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History from a High Angle

Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
A scene from Masaki Kobayashi’s film Seppuku (1962)

Midway through the director Masaki Kobayashi’s film The Fossil (1975), the aging protagonist Itsuki summarizes his experience during World War II: “We should probably all have died in that war. Even so, I am still alive today.” These two statements exemplify the core concerns of Kobayashi’s films in the way they move from generational concerns to individual ones and present postwar experience as bonus time.

Born in Hokkaido in 1916, Kobayashi was part of the first class to study with the pioneering art historian Yaichi Aizu at Waseda University. Upon graduation in 1941, he joined the eminent film studio Shochiku, but his nascent career as an assistant director came to an abrupt halt when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor that December. He was drafted into the army and survived the war through what he regarded as an accident of history: his unit, which had been based in Manchuria, was redirected to the island of Miyakojima to construct an airfield, narrowly avoiding the ferocious combat in the Philippines and Okinawa (where he later spent nearly a year interned as a prisoner of war).

Few directors have been as obsessively concerned with the causes and effects of the war, which Kobayashi began addressing in his breakthrough feature, The Thick-Walled Room (1953), about the B- and C-class war criminals—“ordinary soldiers” rather than war leaders—held in Sugamo prison. The film’s release was delayed for three years until 1956 due to the controversial subject matter. Similar issues are addressed in Youth of Japan (1968) and Tokyo Saiban, a four-and-a-half-hour documentary about the Tokyo war crimes trials that he completed in 1983.

What unites these films is an interest in the tension between the fixity of official narratives and the complexities of lived experience. Kobayashi said that he “had a postwar mentality even before the war,” but felt guilty about his unwillingness to fully realize his opposition in wartime. These sentiments motivated him to make the three-part, nine-and-a-half-hour epic The Human Condition (1959–1961), an adaptation of a six-volume novel by Junpei Gomikawa that traces the moral ascent and descent of a Japanese pacifist named Kaji who, like Kobayashi, was sent to Manchuria.

Kobayashi’s concern with the gap between events and their recording was articulated most strongly in his 1962 film Seppuku (the American title, Harakiri, employs the more familiar and vulgar term, thereby losing some of the ritual connotations central to Kobayashi’s film). Early in it, there is a shot of the official register of the Iyi clan, with a narrator reading an entry announcing that nothing of great importance happened on May 13, 1630, except that a wandering samurai from Hiroshima appeared at the gate. In the two hours that follow, Kobayashi provides the background for this historical footnote, slowly mapping out the social dynamics and political hypocrisies underlying the enforcement of the Tokugawa shogunate’s military code (it would remain in effect until 1868).

What the historical record of the Iyi clan does not indicate is that, in the course of responding to the unjust treatment of his son-in-law, the samurai humiliated three of the clan’s warriors, killed four retainers, smashed through the center of the clan’s compound, knocked its ancestral armor to the ground, and was finally defeated by guns, not by ardent displays of swordsmanship. The samurai’s ethically grounded actions could be construed as a type of resistance to an oppressive regime, but in the film’s final moments, a series of interlinked tracking shots show blood-spattered mats removed and the ancestral armor restored to pride of place.

Seppuku is one of the major achievements of black-and-white cinematography, and its moral urgency is directly connected to its complex treatment of space. Kobayashi began his postwar film career at Shochiku as an assistant to the director Keisuke Kinoshita, and his early films reflect Kinoshita’s influence in their precise delineation of environments and naturalistic mise-en-scène. In this respect, Kobayashi pursued a different path from his contemporary rival Akira Kurosawa, who was drawn to compositions that suited his vigorous montage and maximized tension, both among groups of figures—often arranged in threes—and among spatial planes. Like Kurosawa, Kobayashi used diagonal motion to heighten the viewer’s perceptions of space, but he tended to reserve it for dramatic eruptions of violence like the climactic car collision at the end of Black River (1957). From the time production began on The Human Condition to the release of his last samurai film, Inn of Evil (1971), Kobayashi employed widescreen compositions, and the breadth of CinemaScope strengthened the aesthetic preferences of his earlier work.

With Seppuku, which he later described as an attempt at creatively challenging Kurosawa, Kobayashi added an additional element to his compositions by highlighting the geometric repetitions fundamental to traditional Japanese architecture. Physical structures like beams and shōji screens, clusters of figures, and pockets of open space are made to echo back and forth across the screen, creating the impression that space is both deep and compressed. The juxtaposition of slow, graceful dolly shots and plane-flattening zooms simultaneously reinforces and disrupts this sense of formality.

Kobayashi’s two most important and enduring collaborators, the actor Tatsuya Nakadai and the composer Tōru Takemitsu, contributed greatly to these paradoxical effects. Nakadai was trained in the modern shingeki theater, which synthesized Western developments ranging from Ibsenian psychological realism to Stanislavsky’s mnemonic gestures. His bold facial expressions, supple movements, and nuanced vocal inflections epitomized the new style of acting introduced in the 1950s, and his performance in Seppuku offered a riposte to the conventions of the samurai film (Kurosawa cast Nakadai as the gun-toting villain in Yojimbo, 1961, for similar reasons). This sense of modernity was heightened by Takemitsu’s atmospheric approach to scoring. Informed by contemporary developments in avant-garde music, Takemitsu replaced the melodic lines used prominently (sometimes too prominently) in Kobayashi’s earlier work with clusters of instrumentation.

Stephen Prince’s meticulously researched new book, A Dream of Resistance: The Cinema of Kobayashi Masaki, is sensitive to many of these issues and refreshingly demonstrates the insights a scholar can arrive at by using rigorous auteurist analysis and concentrating on recurring stylistic and narrative devices. His discussions of the early films Kobayashi made before Black River and of the underrecognized works of his late period are particularly valuable. Both will help make readers aware of Kobayashi’s achievements beyond the mid-career films for which he remains best known outside of Japan (The Human Condition; Seppuku; Kwaidan, 1965; and Samurai Rebellion, 1967).

Biographical information can, of course, never adequately explain an artist’s works, but there is a great deal of new information in this book, the first English-language study of its kind, that is derived from interviews and the primary materials held by the Kobayashi archive. Also welcome is the attention Prince gives to the religious dimensions of Kobayashi’s work, a laudable corrective to a lacuna within much film scholarship. As Prince makes clear at the outset, his goal is to move beyond the reductive political readings that have shaped Kobayashi’s reputation in the West, where he is often treated as an earnestly didactic opponent of authoritarian systems.

Kobayashi frequently included high-angle shots in his films, which he attributed to his childhood experience of the mountains in Hokkaido, and Prince finds deep significance in these framings. According to Prince, shots in which the camera

looks down on a scene’s dramatic action…can be understood as expressions of numinous value and moments where the eternal breaks into the temporal, making manifest the tendency of life to strive beyond itself.

Prince’s language is informed by the theologian Paul Tillich’s ideas about the relationship between “horizontal and vertical thinking,” which enable him to argue that Kobayashi’s high-angle shots suggest movement along a “vertical” axis of moral development that complements (and sometimes interrupts) the “horizontal” unfolding of the plot. By using this vantage point to establish a meditative remove from narrative events, Prince suggests, Kobayashi is able to give viewers a “vertical” perspective that will help them perceive and overcome endemic cycles of violence. In his writings of the 1950s and 1960s (especially the three-volume Systematic Theology), Tillich connected these vertical and horizontal metaphors to his “method of correlation,” in which he tried to align Christian theology with psychological models and then-current debates about existentialism.1

Prince does not discuss Tillich’s “method of correlation,” but it helps to justify his attempt to relate changes in vantage point within Kobayashi’s films to the shifts in spiritual awareness that the filmmaker strove to induce in the viewer. Although he was married in a Christian ceremony, Kobayashi appears not to have had a fixed religious affiliation, and he remained interested in Buddhism and Buddhist art throughout his life. Nevertheless, there are pronounced Christian influences throughout his work, from a pair of postwar dramas about Japanese Christians (Sincerity, 1953, and The Three Loves, 1954) to the extensive Passion iconography at the end of The Human Condition (the first part of which has the Johannine title No Greater Love), the parallels with Christ in the Shūsaku Endō adaptation Youth of Japan, and even the narrator’s declaration at the end of the first part of Tokyo Saiban that the 1937–1938 atrocities in Nanking are a “cross that the Japanese people must bear forever.”

Whatever moral and personal significance it may have in Kobayashi’s work, the oblique, high-angle vantage point is also a long-standing feature of Japanese narrative painting, originating in Heian period (794–1185) yamato-e and continuing through the modern nihonga styles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The so-called fukinuki yatai (“roofs blown off”) technique enabled artists to efficiently depict action in interior space within the physical constraints of the picture scroll format. It also influenced the development of a distinctive Japanese form that used partitions to set up poetic connections between depictions of discrete stories within a continuously unfolding picture. Kobayashi explicitly emulates these conventions in parts of Kwaidan, but given his study of Japanese art history with Yaichi Aizu, whom Kobayashi at one point called “the source of my aesthetics,” they are surely also relevant to his other films.

Indeed, the greatness of Kobayashi’s best films derives in part from the complex and sometimes ambivalent ways in which they modernize traditions (and ideas of tradition) that had been disastrously co-opted during the war. After breaking down the power and class assumptions embedded in the Tokugawa government’s samurai codes, Seppuku shows the protagonist fulfilling his promise and committing the titular act just before he is shot by Iyi clan soldiers. Ironically reaffirming his position as the film’s most sincere follower of bushido, this gesture suggests less that he has abnegated the established order than that he is trying idealistically to renew it from within, through a reform that is brutally erased from the historical record. Appropriately, Takemitsu’s modernist score features one of the first substantial uses in the postwar period of the biwa, a four- or five-stringed instrument that was promoted by the Tokugawa shogunate and used for militarist propaganda from the 1890s to the 1940s.

In this respect, the filmmaker that Kobayashi most resembles is not Kurosawa, but Kenji Mizoguchi. Trained as a Western-style yōga painter and shaped by the complex amalgam of tradition and modernity that characterized the Meiji period (1868–1912), Mizoguchi also made extensive use of the type of high-angle camera positions employed by Kobayashi. They are especially prominent in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), The 47 Ronin (1941–1942), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Unlike Kobayashi (whose high-angle shots are often static), Mizoguchi had a predilection for elaborate vertical crane movements, using them as part of a mobile mise-en-scène that fused emotional intensity with reflective distance. Mizoguchi became an active practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism in the final phase of his career and this religious perspective is acutely evident in the high-angle camera movements that cyclically bracket Ugetsu (the film begins with a descent by crane to ground level and ends by reversing the movement).

Mizoguchi went even further at the end of Sansho the Bailiff. After a wayward son and his now-blind mother are reunited, the camera slowly pulls up and away, suggesting detachment from narrative events and displacing the underlying emotions onto the landscape. What is truly remarkable about the sequence, however, is the ease with which it brings different iconographic patterns together. The son pleads for recognition in the pose of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, and the mother accepts his identity when she touches a statue of Kannon he had carried with him from childhood, finally embracing his collapsed body in an overt reworking of a Pietà.2 The profundity of the sequence lies not in the presence of both Buddhist and Christian metaphors of sacred maternity—Mizoguchi had used Marian imagery more incongruously at the end of Women of the Night (1948)—but in having found the point at which they merge.

Kobayashi attempted a similarly syncretic fusion in The Fossil, a three-and-a-half-hour film distilled from an eight-part television series. Adapted from a novel by Yasushi Inoue, it brings together many of Kobayashi’s signature themes—the legacies of the war, existential anxieties, the tension between the spirit and the flesh—and develops motifs from earlier films (the roving exploration of sculptures by Auguste Rodin early in the film, for example, recalls the movements around the Iyi ancestral armor that open and close Seppuku). After the main character, Itsuki, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he talks with a mysterious woman who embodies death and then begins sifting through remembered fragments from the Western and Asian wisdom traditions. Reflections on the transmigration of souls segue into a discussion of the treatment of natural cycles in Ecclesiastes, and visits to the Romanesque cathedrals of Burgundy summon up a memory of a famous passage from Confucius’s Analects (“Like the water in a river, everything flows without rest”).

What holds all of this together and keeps the film from ponderous bathos is the sensuous immediacy of the extended encounters with the sculptures in Autun Cathedral and Vézelay Abbey. Itsuki is repeatedly shown looking at relief sculptures through binoculars, but the combination of cuts and zooms at once simulates and decenters his point of view. A sinuous montage captures both his physical movement through sacred space and the gradual transformation of his consciousness as he engages with these buildings and works of art. Itsuki says that there might be similar places in Nara (the subject of Kobayashi’s undergraduate thesis) or Kyoto, but he has never been there.

As in a Japanese variant of the British Grand Tour or Goethe’s Italian journey, travel to remote monuments inspires a reconsideration of the boundaries of the self and the functions of memory. Interestingly, Prince describes Kobayashi’s repeated attempts to adapt Tonkō (1959), an earlier Inoue novel about the Buddhist grottoes at Dunhuang, along the Silk Road (the main conduit for Buddhism into Japan). The project would have entailed a journey back to northern China, but production was blocked for a quarter-century, first by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution and then by the disintegration of the Japanese film industry.3

In its complex treatment of flashbacks and point of view, The Fossil develops strategies central to earlier Kobayashi films like The Human Condition, The Inheritance (1962), and Seppuku, but the absence of CinemaScope and a studio-based mise-en-scène results in an inevitable sense of diminished scale. Although Kobayashi made every effort to avoid televisual banality by using associational montage, location shooting, and creative applications of the zoom lens, the film still suggests the difficulties faced by Japanese filmmakers committed to epic forms in a period marked by decreasing audiences and studio retrenchment. Kurosawa responded to these pressures by making Dersu Uzala (1975) in the Soviet Union, and he needed the support of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola to secure financing for Kagemusha (1980). Kobayashi’s final films were made possible thanks to backing from sources outside the industry such as the Mitsukoshi department store chain (Glowing Autumn, 1979) and the publishing giant Kodansha (Tokyo Saiban).

Tokyo Saiban, Kobayashi’s last major film, brought his career full circle. The release by the Pentagon in 1978 of footage from the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (which was in session from April 29, 1946, until November 12, 1948) made it possible to revisit the questions of wartime guilt and responsibility that he had first broached in The Thick-Walled Room.4 Kobayashi’s judicious selection of material draws attention to some of the surprising moments captured by the cameras (like the movement of feet or the sudden tapping of one defendant’s head), but he does not allow them to overwhelm the complicated legal arguments the viewer is asked to conscientiously attend to. A narrator summarizes critical points, and Kobayashi supplements these with dense montages of historical footage, demonstrating the ways in which the proceedings doubled as a critical inquiry into the war’s causes and prosecution.

Kobayashi never downplays the severity of Japanese war crimes, but Tokyo Saiban also acknowledges the blind spots and expediencies that left lingering questions about the objectivity of the tribunal. Two important defendants were left out of the trial because the number of seats in the courtroom was predetermined, and as several participants noted, the prosecutorial strategy, which focused on criminal conspiracy to wage war, had been developed at Nuremberg and could not be seamlessly transplanted to the Japanese political situation.

Tokyo Saiban, like Kobayashi’s other post–Human Condition films, includes a score by Tōru Takemitsu, although in this work it is used sparingly. Without smoothing over the sometimes irreconcilable tensions delineated by the montage, Takemitsu’s otherworldly sound clusters introduce an element of abstraction that complements the philosophical reflections on war, justice, and the systematization of violence. The tension between the pressures created by those systems and the ethical decisions of people intractably caught within them was Kobayashi’s abiding subject. His films remain topical, but not in the way they may first appear. Kobayashi was neither a radical iconoclast nor an advocate of tendentious didacticism, but something much rarer: a voice of conscience who recognized the necessity, as well as the difficulty, of coming to terms with the ambiguities of subjectivity and the ironies of history.

  1. 1

    Tillich argued that this method revealed “at every point of Christian thought, the interdependence between the ultimate questions to which philosophy…is driven and the answers given in the Christian message.” See The Essential Tillich (University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 83.  

  2. 2

    The “prodigal son” metaphors also echo Chapter 4 of the Lotus Sutra, which gives special attention to the bodhisattva Kannon (Guanyin) and which Nichiren saw as the locus of Buddhist teaching. On Kannon as a focus of popular piety in the Edo and Meiji periods, see Martin Collcutt, “The Image of Kannon as Compassionate Mother in Meiji Art and Culture,” in Challenging Past and Present: The Metamorphosis of Nineteenth-Century Japanese Art, edited by Ellen P. Conant (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006), pp. 197–224.
    The actress who played the mother in Sansho the Bailiff, Kinuyo Tanaka, was Mizoguchi’s muse and Kobayashi’s father’s cousin. She helped Kobayashi secure a position at Shochiku and he later worked to establish a film award in her honor.  

  3. 3

    Inoue’s novel was translated into English by Jean Oda Moy as Tun-huang (New York Review Books, 2010).  

  4. 4

    Kobayashi had earlier attempted to make a fictional film about the Japanese diplomat Kōki Hirota, the one civilian executed as a Class-A war criminal.