Masaki Kobayashi, most often celebrated in the west for Kwaidan, his ghost story omnibus film, more typically made films of violent conflict reflecting his pacifist convictions. This is not as easy as it sounds.
Doing what little he could to resist Japanese militarism as a soldier in WWII, as a filmmaker Kobayashi threw himself into demonstrating the futility of armed struggle. In movies like Samurai Rebellion (1967) and 1962’s Seppuku (just released in the UK on DVD under its more common Western title, Harakiri), the director plays a cunning game, building up a cauldron of seething dramatic tension that finally explodes in a bloody climax, satisfying the demands of a genre audience who require chanbara swordplay, yet resulting in no beneficial effects, for anybody.
Crucially, Kobayashi isn’t opposed to the enjoyment of violent movies, so he doesn’t see any need to destroy audience involvement or render the battle scenes overly unpleasant with excessive gore, or unexciting via distanciation effects. His fights are stunning spectacles and absolutely thrilling to behold, especially after the hours of slow-mounting pressure that build up to them. For tales of defeat, in which not even the memory of a heroic effort will go recorded by history, these movies are surprisingly pleasurable, even at their grimmest.
What Kobayashi is opposed to, and very strongly, is the whole samurai tradition, and its continuing celebration in Japanese cinema. While some filmmakers, notably Kurosawa, were almost wholly approving of the idea of the noble warrior class, and others seem to have been largely agnostic on the subject, seeing it as purely a commercial genre element to be exploited, Kobayashi is devoted, in his period films, to destroying the pernicious myth of an honourable tradition of chivalrous combat and feudal rule. He does so mercilessly, though the tradition, here aptly embodied by an empty suit of armour, always remains at the film’s end, undefeatable. It’s a surprise to see that Shinobu Hashimoto, who adapted Yasuhiko Takiguchi’s novel, also worked on Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai.
This slow, savage destruction of the mythic code of the samurai is delivered via a series of flashbacks, embedded in the action to produce an illusion of indirection - in fact, the story moves as directly and ruthlessly as a sword thrust. But the ingenious structure allows an incremental build-up of tension, the weaving of several narrative lines, and a final, cataclysmic coming together of all that’s been set up, resulting in a highly cathartic outburst of action.
Along with Kobayashi’s eschewing of delicacy and ellipsis, there’s an avoidance of humour, except for the very blackest sort, embodied by Tatsuya Nakadai’s sepulchral performance. The film is deliberately heavy and sombre and truly downbeat, yet it never feels weighed down, depressing or turgid: because it’s an embodiment of the true cinematic urge, the evocation of ideas with image and sound, delivered with passion and anger by a fearless and resourceful filmmaker.