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Related Reading: Japanese Film Directors by Audie Bock and Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History edited by Arthur Nolletti Jr. and David Desser.


The Human Condition, 1959-61

Nakadai/ARatama Masaki Kobayashi's six-part magnum opus, The Human Condition, based on Junpei Gomikawa's postwar novel, bears the imprint of Kobayashi's tutelage under legendary filmmaker Keisuke Kinoshita at Shochiku's Ofuna studio, a critical, introspective, and deeply personal account of wartime Japan framed from the perspective of an idealistic everyman (and Kobayashi's alterego), Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai). Opening to the ironic image of lovers Kaji and Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) meeting under an archway auspiciously called the Southern Gate of Peace in Manchuria as Imperial troops march in the street, Kobayashi presents an incisive image of 1930s Japanese society that is morally consumed - and ravaged - by increasingly extremist values of militarism, occupation, and nationalism.

Parts 1 and 2 chronicles Kaji's assignment as a labor camp manager at a rural outpost in southern Manchuria, a position that he had reluctantly accepted to avoid imminent conscription to the Imperial army. Brimming with wide-eyed (and implicitly leftist) theories on worker relations and industrial production, Kaji is confronted with the reality of the rampant abuse, exploitation, and inhumane working conditions at the mine, where forced laborers and designated "special prisoners" (presumably captured Chinese insurgents, but more likely, enslaved peasants) are routinely beaten, overworked, and undernourished (using the convenient excuse of nationwide rationing) in the name of increased production to support the ongoing war effort. Candidly exposing such taboo issues as the forced recruitment of comfort women (usually from occupied territories), slavery of the colonized population, and mass execution of civilians, the first installment of The Human Condition, nevertheless, captures redemptive moments of grace, most notably in Kaji's cultivated relationships with the world weary, but sympathetic senior official, Okishima (So Yamamura) and the Chinese labor leader, Chen (Akira Ishihama).

Parts 3 and 4 continues with Kaji's travails as a junior enlisted man in the Imperial army stationed at an outpost in the frozen tundra of northern Manchuria. Despite proving himself a disciplined soldier and excellent marksman, Kaji's prospects for promotion in rank have been systematically stifled by senior officers wary of his leftist tendencies and blemished record with the Kenpeitai (military police) from his former career as a labor camp manager. Resigned to a demoralizing existence of continual harassment from veteran soldiers who share barracks with new recruits, Kaji gradually finds renewed purpose in his role as protector, initially, in supporting a bullied, fragile soldier, Obara (Kunie Tanaka), then subsequently, in leading a class of new recruits. As in Parts 1 and 2, the second installment of The Human Condition reinforces the sense of a dysfunctional morality engendered by a culture of ingrained hierarchy, entitlement, and aggression as virtue in the jingoistic quest of winning the war at all cost.

Parts 5 and 6, in a way, represents an inverted full circle, a Japanese rendition of the Long March (in this case, from north to south) in which Russian Red Army forces and Chinese insurgents patrol the countryside in the waning days of the Pacific War, and the soldiers return to a transformed landscape where the Japanese are now the displaced refugees left to fend for themselves, exploited and humiliated by their conquerors. Determined to make his way home, Kaji soon realizes that he cannot escape the toll of the battlefield, and even the hope of compassionate treatment under the ideals of an enlightened revolution proves to be an illusion in the face of petty grudges, self-interest, and miscommunication. Suffused with recurring images of figurative concealment - night time excursions, jungles, and obscuring grain fields - the final installment of The Human Condition is more austere and alienated than the preceding chapters, reflecting the sense of disillusionment intrinsic in Kobayashi's caustic social indictment. Concluding as the installment began with the twilight image of Kaji instinctively heading south to return home to his beloved Michiko, Kobayashi creates a sobering allegory for a tainted national soul in the indelible image of noble determination and blind delusion.

© Acquarello 2009. All rights reserved. First posted on The Auteurs Notebook, 11/11/09.

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Seppuku, 1962
[Harakiri]

Nakadai/MikuniThe retainer log book for the Official Residence of Lord Iyi reports that at midday on an otherwise uneventful day on the thirteenth of May 1630, during the absence of the Honorable Heir Bennosuke, a gaunt, former retainer of the Lord of Geishu arrives at the mansion gates and is granted an interview with the Iyi clan elder, Saito Kayegu (Rentaro Mikuni). The solemn and enigmatic ronin (masterless samurai), Tsugumo Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai), has led a dire life of poverty since the abolition of the Geishu clan in 1619, and now expresses his desire to die with dignity and commit harakiri (ritual disembowelment) in the sanctity of warlord grounds. However, in an era of peace with few employment prospects for samurai in the dwindling local feudal clans that were allowed to remain after the centralization of power by the Tokugawa shogunate, the request has become commonplace. Spurred by reports of generosity and benevolence towards the destitute ronins among the surviving clans, many desperate samurai have insincerely requested admission to commit harakiri with the expectation of being turned away with a small pittance. Saito cautions Tsugumo against making such a request, citing a pathetic and tragic incident involving another Geishu retainer, Chijiwa Motome (Akira Ishihama), who insincerely threatened harakiri as a ruse to obtain charity, and was compelled by the Iyi retainers to carry out the agonizing ritual using only a bamboo blade - the empty tokens of his privileged class pawned long ago to provide for his family. Undeterred, Tsugumo reaffirms his determination to perform the sacred act of seppuku (the disembowelment ritual performed in the presence of a second officiate swordsman who carries out the final head cutting), and requests the services of swordsman, Omodaka Hikokuro (Tetsuro Tamba), to act as his second officiate. Upon learning that Omodaka has taken a leave of absence, Tsugumo names two other Iyi retainers to carry out the task, Kawabe Umenosuke (Yoshio Aoki), then Yazaki Hayato (Ichirô Nakaya), to no avail. As Tsugumo waits for the indisposed retainers, he proceeds to recount the story of his disillusioned life that led to this fateful day.

Based on a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi, Harakiri is a scathing indictment on the hypocrisy, repression, and barbarism of codified behavior. Using rigid rectangular framing against fluid tracking shots and exquisitely composed long shots that delineate class station and social disparity, Masaki Kobayashi visually reflects the oppressive confinement and regimentation of the samurai bushido (code of conduct): the title sequence presented against shots of the empty passageways that lead to the sacred chamber of the Iyi clan's ancestral armor; the isolating, diagonal shots of Saito's interviews with Tsugumo and Chijiwa; the repeated image of Tsugumo on a ceremonial mat encircled by retainers. By illustrating the class stratification and imposed social conformity fostered by the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1867) as a means of retaining and centralizing authority, Kobayashi presents a harrowing indictment of the ingrained cultural legacy of coercive, outmoded rituals, chauvinism, and blind obedience that resulted in the inhumanity and senseless tragedy of the Pacific War.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu, 1967
[Samurai Rebellion]

Kato/MifuneIn a time of sustained peace, the powerful daimyo (feudal warlords) have become resigned to an existence of pointless exercises and petty bureaucracy in a determined effort to retain privilege and curry favors from Edo. In an attempt to stave off boredom, Lord Matsudaira's (Tatsuo Matsumura) seasoned swordsman, Isaburo Sasahara (Toshirô Mifune) and his trusted colleague Tatewaki Asano (Tatsuya Nakadai), have been relegated to the task of evaluating swords by felling straw dummies for a report to the chamberlain and reviewing uneventful border records for the daimyo. On the afternoon preceding the Suwa Shrine Festival, steward Takahashi (Shigeru Kôyama) pays a visit to the Sasahara residence in order to propose - or more appropriately, coerce - an arranged marriage between Lord Matsudaira's disfavored mistress, Lady Ichi (Yôko Tsukasa), and Isaburo's oldest son, Yogoro (Takeshi Kato). Having given birth to Lord Matsudaira's younger son, but reported to have physically attacked the daimyo in open court, the controversial Lady Ichi seems an unsuitable match for the reticent and unassuming Yogoro. However, to refuse Lord Matsudaira's request would be deemed an act of defiance and threatens to sully the family name. Impulsively, Yogoro accepts the disagreeable proposition on behalf of his reluctant father, a decision that proves to be an unexpected blessing as the young couple settle into a life of mutual affection and respect. But soon, fortune would turn against the Sasahara family, as Lord Matsudaira demands Ichi's return, and Isaburo is forced to choose between allegiance to his master and devotion to his beloved daughter-in-law.

Masaki Kobayashi presents a sublime and haunting examination of conformity, inhumanity, and abuse of power in Samurai Rebellion. Through highly formalized compositions and meticulous, rectilinear framing - usually shot against shoji screens and visually limiting passageways - Kobayashi reflects the rigid code of conduct, structured behavior, and suppression of individual will that define daily existence under the regional daimyo of the Tokugawa shogunate in a myopic and repressive effort to exert public control and eradicate dissent. The expansive, panoramic exterior shots contrasted against the clinically spare and isolating interior scenes that figuratively bound interpersonal dialogue further serve to reinforce a sense of entrapment and inescapability of social class: Takahashi's intransigence in accepting Isaburo's refusal of the daimyo's offer; the matriarch, Suga's (Michiko Otsuka) preemptive admonition of Ichi's expected conduct at the end of the wedding ceremony; the formal presentation of Yogoro's written request; Ichi's intolerable inquisition at the courtyard. In the end, Yogoro's selfless act of defiance towards the oppressive laws of the capricious daimyo forges a lonely and noble path through the dark and forbidding frontier of oppression - innately guided by the illumination of hope, conscience, love, and humanity.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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