Kobayashi retrospective

Kobayashi Masaki - centre of group, on set.

Kobayashi Masaki – centre of group, on set.

The International Leeds Film Festival is screening six films by Kobayashi Masaki [shown as Masaki Kobayashi in English-language credits – search Webpages under titles]. He is one of the important directors in the post-war Japanese cinema. He has a distinctive style but even more a distinctive content.

He was born in 1916. During World War II he served in the Japanese army in Manchuria. The experience had a profound effect on him and it colours all of his films in some way. From 1947 he served as an assistant to the established director Kinoshita Keisuke. One of the latter’s famous films is Carmen Comes Home (Karumen kokyö ni kaeru, 1951) starring the notable Japanese actress Takamine Hideko. Kobayashi’s time with Kinoshita was important, an example of the strength of this sort of apprentice system in the Japanese Studios. The ‘Kinoshita School’ worked within the Shochiku Studio. And another member was Kobayashi’s cousin Tanaka Kinuyo, whose retrospective last year was one of the highlights in the 2012 programme.

Kobayashi was noted as a perfectionist and as insisting on his own choice of projects. Over a directorial career of thirty-three years he only directed 22 features. His output included films set during the war and the subsequent occupation: jidai-geki [period] dramas including samurai films and documentaries. His films were often openly critical of the established order and of Japanese conduct in the war. Consequently he was frequently heavily criticised and such opposition slowed down the production of his films.

Harakiri (Seppuku, Shochiku 1962. Black and white, 133 minutes).

This is a samurai tales set in the Edo period, in 1615. The film deals with ritual suicide and includes a flashback that sets out the code of such killings. The film is fairly graphic in its use of violence but it has beautiful compositions. And the film uses samurai motifs to comment on the actions of the characters.

The Human Condition

The Human Condition

Three of the films screened comprise Kobayashi’s great trilogy of The Human Condition (Ningen no joken, produced at Shochiku between 1959 and 1961, in black and white). In Part I: No Greater Love  (208 minutes) the protagonist Kaji is working in Southern Manchuria. He criticises the treatment of the Chinese and Manchurian labourers in the Steel Works. This leads him into conflict with the authorities but also to witnessing the brutal treatment meted out by the occupying army. In Part II: Road to Eternity (181 minutes) Kaji has been called up and the film details his experiences, which include witnessing war atrocities and the brutal treatment of Japanese conscripts, both of which he tries to prevent. Part III: A Soldier’s Prayer (191 minutes) is set in the immediate post-war when Kaji is captured and becomes a POW in a Soviet controlled camp. The three films present the harrowing experience of Kaji, and it can be harrowing for the audience. But it is informed by s strong sense of humanism and by Kobayashi’s own experiences of war. He said in one interview, “I am Kaji”.

Kwaidan (Kaidan, Toho 1964, in colour – showing in the full 161 minute version]. The film is comprised of four ghost stories, a genre at which Japanese cinema excels. And commonly the films have an opaque line between the world of ghosts and the actual world of the human characters. The four stories are, firstly Black Hair (Kurokami) a rather macabre tale about a young samurai who marries twice. The Woman of the Snow (Yuki-onna) tells of an encounter between two woodcutters and the Snow Woman. This is quite ethereal. Hoichi the Earless (Miminashi Hoichi) is about a blind but skilful storyteller who discovers that in his audience are ghostly warriors of the famous Taira clan. As the title suggests this is also slightly macabre. In a Cup of Tea (Chawan mo naka) is about a ghostly reflection in water, but the tale is told in a rather complex manner, which provides a suitable shock to end the film.



Samurai Rebellion (Jöiuchi: Hairyö tsuma shimatsu, Toho 1967 128 minutes. A tale of how the samurai code leads to conflict and the final confrontation of the title. The film stars the famous Toshiro Mifune.

The films represent Kobayashi in his most celebrated decade of the 1960s. It was then that his mature style appeared. From then on he worked mainly in scope, often with striking black and white compositions. His films are immediately pictorial, with careful construction. The widescreen format allows him to place characters within settings, often with an almost-tableaux effect. Note that his later films are equally worth seeing, especially the very fine The Empty Table (Shokutaka no nai ie 1985) which recalls Ozu in its formal gravity. This was his final feature and he died in 1996.

As with many fine directors Kobayashi had a number of long-term colleagues. One is the actor Nakadai Tatsuya, who appears in all the films screened in this programme. Two others are the cinematographer Miyajima Yoshio and sound engineer Nishizaki Keiichi, both of whom made an important contribution to the monumental The Human Condition.

So the programme offers a unique opportunity to see the work of a major Japanese filmmaker and within this one of the outstanding films to deal with the great C20th conflict of the 1940s. And, except for Harakiri [presented in a DCP] all the films are screening in their original format of 35m.

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