers and his duties to the code. This is also the occasions when a mass protest by the Chinese labourers confronts the army personnel.
The film opens with a night-time shot. It is snowing and centre screen is a large tunnel through which a military patrol can be seen. Two people emerge from the darkness, Kaji and Michiko (Awashima Chikage). This is a stunning shot with which to open the film. But it also sets up the thematic concerns. The falling snow and darkness sum up Kaji’s predicament, caught in no-man lands but not out of range of the army, enforcer of the code. The massive blocks suggest the weight of entrenched values that weigh down on him. Both Kaji and Michiko are living in communal hostels. Michiko wants them to marry and set up their own home: Kaji prevaricates, troubled by what would be both a gamble and be frowned on by his peers. This indecision sets the tone for the whole series of films as Kaji tries but never fully succeed in resolving his contradictory position.
The film’s story and characters are presented all the way through with fine imagery. The exteriors benefit from the widescreen compositions. But the interiors are also powerfully composed. The architecture of rooms and of the prison camp reinforced the feeling of entrapment. Right at the end of the film as Kaji returns to be greeted by Michiko the setting, among hillocks of black soil excavated from the mine, comments on their situation: and this is reinforced by the figure of one of the prostitutes on the skyline.
However, the powerful drama is undermined at times by excessive melodrama and this is accentuated by the music. Some of this is excellent, adding a sense of oppression. But at other times the use of melodramatic themes and martial airs seems to distract from the drama. Audie Bock in Japanese Film Directors (1978) comments: “The story is an excruciating one, sentimentalised in moments by the participation of Kobayashi’s long-time allies, scriptwriter-director Zenso Matsuyama and composer Chuji Kinoshita.” But he also notes how Kaji is ‘played to perfection’ by Nakadai Tatsuya. The film won the San Giorgio Prize at the Venice Film Festival
Nineteen no jôken (Daisanbu: Becky hen: Daishibu Sen’un hen / The Human Condition Part 2: Road to Eternity, 1959, 181 minutes.
Having lost his deferred status Kaji is called up for military service. The army life is just as brutal for ordinary recruits as was the labour camp at the mine. Kaji is relatively proficient at military duties, which offer some some protection. A fellow recruit Obara (Tanaka Kunie) is seen as weak and inadequate and become the butt of bullying. As with the mine labourers Kaji tries to protect him but fails. His closest friend is Shinjo (Sata Kei) who has communist leanings: both men are antagonistic to the authoritarian regime. The war is now running against Japan and Soviet forces are pressing into Manchuria. The Japanese soldiers unsuccessfully attempt to hold their advance. Once again Kaji becomes complicit in criminal violence. By the late stages of the war he is reduced to a desperate desire to survive and make it home to Michiko.
The film once more uses fine widescreen compositions, especially in the exteriors. Composition is also important in the interiors, and the barracks become a setting of shadow and containment. At one point Michiko is able to visit Kaji and the meeting in a small store hut also displays the oppressive setting. It is worth noting that Michiko appears to be the stereotypical submissive Japanese wife. Certainly she does not display the forthright resistance found in the heroines in the films of Naruse Mikio. But she is a strong character, indicated by the relationship in Part I and here also in the way that she supports Kaji.
Road to Eternity seems a more cohesive film that No Greater Love. In part this is due to the film’s focus on the military and Kaji’s experience in one unit, and over a more concentrated period. But like Part I this is a bleak story and the overall tone is pessimistic. Visually it is as impressive as the first film, though like that there are occasional discordant notes of melodrama and military music at odds with the critical tone.
Ningen no jôken: Kanketsu hen (Daigobu: Shi no dassatsu; Dairokubu: Aarano no hôkô / The Human Condition Part 3: A Soldier’s Prayer, 1961, 190 minutes.
This was where the problems of a Festival surface and I missed the concluding film of the trilogy. My friend Stephen did see it and thought it was the most impressive of the three films and described some really fine widescreen compositions, including Kaji travelling through the Manchurian woodlands. The film shows the last stages of the war and eventually Kaji is imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp. He escapes and continues his desperate attempt to return home to Michiko.
The whole trilogy is an extremely impressive work of art. And even in the post-war Japanese cinema it stands out for the uncompromising critique of traditional codes. Kobayashi had some early connections with the Japanese New Film Wave of the 1960s, and whilst the story and style are more traditional than avant-garde, it achieves something of the same rupture with the conventional culture. Stephen thought the film was typical of the post-war humanism in Japanese films: something earnestly worked at during the US occupation after the Japanese surrender. The film certainly shares some of the values found in, for example, Kurosawa’s post-war films. However, Kobayashi’s trilogy has a central pessimism that is some way removed from other humanist films. This particular sense is something that sets him apart from other Japanese filmmaker of the period.
What also makes his best films, like The Human Condition, memorable is the command of composition. His films are nearly all in the scope format, a number of them with black and white cinematography. One is constantly taken with the beauty of the images on screen but also with the way that the composition draws out the tragic situation of many of his protagonists. The Leeds Film Festival is to be commended for screening the whole epic work in 35mm, thanks in part to the support of the Japan Film Centre. And also a word of praise for the Hyde Park Cinema staff who projected the films. A real treat – and equal to the fine Tanaka Kinuyo retrospective of 2012.
This samurai film was produced at Toho Studio but also co-produced by the Mifune Production, the company of its star Mifune Toshirô, This effected the film’s story and Rebellion lacked the balance of Kobayashi’s other films. The Leeds International Film Festival Catalogue describes the film as ‘another masterpiece’ and ‘his last major film’ which I thinks underestimates his later work. The film was a popular success in Japan, partly I suspect because of its star Mifune and of the samurai set pieces in the latter part of the film. However, Kobayashi still imbues the film with his critiques of authority, the official code of honour and the Japanese concern with face. There are also signs of the influence of the samurai films by Kurosawa Akira, which is possibly partly explained by the presence of Mifune. But here again the heroic stance typical of Kurosawa is undercut to a degree by Kobayashi and his scriptwriters Hashimoto Shinobu and Takiguchi Yasuhiko. Donald Ritchie, the veteran critic of Japanese cinema, is quoted in the Catalogue: “When Samurai Rebellion first opened, nearly forty years ago, I wrote in my Japan Times review: “It is the feudal concept that is at fault, and not the men who seemingly control it but are actually controlled by it … Such human qualities as love, dignity, self-realisation are – as a mater of course – crushed beneath the weight of this terrifying, if man-made, machine.”
The film opens with a test of a new samurai sword by Sasahara Isaburo (Mifune) and Asano Tatewaki (Nakadai Tatsuya). These are the two most skilled of the samurai in the household of Lord Matsudaira Masakata. You can guess that they will figure in the beautifully choreographed and generic finale. But for most of the film the plot follows Isaburo. At the Lord’s behest Isaburo’s son Sasahara Yogoro (Katô Gô) marries one of the Lord’s concubines, Ichi (Tsukasa Yôko). Their marriage produces a child, which gratifies Isaburo. However, the interests of the clan household intervene in family life once more. And Isaburo comes into conflict both with his lord and with the samurai code.
The first half of the film is concerned with the developing contradictions and the machinations in the feudal lord’s household. The latter part of the film is much more generic and leads up to a classic samurai confrontation. This later part is less typical of Kobayashi’s work and seems much closer to a typical Mifune samurai portrait. I felt that this unbalanced the film and also produces some lacunae in the story. After the marriage of his son Isaburo renounces his status as head of the family household. And when the tensions with the lord first arise he defers to his son over the matter. However, as we reach the climatic confrontation Mifune takes over the head role and the central focus in the plot. Even so, the film’s ending has the quiet defeatism that typifies Kobayashi’s work.
As always the film is beautifully constructed and composed. There are a number of impressive widescreen landscapes, especially towards the film’s end. However, the interiors, like the earlier Hara-kiri, are also carefully composed and suggest volumes about the characters through positioning and settings. The cinematography is by Yamada Kazuo in black and white Tohoscope, which looked great in a new 35mm print
Dogme #1, directed by Thomas Vinterberg and released in Denmark in 1998 was one of the European Catalyst films screened at the Leeds International Film Festival. These films have “game changing features running through the history of world cinema that were the first in influential movements.” There can be few examples where the opening salvo of a movement has arrived with so much aplomb and panache as Festen (The Celebration).
Three siblings, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), Hélene (Paprika Steen) and Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) arrive at an affluent hotel for the celebrations of their wealthy father’s sixtieth birthday. The dinner and party are also attended by a large number of members of the extended family, friends and colleagues. And there is also a ghost at the banquet: Christian’s dead twin sister Linda, who committed suicide. Revelations from the past during the weekend reveal this as a completely dysfunctional family, with not only vicious verbal infighting but outright violence.
The film was made following the ‘Ten Commandments’ of the Dogme Manifesto. So we have all the trademarks of this film group: hand-held camera, natural lighting and sound, no special effects and the then rare Academy film ratio. The film was shot of video, [though Vinterberg would have preferred 35mm] and this gives it a raw and tawdry look. What is most noticeable about the film is another Dogme trademark, the intensity of characterisation and action. Henning Moritzen, who plays the father, was quoted from a press conference in Sight & Sound (February 1999) “The main departure was that the camera followed him rather than him having to follow the camera. He didn’t have to worry about hitting marks and was therefore able to give a performance much closer to what he would have attempted had he been playing the corrupt old patriarch on stage.”
The film inverts one of the recent stereotypes of popular cinema and television, the dysfunctional proletarian family. Here it is the bourgeois family that is dysfunctional. Vinterberg is quoted in the Festival Catalogue: “You know fascism is very much about the anxiety of the ‘foreign’. And I guess this whole story is about that. The anxiety of something else other than what you’re used to. Something breaking the rituals, something disturbing the rituals.” He makes the point that Hélene brings with her an African-American boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakinah). Just about all of the guests at this party join in the singing of a racist song. And Michael, who is dominated by oedipal feelings, attacks several people including his own wife and workers at the hotel. At times the appalling older members of the family reminded me of those in Visconti’s great film The Damned (Götterdämmerung 1969).
Roy, in his review of the film, suggested that it is melodrama – which is true. He also suggests that it is a genre film – which I think not. This would breach the Dogme Vow ‘Genre movies are not acceptable.’ I think that melodrama is a mode of drama, rather like tragedy. A genre would be the family melodrama. Of course, you could place this film in that genre: the Sight & Sound article also suggested the country house drama. And we do have conventional plot mechanisms such as the revelation from the past, and the letter from the past. But the film completely subverts these as indeed it subverts the conventions of most of the contemporary cinema.
Vinterberg, along with Dogme comrade Lars von Trier, threw a bombshell into the world of film in 1998, rather along the lines of the bombshell that Christian lobs into the expensive gourmet meal at the weekend. I was as impressed at this screening as I was when the film first appeared. This is great cinema – funny, sardonic, even tragic and certainly moving. And we watched it on a good 35mm print, the format in which it was originally released.
The Leeds International Film Festival has tradition of screening films from the Silent Era with live musical accompaniment. This year there were two such events, both in the Victoria Hall. This concert hall is blessed with a large pipe organ, an accompaniment I have not heard for some time. The instrument offers a great variety of sounds, timbres and volumes. So the resident organist Simon Lindley bought a distinctive musical dimension to the films.
The first screening was the Soviet Classic Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin1925). This was in a digital version of the Deutsche Kinemathek restoration. The quality of the image was impressive, especially for a film produced eighty years ago. The digital frame rate was slightly fast in some of the rapid montage sequence is justly famous. However, the film also has passages of a more restrained tempo and even lyrical moments. The organ accompaniment was able to give great and varied play to these changes.
The second film was a German classic, Faust (1926) directed by the legendary F. W. Murnau. The projection used the recent Eureka version with the original German titles. The film has impressive sequences that utilise the German expertise in chiaroscuro lighting and in the use of models and special effects. And the famed actor Emil Jannings dominates the film with his characterisation of Mephisto. The organ proved to be extremely appropriate for the religious themes in this work but also for the melodramatic sequences at the climax. This was a lunchtime screening and the Hall was packed.