Monday, April 22, 2013

DVD Review: Eclipse Series 38 - Masaki Kobayashi Against the System [Criterion]


By the mid 1950s, the Shochiku Studio house style was well established. Built on the efforts of such icons as Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, as well as lesser-known masters like Mikio Naruse and Keisuke Kinoshita, Shochiku trafficked in intimate, humane storytelling, with a distinct thematic tendency toward the familial and inspirational. During the occupation, these types of films weren't only encouraged, but required by the Allied powers, which strictly regulated all facets of Japanese media and entertainment. It's understandable, then, that in the years following World War II, filmmakers would feel prompted, if not obligated, to confront the atrocities of the war and the effects it had on Japan's economic, corporate, and cultural strata, which would hit punishing lows before admirably rebounding over the second half of the 20th century.

Perhaps the most important director to emerge during this period was Masaki Kobayashi, an aspiring filmmaker who in 1941, upon entering the Shochiku fold as an apprentice, was drafted into the Japanese army. After five years of reluctant service, including time as a prisoner of war, Kobayashi returned incensed, motivated, and more importantly, ready to create. Yet Shochiku, of rather prestigious pedigree when compared to more liberal contemporary studios such as Nikkatsu and Daiei, both of which would distribute similarly penetrating works by Kon Ichikawa and Yasuzo Masamura during this same era, wasn't yet of equal critical mind to that of Kobayashi, whose passion nonetheless needed an outlet. Between an early run of assistant jobs and his own initial forays into mild-mannered studio assignments, however, Kobayashi was able to shoot The Thick-Walled Room, a fiery exposé about a camp of POWs awaiting trial as their superiors seemingly work in tandem with American officials to ensure their demise.

But in 1953, this was material that no studio could touch, and The Thick-Walled Room was held from release for three years. In a weird sort of symmetry, however, 1956 would prove to be an auspicious year for Kobayashi, as three films bearing his directorial signature would end up seeing release. I Will Buy You, Kobayashi's first great film, found the newly inspired director initiating a practice which would serve him well over the course of his career: By folding his critique into the fabric of less outwardly political material (whether, as in the case of I Will Buy You, the world of professional sports, or the fantastical or historical milieus of his later work), Kobayashi was able to construct equally incendiary films of more relatable substance as they dealt head-on with modern-day Japan. For its part, I Will Buy You utilizes a fairly simple story of a baseball scout attempting to sign a hotly tipped college prospect to detail the greed and moral corruption in a profession nominally geared toward entertainment. What results is a subtly dramatic, morally complex tale of loyalty that forgoes the conciliatory in favor of the tragic.

Ambitious and darker yet, Black River would follow in the months soon after, and more accurately than any of Kobayashi's early films points toward the nascent Japanese New Wave which would stake an even more unruly stance at the dawn of the '60s with films by Koreyoshi Kurahara and Nagisa Oshima, among others. A volatile, emotionally turbulent portrait of lower-class life on the outskirts of U.S. military bases in the wake of the war, Black River teems with a barely contained energy that would come to mark the next decade in Japanese film. Starring Tatsuya Nakadai (Kobayashi's greatest muse, in his first role for the director) as Killer Joe, a mid-level yakuza as obsessed with overtaking a seedy apartment complex as he is causing a rift in the burgeoning love affair between a young student and his girlfriend, herself as enticed as she is skeptical of the suave, serpent-like Joe, the film creates a tense canvas of discomfort, operating by an internal logic all its own. With its deft balance of multiple intersecting story strands and a slow-simmering sense of squalor and unease, Black River plays like an antecedent to the works of New Wave rebels Shōhei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki, whose The Pornographers and Gate of Flesh, respectively, feel like natural descendants of Kobayashi's final film of '56.

It would be another six years before Kobayashi would return to such small-scale drama. In the years between Black River and 1962's brilliant morality play The Inheritance, Kobayashi devoted his energy to The Human Condition, a three-part, nine-hour war-time epic that would prove one of Eastern cinema's most substantial achievements. As overwhelming and impressive as every minute of The Human Condition is, however, there's certain charm to Kobayashi's more modestly mounted endeavors that was understandably lost in the expansion. Whether a retreat from such a massive undertaking or simply a brief return to his roots (tellingly, Kobayashi's next three films—Harakiri, Kwaidan, and Samurai Rebellion—would re-adopt such daunting proportions, resulting in his most financially successful period), The Inheritance plays like a refinement and reconciliation of the director's talents up to that point.

A severe indictment of material thirst and bourgeois entitlement, the film pits half a dozen characters (including Nakadai and Kurosawa regular Minoru Chiaki) in a game of deceit and one-upmanship over a dying businessman's inheritance. The lengths these characters go, and the moral roadblocks they must patently ignore, to simply extort additional funds from an estate they're all already partially entitled to anyway is both damning in its focus and uncomfortably universal in its application. That the most cunning of these participants turns out to be the most initially unassuming—and that her supposed identity is revealed in the very first scene of the film, establishing skepticism on the part of the viewer before the plot is even underway—feels like one last joke on the part of Kobayashi, whose own sly incriminations would continue to resonate as an essential facet of his work for the remainder of his career, though at never at such a personal, distressing register.

Image/Sound:
Packaged together in Criterion's 38th Eclipse box set, The Thick-Walled Room, I Will Buy You, Black River, and The Inheritance all make their debut on North American home video in traditional DVD format. Considering the sources and lack of a complete restoration, many of the four pictures' deficiencies, particularly the three 1956 releases, can be forgiven. The Thick-Walled Room survives in the weakest state, with multiple instances of scratches and inconsistent contrast. The quality gets better as we move along though. I Will Buy You is still muddy on occasion, exhibiting some wear and tear inherent to the print. Luckily, Black River makes a virtue of such imperfections, engulfing much of the action in nighttime exteriors and shadowy tenements. The Inheritance, meanwhile, looks predictably strong as it coincided with Masaki Kobayashi's assent to larger Scope productions. Sound fares about the same, progressively improving as technology and production values evolved over the years. All dialogue is upfront and clear with whatever outside aural elements clouding the mix a similarly natural byproduct of the materials at hand.

Extras:
As per Eclipse standards, there are no digital supplements to note. There are, however, typically informative and well-researched liner notes provided for each film by Michael Koresky.

Overall:
Masaki Kobayashi's sly incriminations would continue to resonate as an essential facet of his work for his entire career, though never at such a personal, distressing register as these four early films made for Shochiku Studios. [Slant]

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