In the eyes of many Western enthusiasts of Japanese film, director Masaki Kobayashi (1916-1996) was primarily a specialist in the samurai and horror genres. On the basis of such thrilling spectacles as Samurai Rebellion (1967) and Harakiri (1962), Kobayashi's point of view seems securely attached to stories of individuals in opposition to institutionalized, hierarchical injustices — with a visual emphasis on painterly scene-setting. But there are other dimensions to his work, as we can discover in "Against Authority: The Cinema of Masaki Kobayashi," a thoughtful mini-retrospective of eight films playing at the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive, July 20 through August 18.
As a 26-year-old soldier drafted out of his film studio job for Pacific War duty in occupied Manchuria and Okinawa (where he was captured), Kobayashi grew to despise the ingrained brutality and rigid regimentation of the Imperial Army during Japan's conquest of Asia. His wartime experiences informed his towering 1959-1961 film The Human Condition, a nine-hour extravaganza — adapted by Kobayashi and Zenzô Matsuyama from the novel by Junpei Gomikawa — of the horrors witnessed by an engineer-turned-foot soldier named Kaji (played by Tatsuya Nakadai). It's generally considered the longest theatrically released film of all time.
The Human Condition is presented in three separate parts, beginning July 20 with Part I: No Greater Love. Kaji, stationed as a civilian at a Manchurian iron ore mine, immediately runs afoul of the hard-nosed military staff, who resist his humanitarian treatment of the mine's Chinese POW forced laborers and resent the "smell of leftist tendencies" coming from the idealistic newcomer. Kaji soon comes under the suspicion of the Kenpeitai, the dreaded national military police, and his downward spiral begins amid workers' revolt, torture, executions, and reprisals.
In Part II: The Road to Eternity (July 21) and Part III: A Soldier's Prayer (July 24), Kaji finds himself still in Manchuria as a combat infantryman in Japan's Kwantung Army, constantly under threat from the usual bullies and hoping against all odds for a reunion with his faithful wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), in the last days of World War II. "Personally, I love my wife more than ultimate victory," declares Kaji. "Our real enemy is the army." Despite his pacifist, egalitarian impulses, Kaji is fast-tracked for promotion because of his leadership — also, he's a crack shot. Only later, as a Russian POW and deserter leading a band of renegades, crazed by hunger while trying to escape Manchuria on foot, does Kaji begin to doubt his own human condition.
After nine hours of this struggle for survival, Kaji emerges as the archetypal forgotten soldier, his ideals trampled, struggling with his inner moral doubts and the pervasive despair of armed conflict. Actor Nakadai was 27 years old when the first chapter of the film was released, and went on to star for Kobayashi in 11 productions. In his performance as Kaji he seems to age before our eyes as the innocent conscientious objector becomes the desperate, battle-scarred survivor, drenched in mud and blood. The Human Condition, Kobayashi's masterpiece, deserves to stand with All Quiet on the Western Front, The Burmese Harp, Apocalypse Now, and Come and See as an urgent anti-war bulletin direct from the cauldron.
Kwaidan (1967) is an adaption by writer Yoko Mizuki of four ghost stories from Lafcadio Hearn's 1903 collection Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. Kobayashi presents the folk-style tales as a series of comparatively abstract vignettes, with vivid color cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima and a typically unnerving modernistic music score by composer Toru Takemitsu. More a psychodrama in period costume than an old-dark-house gothic piece, with disturbingly stark performances by Nakadai and Keiko Kishi, Kwaidan is probably the most visually and thematically stylish film in the BAMPFA series. It plays August 15.
In addition to Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, the Kobayashi retrospective also includes two films from the archive's legendary Japanese collection: The Inheritance (1962), a study in familial discord (August 8); and the 1956 I Will Buy You, about wheeling and dealing in Japanese baseball's major leagues (August 18). For more info: BAMPFA.org