Sunday, April 21, 2013

Against The System

So this week Criterion has released it's newest Eclipse box set, and much to my delight, it's subject was none other than Masaki Kobayashi.  Kobayashi was responsible for some of my favorite films coming from Japan in the sixties, and this newest box set takes it even deeper into the mid-late fifties.  While that might seem a little extraneous, I feel that in that period of films, every year meant something different.  It was a period of financial success in much of Japan, but for many people (and many filmmakers, for that matter), the adjustment to post-war life carried the same sting as the war itself; there is no official end to animosity, and many found it hard to adjust their ideals and distrusted the current government who they felt had grown corrupt with commerce and industry.

The post-war treaties had made it impossible to make patriotic films for quite some time, and the jidaigeki genre, which served filmmakers in Japan since even before the war, had matured with the times, and by the sixties, it was being used to even greater social effect.  Akira Kurosawa once said that it was pointless to make a period drama if it didn't have something to say about what was going on now, and there were few who did that to greater effect than Masaki Kobayashi.

Kobayashi spent the earliest part of his career as prisoner of war.  Being drafted almost immediately after he began his apprenticeship, Kobayashi refused being promoted beyond the rank of private and considered himself a pacifist, and it wasn't until his release in 1946 that he was able to return to Shochiku Studios and assist director Keisuke Kinoshita.

It's worth mentioning Kinoshita briefly, as it is very probable to believe that he was a major influence on Kobayashi at the time.  Though working at Shochiku for most of his career, Kinoshita was constantly changing throughout, giving himself new subject matters and genres, or at least new ways of approaching them.  Shochiku was known for it's tales of everyday, working class people, known as shomin-geki, and though directors like Ozu and Naruse were both creating beautiful pieces that reflected the outlook of many Japanese in a more austere, ever simplifying aesthetic, I feel like Kinoshita was more interested in pushing boundaries in new ways of film-making,  as well as exploring the subject of lost innocence, which would become a hallmark of his style.  It is wholly possible that this is where Kobayashi found his voice, among a like-minded mentor who appreciated democracy and who never shied away from his own ideals, and who in fact, grew ever more nihilistic as the sixties approached.

With several of his own films under his best, and after already tackling the direct effects of World War II in The Thick Walled Room (Kabe Atsuki Heya), it was Kobayshi then, who would explore even further into a more pessimistic worldview, directing such masterpieces as The Human Condition (Ningen no Joken), and Harakiri, both startling criticisms of Japan at the time.  The Human Condition especially, was Kobayashi's firm and unrelenting criticism of war and the macho indoctrination of Japanese males at the time.  Ever the pacifist, Kobayshi was able to say more about the war with single gunshots than near any other film of that time, as in any of his films, violence never supplements morality.
It is also very important to mention Kobayashi's relationship with actor Tatsuya Nakadai, of who Kobayashi would help to launch the career of and form a like-minded friendship with throughout his career.  Though overshadowed in cinematic history by Akira Kurosawa (and it would be Kurosawa's films that Nakadai is often famous for), Kobayshi and Nakadai made 11 films together, and those films are more important to me than any such films by Kurosawa.  That isn't to say that I don't love Kurosawa, but there is something about the almost counterculture nature of Kobayshi's films, along with his beautifully sweeping camerawork and collaborations with Toru Takemitsu (who was also more well know in his collaborations with Kurosawa, as well as countless other directors of the time) that resonated more with me.  It's not that the elements of his films aren't seen in the corners of popular Japanese cinema at the time, but what is so appealing about Kobayshi is that he was able to fashion all of those elements into something edgier; whittling his blunt stick into a sharp, stabbing tool, ever piercing and ever haunting.
Also, to point out, spell check tries to correct me when I write the name Kobayshi, but not Kurosawa, and that's kinda bullshit.

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