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A Dream of Resistance: The Cinema of Kobayashi Masaki

A Dream of Resistance: The Cinema of Kobayashi Masaki

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A Dream of Resistance: The Cinema of Kobayashi Masaki

518 Seiten
8 Stunden
Nov 16, 2017


Celebrated as one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers, Kobayashi Masaki’s scorching depictions of war and militarism marked him as a uniquely defiant voice in post-war Japanese cinema. A pacifist drafted into Japan’s Imperial Army, Kobayashi survived the war with his principles intact and created a body of work that was uncompromising in its critique of the nation’s military heritage. Yet his renowned political critiques were grounded in spiritual perspectives, integrating motifs and beliefs from both Buddhism and Christianity.  

A Dream of Resistance is the first book in English to explore Kobayashi’s entire career, from the early films he made at Shochiku studio, to internationally-acclaimed masterpieces like The Human Condition, Harakiri, and Samurai Rebellion, and on to his final work for NHK Television. Closely examining how Kobayashi’s upbringing and intellectual history shaped the values of his work, Stephen Prince illuminates the political and religious dimensions of Kobayashi’s films, interpreting them as a prayer for peace in troubled times. Prince draws from a wealth of rare archives, including previously untranslated interviews, material that Kobayashi wrote about his films, and even the young director’s wartime diary. The result is an unprecedented portrait of this singular filmmaker.  
Nov 16, 2017

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A Dream of Resistance - Stephen Prince

Advance Praise for A Dream of Resistance

Though director Kobayashi Masaki did not leave behind a large number of works, he conveyed through his films the stupidity, misery, and emptiness of war, which he experienced firsthand when he was forced to go to war. We see the origins of this in the diary, screenplays, and shishōsetsu that he kept on writing so as to leave behind proof of being alive during the days of his youth when death was a constant neighbor.

He was regarded as a filmmaker of steel. But throughout his films—from his first family drama to his final film, The Empty Table (Shokutaku no nai ie)—you can see the figure of the director himself, drawn to beauty, friendly, easily moved to tears, prone to feeling lonely, straightforward, and possessing the heart of a youth. The reason that foreign audiences have praised and loved his work is surely that they identify with the love of humanity that they see in this figure.

It has been one hundred years since Kobayashi Masaki’s birth and twenty since his death. I sincerely hope that through Professor Prince’s book, the thoughts that director Kobayashi entrusted to his films will cross national borders and reach a new generation.

—Kajiyama Koko, Managing Director, Geiyukai, Kobayashi Masaki archive

All people possess dignity and should live in a manner befitting human beings. Through his films, director Kobayashi Masaki insists that this is how human existence ought to be. In The Human Condition, Harakiri, and Kaseki, this dignity is conveyed through the tragic dimensions of characters’ lives. In Tokyo saiban, it is communicated by holding all parties, including both accusers and accused, responsible for moving towards peace and a wish for the repose of countless souls. Kobayashi’s insistence on human dignity, situated in his sense of aesthetics and ethics, has struck a chord with many people not only in Japan but in each of the countries in which his works have been shown.

2016 marks one hundred years since director Kobayashi’s birth and twenty years since his death. In commemoration, Professor Prince delves broadly and deeply into the world of Kobayashi’s films, providing an introduction to the international community. This will be a great boon to a new generation of audiences.

—Ogasawara Kiyoshi, coauthor of the screenplay for Tokyo saiban

A Dream of Resistance

A Dream of Resistance

The Cinema of Kobayashi Masaki

Stephen Prince

Rutgers University Press

New Brunswick, Camden, and Newark, New Jersey, and London

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Prince, Stephen, 1955– author.

Title: A dream of resistance : the cinema of Kobayashi Masaki / Stephen Prince.

Description: New Brunswick : Rutgers University Press, 2017. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2017011903 (print) | LCCN 2017027501 (ebook) | ISBN 9780813592374 (E-pub) | ISBN 9780813592381 (Web PDF) | ISBN 9780813592350 (hardback)

Subjects: LCSH: Kobayashi, Masaki, 1916–1996—Criticism and interpretation. | BISAC: PERFORMING ARTS / Film & Video / History & Criticism. | BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Entertainment & Performing Arts.

Classification: LCC PN1998.3.M338885 (ebook) | LCC PN1998.3.M338885 P75 2017 (print) | DDC 791.4302/33092—dc23

LC record available at

A British Cataloging-in-Publication record for this book is available from the British Library.

Copyright © 2018 by Stephen Prince

All rights reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. Please contact Rutgers University Press, 106 Somerset Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. The only exception to this prohibition is fair use as defined by U.S. copyright law.

∞ The paper used in this publication meets the requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48–1992.

Manufactured in the United States of America

For Susan



1 Conjoining Spirit and World

2 A Sharp and Piercing Thorn

3 The Logic of Negation

4 Guardians of the Gate

5 A Pilgrim on the Silk Road


Films by Kobayashi Masaki



A Dream of Resistance


In 1990 when he was seventy-four years old, Kobayashi Masaki was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun on behalf of Japan’s Emperor. It is the highest honor conferred on an artist by the Japanese government. That same year he was awarded France’s Order of Arts and Letters, recognizing his contribution to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world. In 1971 the Cannes International Film Festival conferred a special honorary award on Kobayashi recognizing him as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. In 1999 and again in 2009, Kinema Junpo, Japan’s most prestigious film journal, named Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962) and The Human Condition (Ningen no joken, 1959–1961) as being among the greatest films ever made in Japan. Harakiri, Kwaidan (Kaidan, 1964), and Samurai Rebellion (Joi-uchi: Hairyo tsuma shimatsu, 1967), made in succession, collectively earned two Special Jury Awards at Cannes, the International Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival, the British Film Institute’s Sutherland Trophy, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Feted at home and abroad as one of Japan’s premiere filmmakers, Kobayashi was a key player in Japan’s postwar cinema, and his artistic voice was singular and often scorching in its depiction and criticism of the nation’s military heritage and its wars. How is it then that there are as yet no major studies of Kobayashi’s work in English?¹ (There are chapters and essays, but these tend to be widely dispersed.) In light of his stature and importance, this is a surprising omission. Perhaps the vagaries of film distribution are a factor. Unlike Kurosawa Akira, whose entire body of work is readily available to viewers, many Kobayashi films remain out of circulation. He worked as a director for more than thirty years, and yet, in the United States, he is known primarily for the three period films made in succession: Harakiri, Kwaidan, and Samurai Rebellion. Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion are classics of the sword-fight genre, and Kwaidan is widely known for its exquisite cinematography and production design. These are among Kobayashi’s most accomplished and distinguished films, but, in some respects, they are atypical. Unlike Kurosawa, Mizoguchi Kenji, or Okamoto Kihachi, for example, he did not regularly work in period films. In fact, his three best known films represent virtually all of his output in that genre. He made only one other—We Who Give Our Lives for Nothing (Inochi bo ni furo, 1971)—but this film has not been widely seen by American audiences.

Kobayashi specialized in films about the modern era—often about Japan’s disastrous wars in China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific—and did so from the point of view of a pacifist who had been drafted into an army that he hated and who was compelled to fight in a war that he would have rejected had he been able to do so. As a soldier in Japan’s Imperial Army, he served in Manchuria where the army’s brutality reinforced his pre-existing disdain for the institution and his strongly held antiauthoritarian values. Though many viewers recognize this outlook in his work, Kobayashi was a more prolific filmmaker, and the films are more varied, than is generally understood. He began directing in 1952, and in twelve years, he had completed fifteen films. The furious pace at which he worked probably resulted from the frustrations that he experienced over seeing his long-cherished career as a director evaporate in the face of war. He had joined Shochiku studio in 1941 as an assistant director in training. Almost immediately thereafter, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and he was drafted and sent to Manchuria. When the war ended, he could not return home for another year because he’d been detained by the Americans and held in a labor camp on Okinawa. His career had been derailed, and when he did get back he faced a long apprenticeship before he could graduate to director. He served this under Kinoshita Keisuke, a director who was only four years older than he was. Kinoshita had not gone to university like Kobayashi but went straight into films, joining Shochiku in 1933. Kurosawa, who was only a few years older than Kobayashi and hadn’t spent years in higher education, became an assistant director in 1936. Moreover, because Kurosawa was exempted from the draft, he established himself professionally a full decade before Kobayashi did. So when he finally got to direct, Kobayashi went full bore and almost immediately became a bad boy at Shochiku by breaking with its house style to make The Thick-Walled Room (Kabe atsuki heya, 1956), about Japan’s war criminals housed at Sugamo Prison.

Most of the scholarship and criticism on his work tends to concentrate on The Human Condition, Harakiri, and Samurai Rebellion, encouraging perspectives on Kobayashi that take him primarily as a political filmmaker. Kobayashi’s own remarks have tended to support this view. He often told interviewers that his key theme was the struggle of the individual against society. If my films have any meaning, I feel it lies in my depiction of human problems created by the powerful historical framework. Historical interpretation always plays a very fundamental, important part in my films. The relationship of an individual’s conscience to his setting is my main theme.² While this description is valid, it seems likely that Kobayashi was responding to and voicing the critical consensus emerging around his work in the wake of the critical and popular success of The Human Condition and Harakiri.

In this regard, one of my objectives is to complicate our understanding of the films by moving beyond some of the common templates through which they have been understood. These take Kobayashi as a filmmaker who offers a secular, materialist analysis of social power and an antiauthoritarian critique of Japan’s military heritage. I wish to extend this perspective by considering additional influences on the films provided by religion and art. These furnish the grounds that motivate the political critiques offered by many of the films, and they qualify and contextualize those critiques. I am not suggesting that Kobayashi is a religious filmmaker in terms of doctrinal content or procedures, but I will be suggesting that the political critiques for which he is best known are grounded in spiritual perspectives. It is not surprising that these would be present, because, as I hope to suggest, they are tied to multiple factors. Kobayashi experienced the kind of life-altering events that can prompt one to ask questions about the nature of existence and the meaning of mortality. His mother who had helped open the arts to young Masaki died when he was quite young. During his time in the army while stationed on Miyako Island, he and his group were bombarded by air and sea, and he witnessed several deaths that left only partial remains of people he had known. Death’s swift and seemingly arbitrary selection of victims shook him deeply. He wrote about this in his diary and about the crisis of belief that such events instilled in him. He returned from the war to learn that his father had died and that a beloved older brother, as well as a dear friend, had been killed in battle. The fallen world that he depicts in film likely has one source in these traumas.

The physical environment that he experienced in his youth was another factor influencing his spiritual outlook and is tied as well to the love for Buddhist art and its history that he imbibed from Aizu Yaichi, his professor at Waseda University. Kobayashi grew up surrounded by mountains and an alpine culture that valued a sense of the sublime evoked by majestic views from on high. Moreover, mountains were sacred spaces for Shinto, zones where deities might be found or where the cycles of life might begin or end. Kobayashi understood the expansive sense that views from a great height afforded. From this connection, he developed a signature element of cinematic design, a favored filming position, which was a high-angle view in which his camera looks down on a scene’s dramatic action. These high-angle shots form a pattern that extends across the body of his work, and they convey a diverse range of meanings. I suggest that these high-angle views can be understood as expressions of numinous value and of moments where the eternal breaks into the temporal, making manifest the tendency of life to strive beyond itself. This is a function of what I shall term, after theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich, the vertical dimension, that is, the phenomenological connection of spirit with verticality. For Tillich, the vertical direction is a line upward to something ultimate and transtemporal. It is the self-transcending function of life in which life is both in itself and above itself. This conception applies well to Kobayashi’s work; his use of the high angle in a scene often is a judicious expression of the kind of simultaneity that Tillich describes, where being is present at once within two domains, that of the horizontal (person-to-person, person-to-thing) and the vertical.

A judicious application of Tillich’s work to Kobayashi’s films helps to illuminate some of their key issues. Why Tillich? He is relevant for several reasons. Both men experienced war and authoritarian political systems that led them to view history as a series of traumatic conflicts that eroded belief in historical progress. Each had a keen sense of the terror of history, the way in which the raw crush of events deforms human life and produces misery. What Tillich described about history corresponded with what Kobayashi showed on film: The demonic is also always present in history and is a refutation of every Utopian self-deception whether it is secular . . . or Christian.³ By demonic, Tillich did not mean spirits or metaphysical beings. He used the term to designate the destructive perversion of creative life energy. The dialectic of form-creation and form-destruction was an inevitable component of being-in-the-world, and the demonic designated that moment when the will to create became overwhelmingly destructive. Throughout his film career, Kobayashi pursued the demons of Japanese history, especially those of militarism and war. Both men experienced war in ways that changed their lives. Having enlisted in the German army in 1914, Tillich served as a chaplain and gravedigger at the Battle of Verdun in World War I. He experienced the horror and carnage of that slaughter at close quarters and described it as an unimaginable hell. In the 1930s, he clashed with the Nazi party, which banned and burned his books and blacklisted him from his university post, prompting him to emigrate to the United States. Having experienced fascism in his home country, he felt that McCarthyism in the 1950s was an incipient form of fascism, and the FBI monitored his activities. For Tillich, historical materialism and Marxist socialism offered only a horizontal line through existing time and space, a belief that the classless society very soon would come to be. Lutheranism offered only a vertical line, that is, a stance of patient submission to divine authority. Tillich aimed to unite the horizontal and the vertical in a form of religious socialism, and, as I will suggest, Kobayashi’s films aim to overcome the terror of history by integrating an ethic of horizontal affiliation with a vertical line upward to the ultimate and transtemporal. For Kobayashi, as for Tillich, the history of art manifests these divine impulses, and as we will see this history provides in the films a continuing indicator of the vertical dimension.

Tillich’s syncretic outlook led him to Japan in 1960, where he had been invited to lecture and where he engaged in discussions with spiritual leaders of Shinto and Buddhism, querying them about theological elements in their religions and seeking points of comparison with Christianity. From these discussions, he resolved to reject all forms of Western provincialism in his own thought and noted that they have confirmed my theological conviction that one cannot divide the religions of mankind [sic] into one true and many false religions.⁴ Unlike Tillich, Kobayashi had no religious affiliation, but he was attracted to both Buddhism and Christianity. Although he did not study Christianity or receive Christian schooling, he was drawn to its philosophy for reasons that I shall explore. His films exhibit multiple patterns of religious meaning. Images of Buddha and the forms and media of Buddhist art proliferate, especially in Harakiri, Kwaidan, and The World of Aizu Yaichi: The Buddhas of Nara (Aizu Yaichi no sekai: Nara no hotoke-tachi, 1996). Christian characters, images, and motifs are prevalent in Sincerity (Magakoro, 1953), The Three Loves (Mittsu no ai, 1954), The Thick-Walled Room, The Human Condition, and Kaseki (1975). Glowing Autumn (Moeru aki, 1979) ends by placing its heroine in a mosque in Iran from whence she embarks on a spiritual journey. Kobayashi’s graceful integration of these traditions points to his pluralist outlook and to the numinous values that lie at the core of his work.

Returning now to Kobayashi’s elevated compositions, I need to contextualize and qualify some of the foregoing assertions. It will be important to understand what these high-angle views are not. Although one point of origin is Hokkaido’s mountainous terrain, they are not themselves signs of sublimity. They do not function to instill a sense of the sublime in viewers, nor do they work to provide emotionally intense experiences for viewers, which might be the most common expectation regarding their function. Although, as I will point out, the alpine culture in place during Kobayashi’s youth was influenced by Western conceptions of the sublime, such conceptions in Western art and philosophy have been influenced by Immanuel Kant’s discussion in The Critique of Judgement (1790) and elsewhere. They describe confrontations with something that is massive or great and is so beyond human boundaries as to be simultaneously terrifying and pleasurable, dreadful and elevating. Cynthia Freeland’s elaboration of Kant’s discussion in reference to cinema includes examples of films and scenes that evoke the emotional experiences that Kant described. Of a high-angle perspective in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), she writes that the sequence offers a distant, soaring view of the Andes Mountains. It is not simply the scenery here that is sublime, but also the presentation of it. Herzog’s camera is literally elevated in the opening scene. Viewers seem to float down eerily through cloud-topped peaks and jagged ravines. From a great distance, the camera reveals a line of miniature humans who can barely be seen. It reinforces feelings of the sublime by making the scenery vast and overwhelming in proportion to the ant-like human enterprise within it.

There is nothing like this in Kobayashi’s films. His elevated camera positions do not aim to intensify emotion or to overwhelm viewers with a sense of vastness, massiveness, or the comparably small scale of human life in relation to epic landscapes. Kobayashi’s high-angle views are not calculated as moments in an emotionally transfiguring experience, and, as such they are not allied with orchestrations of cinematic style that are designed to be hyperemotional. Nor are they offered as instances of a transcendental style like that described by Paul Schrader. The films of Ozu Yasujiro and Robert Bresson exemplify this style for Schrader. Transcendental style in cinema, he writes, employs a relatively unexpressive surface design in which the customary elements of cinema—plot, dialogue, cinematography, music, and editing—are muted and reduced to stasis. Transcendental style stylizes reality by eliminating (or nearly eliminating) those elements which are primarily expressive of human experience, thereby robbing the conventional interpretations of reality of their relevance and power.

Kobayashi’s work does not privilege the banality of daily existence, nor does it embrace the muted expressiveness of Bresson or the severe reduction of means that characterizes the cinematography and editing in Ozu’s films. Thus we will not find instances in Kobayashi’s films of what Schrader has called transcendental style. A sense of immanence is present more often than the transcendental. His films feature narratives characterized by extraordinary dramatic and historical circumstances that take the characters far from the banalities of daily life. At the same time, as I’ve noted, Kobayashi does not employ the high-angle views to intensify emotional experience either for the characters or viewer. One of the most striking things about the high-angle views is their brevity. The views are short and momentary and offer quick disruptions of normatively framed dramatic action. In general, Kobayashi does not draw out the high-angle views, making them occupy a significant interval of time. Nor does he highlight the high-angle views by using musical cues, sound effects or sudden alterations in a character’s action or behavior to call attention to them. In light of these considerations, I suggest that it may be useful to regard the high-angle views as a kind of private code, one that is written quite extensively across the body of his work and that has an inward value and resonance in that it does not seek to advertise its presence to others. The code might be a private one, but it is not hidden or concealed. The elevated designs are plainly there, and the pattern becomes highly elaborated as it works its way across thirty years of filmmaking. The pattern is coherent and internally unified. As a result, it is possible to specify a range of meanings and functions accruing to the high-angle views by virtue of their placement within the films, and I will strive to do this in the chapters to come.

A Dream of Resistance explores the political and religious dimensions of meaning in Kobayashi’s films and contextualizes these in relation to his life and the history of which he was part. Most of the critical writing in English on Kobayashi draws heavily from a few interviews with him dating from the 1970s. This material also focuses on relatively few of his movies. A Dream of Resistance expands this focus by examining his entire career and by drawing on more recent Japanese sources, which include previously untranslated interviews with Kobayashi and material that he wrote about his films. This material offers new information about his life and work.

Chapter One, Conjoining Spirit and World, examines his formative experiences growing up in Otaru, encountering movies through his father’s cousin, actress Tanaka Kinuyo, and the deep bond that developed with Aizu Yaichi at Waseda. I explore Kobayashi’s experiences in the war and the first period of his filmmaking as an assistant director training at Shochiku under director Kinoshita Keisuke. Few details have been available in English about Kobayashi’s life; partly for this reason, I spend some time describing his background. The intent is not to suggest that the films reduce to biography but rather to indicate some of the conditions that are relevant to understanding the various emphases that are to be found in the work.

The initial films that he made as a director—My Sons’ Youth (Musuko no seishun, 1952), Sincerity, The Three Loves, Somewhere Under the Broad Sky (Kono hiroi sora no dokoka ni, 1954), Beautiful Days (Uruwashiki saigetsu, 1955), and The Fountain (Izumi, 1956) are consistent with the Shochiku house style emphasizing sentimental lyricism. These are warm, compassionate, sensitive evocations of postwar life and are marked throughout by a gentle comic spirit, qualities that one does not associate with Kobayashi’s later work. But they also transpose his upbringing, family history, and childhood experiences on to the fictional storylines. Most importantly, while Kobayashi handles the Shochiku house style gracefully, he uses it to obliquely engage with lingering issues surrounding the war and its aftermath and also to formulate a template for individual conscience and principled, moral action. In them, Kobayashi re-imagines postwar history, showing what might have been had the nation not acted as it did. These films demonstrate that he had mastered the Shochiku style, but he wanted a different path—films that contentiously examined the relationship between the individual and society—and he pursued this forthwith.

Chapter Two, A Sharp and Piercing Thorn, examines Kobayashi’s emergence into postwar cinema as a critic of Japanese militarism and the legacy of the war. The Thick-Walled Room examines Japanese prisoners convicted of war crimes and housed at Sugamo Prison in Tokyo. Black River (Kuroi kawa, 1957) explores the criminal underworld surrounding the U.S. military bases on Japanese soil and the military colonization of Japan represented by the postwar alliance with the United States. I Will Buy You (Anata kaimasu, 1956) excoriates the materialism and venality that flourished as the economy began its postwar recovery and new values failed to replace old traditions. Kobayashi’s experiences in the war had made the militarist heritage and the dangers inherent in its renewal especially salient subjects for him. He grappled with them in The Thick-Walled Room and examined their persistence in the symbolism attaching to the military bases in Black River. In doing so he showed himself to be a remarkably skillful poet of the recent historical past.

Chapter Three, The Logic of Negation, explores Kobayashi’s monumental trilogy, The Human Condition. While he was in production on Black River, he read Gomikawa Junpei’s recently published novel about a Japanese pacifist serving in Manchuria during the war. Identifying deeply with the novel’s hero, Kobayashi obtained the rights to film it, and he directed all his energies toward what would become his magnum opus, an epic and expansive set of films that was three years in production and runs for a total screen time of nine and a half hours. Kobayashi felt a deep connection to the story of Kaji, a university graduate who is conscripted into Japan’s army in Manchuria and who struggles to retain his humane principles amid the brutality of war. In many ways, this was Kobayashi’s story, as it was the story of its author, Gomikawa. Kobayashi drew on his experiences in the Kwantung Army, deployed in Manchuria, to create an epic excoriation of military brutality and imperialism. Unlike other pacifist-themed films made in Japan at the time, Kobayashi’s film depicts the terror of history in extremely harsh and hard-edged terms. He infuses these with religious perspectives drawn from Christianity and Buddhism in order to create an opening in historical time so that alternatives to the cruelties unleashed by war may be grasped. Upon its release, the trilogy became one of the powerful, paradigmatic expressions of postwar humanism in Japanese cinema and culture. It is recognized by Kinema Junpo as one of the greatest Japanese movies ever made. It brought to Kobayashi’s work a new vigor and scope with which he now entered upon the pinnacle of his career.

Chapter Four, Guardians of the Gate, examines Kobayashi’s work in period films and the onset of his fruitful collaboration with renowned composer Takemitsu Toru, which transformed his work. Takemitsu’s experimental approach to music helped Kobayashi to achieve a new synesthesia of image and sound and a filmic style of heightened precision and clarity. Their initial collaborations—The Inheritance (Karami-ai, 1962), Harakiri, Kwaidan, and Samurai Rebellion—mark the 1960s as Kobayashi’s most distinguished decade when his work achieved its greatest degree of refinement and calibration and achieved a level of international recognition that placed him among the most acclaimed filmmakers of the period. Kobayashi had just spent three years making The Human Condition, and he now embarked on an extended journey farther into Japan’s past in another kind of trilogy, the three period films in which he examined various aspects of Japan’s military, social, and artistic heritage. These films, especially Kwaidan, enabled him to embrace the Buddhist art that he deeply loved. Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion examine acts of individual conscience and rebellion in an era of military repression analogous to what Kobayashi had experienced in the 1940s, and Kwaidan is an homage to his teacher Aizu Yaichi and to the medieval arts of painting, sculpture, and heikyoku. Although Kobayashi’s last period film—We Who Give Our Lives for Nothing—is not part of this immediate chronology, I examine it in the context of these other period films and consider how it diverges formally and thematically from them.

Chapter Five, A Pilgrim on the Silk Road, finds Kobayashi continuing his work amid the ruins of the Japanese studio system, which had struggled with competition from television and other media and had grown unwilling to fund major features, like Kobayashi’s, that were contentious and ideologically subversive. He formed a short-lived production company with fellow directors Kurosawa Akira, Kinoshita Keisuke, and Ichikawa Kon, and secured continuing work in collaboration with the film production division of the Haiyazu Theater Co. His films in this final period find him returning to the issues of war and rebellion that had preoccupied him since his experiences in Manchuria and returning as well to the Buddhist treasures at Nara and in the ancient caves and grottoes of China. Based on a novel by Japan’s most famous Christian writer, Youth of Japan (Nihon no seishun, 1968) examines the brutality of the Imperial Army through the experiences of an aging businessman whose hearing was damaged in a beating inflicted by his commanding officer. (Kobayashi had experienced similar treatment when he was in the army.) Kaseki is a late-career masterpiece about a Japanese businessman vacationing in Europe who must confront his own mortality when he is diagnosed with cancer. Tokyo saiban (1983) is an epic documentary about the Tokyo war crimes trial and marks a return by Kobayashi to the topic he had examined much earlier in The Thick-Walled Room. The Empty Table (Shokutaku no nai ie, 1985) explores the dilemma of a father whose son has joined a radical underground group organizing against the government. Glowing Autumn is a lesser film, a work-for-hire that nevertheless shows Kobayashi’s continuing interests in art and spiritual matters. These interests came full circle in his final project, The World of Aizu Yaichi: The Buddhas of Nara, a documentary for NHK television about his mentor and the Buddhist treasures found in the ancient temples of Nara. Nakadai Tatsuya, Kobayashi’s surrogate in so many films, plays Aizu.

These chapters explore the scope of Kobayashi’s social critique and political rebellion as expressed in film. At the same time, they show that Kobayashi was more than a politically motivated filmmaker. He was sensitive to a life energy manifested throughout the world that was immanent but empirically elusive. This sensitivity, which informs the diverse religious traditions from which he drew in his films, provided a shelter, a shield, and a counterpoint to the terror of history that he evokes so searingly in The Thick-Walled Room, The Human Condition, and Harakiri. If history in the shadow of military rule was like a giant machine grinding individuals to pulp, the timelessness of life energy pointed to the enduring existence of oppositional values. These transcended the experiential horizons of people trapped by oppression and provided a means for avoiding despair and passivity when facing forces that seemed hostile and insurmountable. The core of Kobayashi’s work turns out not to be political protest but his affirmation of forces that go beyond the clouded horizon of personal and material experience. For Kobayashi, the ancient world of art and religion speaks meaningfully to the present, and one need only listen carefully to hear its voice. Its divine energies counterpose the demons of history.

A few words are necessary about technical matters. Japanese names appear according to Japanese name order, with surname followed by given name. Film titles appear in English, and their first appearance in a chapter is accompanied by the Romanized form of the Japanese title. I have avoided using diacritical marks in names and titles. In most cases, I use a film’s English-language release title, but there are a few exceptions. Because Kaseki is commonly known by that title rather than its translation as The Fossil, I use it in place of the translated title. (The same is true for Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Yojimbo, and Ran.) The English-release title of Kobayashi’s Inochi bo ni furo is Inn of Evil, a truly terrible title that misrepresents the movie. Accordingly I refer to the film by a more appropriate translation, We Who Give Our Lives for Nothing. Finally, I refer to Kobayashi’s documentary as Tokyo saiban rather than by its English-release name, Tokyo Trial. Doing so produces less confusion in Chapter Five when I am discussing both the film and the Tokyo Trial that it documents.

Biographical information about Kobayashi that does not carry a source is taken from his remarks in an extensive interview series syndicated in twenty parts in the Hokkaido Shimbun. The series, Watashi no Naka no Rekishi (The History Inside Me), was published from September–November, 1993. Biographical information is also drawn from the diary he compiled during the war while stationed at Miyakojima and from an annotated chronology of Kobayashi’s life prepared by Kajiyama Koko for the Setagaya Literary Museum in 1999.

Chapter 1

Conjoining Spirit and World

Is youth always so fleeting?

—Kobayashi Masaki, war diary, Miyakojima, 1945¹

It has many names, answering to different agendas—the Greater East Asia War, the Fifteen Years War, the Asian-Pacific War, the Pacific theater in World War II. For Kobayashi Masaki it was one of the defining experiences that shaped his life and career. In pursuing the obsessions it bequeathed to him, he honed a powerfully critical voice that could not have flourished as it did except during the 1950s and 1960s, the era when he made his best films. Limited but significant opportunities opened in these years for Japan’s filmmakers to question and interrogate the disastrous path that the country had taken on behalf of its Imperial Army. By the 1970s this modest space had contracted and was vanishing as the industry retrenched to compete with television, and Kobayashi found fewer opportunities to do the incisive work that had claimed his attention over the previous two decades. Linda Hoaglund has aptly described some of the questions that he pursued in his work. Who did the Japanese become during World War II? Who was responsible for the atrocities committed in their name? What role does Japan’s feudal heritage play in constructing psychologies of modern Japanese people?² To these questions, we might add others: What are the lies of history? Who constructs them and who benefits? How does society apportion responsibility for war crimes? What is the proper response of a moral individual to a corrupt system of power? What is the relationship between the individual and history?

And we ought to add still others because Kobayashi’s work is richer and broader than these relatively precise questions about history might suggest. Donald Richie has described Kobayashi’s singular place in Japanese cinema in terms of his unyielding rejection of authority. Richie said, He stood up against organized authority to an astonishing degree. Almost nobody else in postwar Japanese film stood up in this way. [He] refused to bow down to vested authority.³ This is true enough, but, as I hope to show in these pages, Kobayashi was also deeply interested in spiritual matters. His characters frequently encounter divine energies that issue from the world around them. Often these are incarnated in art and religion, which play major roles in his films. These modes of experience convey immanent energies pointing toward values that lie beyond the limited horizon of historical experience. Kobayashi’s work continually gestures toward such values, which means that seeing him mainly as a politically motivated filmmaker is to miss much that is there in the work.

His outlook, and the films that he made, were shaped by the circumstances of his youth. He received the warmth and support of open-minded, free-thinking parents, a home environment that cultivated in him love and respect for the arts, and a physical geography surrounding him through which he experienced a sense of the sublime. These factors helped nurture his skepticism of authority, his receptivity to sacral elements, and the streak of fierce independence with which he pursued his work.


Kobayashi was born in 1916 in Otaru, a port city located near Sapporo on the coast of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. He had two older brothers and a younger sister. The family was well-off. His father, Yuichi, worked for prominent companies specializing in trade, coal, and steamships, and his mother, Hisako, hailed from a family of merchants. The Kobayashi family traces back to a samurai ancestor who settled in Shimonoseki, on the southern tip of Japan’s main island, Honshu. Yuichi transferred from Shimonoseki to the Otaru branch of Mitsui & Co. in 1910 where he met and married Hisako. Except for his elementary school years, which were spent in Tokyo, Kobayashi lived in Otaru until he was seventeen. The city adjoins the Ishikari Bay in the Sea of Japan, and the southern part of the city is ringed by mountains. Kobayashi’s home faced the bay. From our house we could see the harbor side, and I think we had one of the prime lands in that area.⁴ The summers are warm in Otaru, but the climate in winter is very cold, with heavy snows. Kobayashi liked the cold and grew so accustomed to it that he found it a challenge to adjust to warmer climes. He recalled, Since I grew up in Hokkaido, in the far North, I could not get used to the warm weather in the South. I think that the reason why I felt comfortable in Manchuria [during the war] was because the climate was similar to that of Otaru, my hometown.⁵ He added, You will barely see any calm weather in my films because most scenes portray the climates of Otaru and Manchuria.

1. The Kobayashi children in 1923. From left, Uzuhiko, Yasuhiko, Masaki, and Miyuki (in front).

Kobayashi fondly remembers a childhood filled with outdoor activities and a cultured, privileged upbringing, with parents who were supportive and unconventional. In spring and summer, he played tennis as did his brothers, and in middle school they were captains of the school team, which won the Hokkaido tennis championship. At the end of the season, the team swam at the local beaches, prepared pork soup on the shore, and caught abalone and sea urchins in the sea and then cooked them over the fire. Everyone ate until they were more than full. It was a sensual delight, as were winter sports. During the winter season, we skied and sledded down the mountains in our neighborhood. When it got dark, the snow froze completely so my friends and I sledded down toward the harbor from the highest point in Otaru. My home was in Tomioka-cho and kids from one side of the mountain and those on the other would compete at sledding down the ice. We all sledded down at tremendous speed.⁷ Kobayashi walked to school, and often the sidewalks were blocked or narrowed with snow. This gave him the opportunity to mix courtesy with bold flirtation. When a group of school girls approached, instead of calmly standing aside he leaped into the pile of snow to make way and let them pass. I still remember those moments vividly.

When Kobayashi began making films, he came to realize that the atmosphere of his childhood home exerted a strong influence over his work. I think my family was very different from typical families of that era, he recalled.⁸ The atmosphere in the home was genial and relaxed. Our father never once told us to do this and that or not do this or that. Guests might arrive with little formality or ceremony. My friends came over to my house all the time and most of the time, they walked in as if it was their own house and they barely said ‘konnichiwa’ when coming in. My mother took care of my friends, and they all loved coming over to the house. The atmosphere at home was cultured. His sister played piano, and Hisako took Masaki to art exhibitions, concerts, and theater performances. I think she enjoyed going to these events. (Hisako died when Kobayashi was twelve and in his first year of middle school.) As a child, Kobayashi did not realize that his family was affluent and part of the upper-middle class. But in time he came to understand that we were different and more fortunate compared to the norm and he felt badly for having taken all of this for granted. Kobayashi modeled many of his films and their characters on his childhood home, its freedom, and its openness. The father played by Nakadai Tatsuya, for example, in The Empty Table (Shokutaku no nai ie, 1985) is based on Masaki’s father. About this character who cherishes life and is a resolute person, Kobayashi said, I was imagining my own father when I came up with Nakadai’s character. There are many similarities in their personalities and approaches to life.⁹ Kobayashi remarked that two of his films in particular, My Sons’ Youth (Musuko no seishun, 1952) and Somewhere Under the Broad Sky (Kono hiroi sora no dokoka ni, 1954), "show much

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