Although his life’s body of work is relatively small, Masaki Kobayashi produced two landmark films of Japanese cinema between 1959 and 1962. The first, The Human Condition, is an intense nine-hour rumination on Japanese atrocities through the eyes of one dissenting soldier. Although based on a novel, Kobayashi himself had served during the war and, like his protagonist, had resisted offers to be advanced into the officer class, preferring to remain rank-and-file. The work reflects Kobayashi’s broader world view, that all hierarchies of authority are ultimately destructive and should be resisted by the individual. This theme becomes the nucleus of several works to follow, the finest of which is 1962’s Harakiri (a.k.a. Seppuku).
For our screenings, Harakiri is the sole example of a genre that was enormously popular with mid-century Japanese audiences, that is, the jidai-geki, or what’s known in the West as costume dramas or period pieces. More often than not, these were escapist, action-oriented films, with very little in terms of controversial subtext. There were notable exceptions, however, the most famous of which is Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Despite that films greatness, Kurosawa often had a conflicted and confused view of feudal Japan, a caustic, critical eye jaundiced by romanticism and nostalgia for the past. It is an aesthetic of his work that brought both accolades and derision throughout his lifetime, and I think it would be fair to say that Kurosawa was more concerned with building up than tearing down, with offering quasi-egalitarian alternatives that some interpreted as wishful thinking, given the long-standing class divisions in Japanese culture.
Kobayashi, although a champion of Kurosawa’s work and close friend, could be seen as the converse. He possessed the caustic edge that Kurosawa lacked and used this to greatest effectiveness in Harakiri, a story that relentlessly dismantles the untouchable “golden age” of the Tokugawa era and exposes it for what Kobayashi believed it was: a thin facade of honor and nobility atop a foundation of hypocrisy and indifference to human suffering. Of course, Kobayashi’s pointed message transcended its safe jidai-geki setting. Japanese viewers at the time understood that he was also taking aim at the war criminals and military industrialists, as well as the new western-style capitalist corporations overtaking Japan, the zaibatsus, which he accused of domination masking as democracy.
As happened with so many other Japanese directors in the 1960s, the studio system stifled one of its most creative, if dissident, voices. Kobayashi found his opportunities drying up and eventually formed the film collective Yonki-no-Kai, or Club of the Four Knights, with fellow filmmakers Kurosawa, Ichikawa and Kinoshita. Despite the noble idea, the complete failure of Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den, and his subsequent suicide attempt, doomed the collective from the outset, with it producing only one script before disillusionment set in. Still, Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition and Harakiri stand as two bold anti-authoritarian statements that could have never been produced at any period before in Japanese filmmaking.