History from a High Angle

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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…

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