A film by Director Kobayashi Masaki


"I always wanted to be a maker of films that comment on society."

quoted in Audie bock, Japanese Film Directors, p. 247


Review from:

Masaki Kobayashi is considered one of the great cinematic masters of the Japanese immediate post-war era, a generation overshadowed by the towering presence of Akira Kurosawa. No one of that generation of filmmakers was affected quite as strongly by the war as Kobayashi. His most acclaimed films are unflinching explorations into the dark side of Japanese culture, the side that drove men to commit gory suicide for the name of honor and commit horrific atrocities in the name of the Emperor.

Kobayashi's exacting professionalism makes his films a visually and emotionally powerful experience. Born in February, 1916, in Japan's northern-most island Hokkaido, Kobayashi entered prestigious Waseda University in 1933, where he studied Asian Art History. Though he excelled at his studies and was mentored under renowned scholar Yaichi Aizu, Kobayashi eventually left Waseda to enter Shochiku's Ofuna studios. As the threat of war with the West grew ever present, he felt that the future was too uncertain to devote to academics; he wanted to leave something behind. Kobayashi worked as an assistant for a mere eight months before he was drafted and sent to the front in Manchuria. Opposed to the war, which he viewed as senseless, he refused to rise above the position of private. In 1944, he was transferred to the southern Ryukyu Islands, where he witnessed the war's final bloody tumult. There he was captured by the U.S. and held for a year in a detention camp in Okinawa. In the fall of 1946, Kobayashi returned to Shochiku and served for six years as an assistant director under Keisuke Kinoshita.

Kinoshita's signature fascination with purity and innocence is clearly visible in Kobayashi's early works; he even wrote the script for his second feature Magokoro (1953). Kobayashi first began to develop his own voice with his 1953 Thick-Walled Room. Based on the diaries of low-ranking war criminals, the film was shockingly outspoken for its time and was ultimately shelved for three years by studio head Shiro Kido. When it finally was released in 1956, it won a Peace Culture Prize.

Kobayashi switched back and forth between the Kinoshita style of domestic dramas and the darker socially minded works until he garnered international acclaim and a prestigious San Giorgio prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1960 for his Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1958), the first installment of sweeping trilogy about the war. Based on Jumpei Gomikawa's six-volume novel, the tale focuses on avowed pacifist Kaji, who is drafted into the army and forced to inflict cruelty on Chinese prisoners and his underlings, forced to lead his men into certain death and eventually captured as a war criminal by the Soviets. Though the film showcases Kobayashi's existential humanistic philosophy, first seen in Thick-Walled Room, it is a much darker and more pessimistic philosophy than that espoused by Akira Kurosawa. Instead of possibilities of enlightenment as seen in Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952) or justice as in The Bad Sleep Well (1960), the most one can hope for in Kobayashi's world is dignity while evil inevitably springs from dogma and pitilessness. Human Condition I is also significant because it launched the career of Tatsuya Nakadai. Just as many of Kurosawa's films were defined by the macho-presence of Toshio Mifune, so were Kobayashi's films brought to life by the masterful performances of Nakadai in such Kobayashi classics as Harakiri (1962), Kwaidan (1964), and Rebellion (1967). In the '60s, Kobayashi's visual style grew increasing spare and minimalistic. In his masterful Harakiri, he deftly juxtaposed the stark black of the aristocracy's kimonos with the brilliant white of the courtyard's sand, lending the film's tonal scheme a symbolic quality. With the acclaimed Kwaidan, his first color film, he pushed this emphasis on composition with his expressionistic use of color. Like many of his generation, including Kinoshita and Kurosawa, Kobayashi produced less and less films during the 1970s when the studio system collapsed and soft-core pornography became a mainstream genre. Kobayashi died in of a heart attack in 1996.


See this review, too, which features this line:

"Harakiri stands as Kobayashi’s most pronounced antiestablishment film, its raw moments of symbolic violence balanced with a narrative whose allusions hold tragic humanist and social implications. Condemning his country’s lingering ties to their feudal past, his tale of desperate samurai and corrupt feudal clans challenged its Japanese audience to look into their history for a modern precedent, and represents, with unparallel clarity of purpose in his career, Kobayashi’s need to defy authority."


See also:

During war, the samurai thrives on killing, but in peacetime, it is his turn to die. in this violent yet poetic masterpiece, Masaki Kobayashi exposes the harsh code of honor the 17th century samurai. After an unemployed warrior is forced by a feudal lord to commit harakiri, his father in-law returns the scene, seemingly to play out the same agonizing suicide ritual. Tensions grow to excruciating levels until the thrilling climax , when the elder warrior strikes out one last time against the abusive society that crafted such cruelty. With stunning wide-screen cinematography and riveting performances, Harakiri achieves the power and passion of the world's greatest tragedies.


As Audie Bock notes in Japanese Film Directors, "Harakiri is a film that abounds in symbols, some of them  visual and some verbal. All pertain to the historical image of the samurai and are used in ironic fashion" (p. 256) Of particular note are: the face mask and armor of a warrior, the daily record book of the Ii clan, the samurai sword, the topknot, and the rhetoric of the samurai code. 

Somehow, was the Ampo situtation (1960) on the minds of many dilmmakers and filmgoers in 1962?