ECLIPSE SERIES 38: MASAKI KOBAYASHI AGAINST THE SYSTEM – DVD review

It’s tempting to think of 1950s Japanese cinema as the bleakest of wastelands, a litany of unending misery from “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954) to “The Ballad of Narayama” (1958) to “Fires on the Plain” (1959). Serious (i.e. depressing) films export better via the international festival circuit than breezier entertainments though, and Western cinephiles don’t necessarily have a grasp on what films Japanese audiences were watching at the time. Shochiku studios, for example, churned out a stream of popular comedies and family melodramas in the decade, some of them directed by Masaki Kobayashi who produced about a half-dozen gentler, more sentimental releases in the ’50s.

None of them are included in this Eclipse boxed set, titled “Against the System.” Instead, viewers who thought Kobayashi’s sprawling epic “The Human Condition” (1959-1962) fully plumbed the depths of the director’s post-war despair will now have to reconsider. I don’t know if these four titles reflect a vision of hell on Earth, or suggest that Earth IS hell, as long as people are around to use and abuse one another.

In “The Thick-Walled Room” (1956), low level prisoners of war have been forced to pay penitence in place of their superiors who gave the orders, serving sentences in Japan-based U.S. military prisons for their alleged war crimes. Based on the diaries and testimonies of real prisoners, Kobayashi’s film depicts a penal system where soldiers are casually subjected to “enhanced interrogation” by American overseers. But the real blame lies with the Japanese military brass who not only avoided prosecution, but have taken full advantage of the post-war landscape for a massive land and cash grab. A flicker of hope arises in the form of solidarity among the condemned, but the flame is barely guttering. The film, completed in 1953, was considered so potentially inflammatory that the Japanese government shelved it for three years until the Occupation was safely a thing of the past.

Kobayashi trains his withering eye on a beloved institution  in “I Will Buy You” (1956). The American sport of baseball had been a national passion in Japan for decades and its popularity was built around the same nostalgic myths of heroism and nobility as in the States. Literal spoil-sport Kobayashi set out to shatter those illusion with this vicious story about the cutthroat negotiations surrounding the signing of a red hot college prospect. Nobody could be surprised that the agent who serves as the nominal protagonist is eager to sell his and any other soul, but in this world the scent of money corrupts everyone from the player’s trusted advisor to his “innocent” rural family and, ultimately, to the player destined to become a righteous hero to millions.

But things get really depressing with “Black River” (1956). The movie starts with a jangly jazz riff, but shows us a world bereft of anything as vibrant as the score. The action is set mostly in a squalid tenement huddled on the fringes of a U.S. military base. As in “The Thick-Walled Room,” the characters’ troubles initially seem to be coming mostly from Americans, whose culture and aggressive capitalism have completely colonized the hearts and minds of Japanese citizens of all ages, but Kobayashi points the real finger of blame at a society so ready to be corrupted – or, rather, an already corrupt society simply looking for a new way to refine its means of exploitation. A pathetic but brutal yakuza (a breakout role for future star Tatsuya Nakadai) vies with a self-righteous student for the affections of a formerly innocent young woman, but nobody comes off looking particularly good. This is a film where the good guys are the first ones to seriously consider murder as an option.

Greed remains the focus in “The Inheritance” (1962), Kobayashi’s first film after the massive undertaking of “The Human Condition.” A wealthy businessman divvies up his fortune among his absentee illegitimate children and that alluring smell of cash sets all the wolves a-howlin’.

The final two films are told with plenty of panache, providing a big dose of old-fashioned entertainment along with the miserablist wallow. “Thick-Walled Room” isn’t anybody’s idea of a fun time, but it’s a riveting portrayal of a collection of lost souls who are each brought to vivid life in a fairly short period of time. “I Will Buy You” is the only film I found disappointing, but as a baseball fan looking forward to a Japanese director’s take on the sport, I was perhaps looking for the wrong thing; there are barely any baseball scenes at all and the story would be largely changed if the backstabbing negotiations involved any other high priced activity.

Video:
All four films are in black-and-white. The first three movies are presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratios, “The Inheritance” stretches the screen at 2.40:1. Eclipse titles aren’t restored transfers, and there are some signs of source print damage here and there, such as one shot in “I Will Buy You” where thick vertical lines carve up the screen for a short stretch. But overall the transfers are pretty solid with enough contrast and image detail to pass muster. “Thick-Walled Room” is probably the weakest of the lot, with some soft patches here and there, but it’s still fine.

Audio:
All four films come with Dolby Digital Mono tracks. The sound isn’t flawless with some distortion audible at points, but it’s mostly minor. There’s nothing dynamic here, but it’s all clear enough. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Extras:
Like most Eclipse sets, there are no extras, but Michael Koresky provides his usual top-notch liner notes on the inner sleeve of each of the four discs in the set. Each DVD is stores in its own keep case, with all four slim cases sliding into the thin cardboard sleeve.

Set Value:
Masaki Kobayashi is one of Criterion’s most beloved auteurs with these four titles now enshrined in the collection (as part of the Eclipse line) along with “The Human Condition,” “Harakiri” (1962), “Kwaidan” (1964), and “Samurai Rebellion” (1967). That his bleaker films have generally been favored is not a surprise, though perhaps we could complain a bit that even this large selection still represents a skewed sampling of his career. Regardless, these four titles provide plenty of reason to consider Kobayashi as a director who was working “against the system,” ready to shine a light into the darkest basement corners of Japanese society and to have the camera rolling when the cockroaches scatter.

It’s tempting to think of 1950s Japanese cinema as the bleakest of wastelands, a litany of unending misery from “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954) to “The Ballad of Narayama” (1958) to “Fires on the Plain” (1959). Serious (i.e. depressing) films export better via the international festival circuit than breezier entertainments though, and Western cinephiles don’t necessarily have a grasp on what films Japanese audiences were watching at the time. Shochiku studios, for example, churned out a stream of popular comedies and family melodramas in the decade, some of them directed by Masaki Kobayashi who produced about a half-dozen gentler, more sentimental releases in the ’50s.

None of them are included in this Eclipse boxed set, titled “Against the System.” Instead, viewers who thought Kobayashi’s sprawling epic “The Human Condition” (1959-1962) fully plumbed the depths of the director’s post-war despair will now have to reconsider. I don’t know if these four titles reflect a vision of hell on Earth, or suggest that Earth IS hell, as long as people are around to use and abuse one another.

In “The Thick-Walled Room” (1956), low level prisoners of war have been forced to pay penitence in place of their superiors who gave the orders, serving sentences in Japan-based U.S. military prisons for their alleged war crimes. Based on the diaries and testimonies of real prisoners, Kobayashi’s film depicts a penal system where soldiers are casually subjected to “enhanced interrogation” by American overseers. But the real blame lies with the Japanese military brass who not only avoided prosecution, but have taken full advantage of the post-war landscape for a massive land and cash grab. A flicker of hope arises in the form of solidarity among the condemned, but the flame is barely guttering. The film, completed in 1953, was considered so potentially inflammatory that the Japanese government shelved it for three years until the Occupation was safely a thing of the past.

Kobayashi trains his withering eye on a beloved institution  in “I Will Buy You” (1956). The American sport of baseball had been a national passion in Japan for decades and its popularity was built around the same nostalgic myths of heroism and nobility as in the States. Literal spoil-sport Kobayashi set out to shatter those illusion with this vicious story about the cutthroat negotiations surrounding the signing of a red hot college prospect. Nobody could be surprised that the agent who serves as the nominal protagonist is eager to sell his and any other soul, but in this world the scent of money corrupts everyone from the player’s trusted advisor to his “innocent” rural family and, ultimately, to the player destined to become a righteous hero to millions.

But things get really depressing with “Black River” (1956). The movie starts with a jangly jazz riff, but shows us a world bereft of anything as vibrant as the score. The action is set mostly in a squalid tenement huddled on the fringes of a U.S. military base. As in “The Thick-Walled Room,” the characters’ troubles initially seem to be coming mostly from Americans, whose culture and aggressive capitalism have completely colonized the hearts and minds of Japanese citizens of all ages, but Kobayashi points the real finger of blame at a society so ready to be corrupted – or, rather, an already corrupt society simply looking for a new way to refine its means of exploitation. A pathetic but brutal yakuza (a breakout role for future star Tatsuya Nakadai) vies with a self-righteous student for the affections of a formerly innocent young woman, but nobody comes off looking particularly good. This is a film where the good guys are the first ones to seriously consider murder as an option.

Greed remains the focus in “The Inheritance” (1962), Kobayashi’s first film after the massive undertaking of “The Human Condition.” A wealthy businessman divvies up his fortune among his absentee illegitimate children and that alluring smell of cash sets all the wolves a-howlin’.

The final two films are told with plenty of panache, providing a big dose of old-fashioned entertainment along with the miserablist wallow. “Thick-Walled Room” isn’t anybody’s idea of a fun time, but it’s a riveting portrayal of a collection of lost souls who are each brought to vivid life in a fairly short period of time. “I Will Buy You” is the only film I found disappointing, but as a baseball fan looking forward to a Japanese director’s take on the sport, I was perhaps looking for the wrong thing; there are barely any baseball scenes at all and the story would be largely changed if the backstabbing negotiations involved any other high priced activity.

Video:
All four films are in black-and-white. The first three movies are presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratios, “The Inheritance” stretches the screen at 2.40:1. Eclipse titles aren’t restored transfers, and there are some signs of source print damage here and there, such as one shot in “I Will Buy You” where thick vertical lines carve up the screen for a short stretch. But overall the transfers are pretty solid with enough contrast and image detail to pass muster. “Thick-Walled Room” is probably the weakest of the lot, with some soft patches here and there, but it’s still fine.

Audio:
All four films come with Dolby Digital Mono tracks. The sound isn’t flawless with some distortion audible at points, but it’s mostly minor. There’s nothing dynamic here, but it’s all clear enough. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Extras:
Like most Eclipse sets, there are no extras, but Michael Koresky provides his usual top-notch liner notes on the inner sleeve of each of the four discs in the set. Each DVD is stores in its own keep case, with all four slim cases sliding into the thin cardboard sleeve.

Set Value:
Masaki Kobayashi is one of Criterion’s most beloved auteurs with these four titles now enshrined in the collection (as part of the Eclipse line) along with “The Human Condition,” “Harakiri” (1962), “Kwaidan” (1964), and “Samurai Rebellion” (1967). That his bleaker films have generally been favored is not a surprise, though perhaps we could complain a bit that even this large selection still represents a skewed sampling of his career. Regardless, these four titles provide plenty of reason to consider Kobayashi as a director who was working “against the system,” ready to shine a light into the darkest basement corners of Japanese society and to have the camera rolling when the cockroaches scatter.

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