The Inheritance (からみ合い, Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

the inheritance Japanese posterKobayashi’s first film after completing his magnum opus, The Human Condition trilogy, The Inheritance (からみ合い, Karami-ai) returns him to contemporary Japan where, once again, he finds only greed and betrayal. With all the trappings of a noir thriller mixed with a middle class melodrama of unhappy marriages and wasted lives, The Inheritance is yet another exposé of the futility of lusting after material wealth.

The film begins in a framing sequence in which Yasuko, an elegant woman dressed in a fashionable outfit, sunglasses and large black hat, is aimlessly window shopping when she encounters a familiar face she’d no desire to see ever again. The pair head for coffee with Yasuko lamenting that her pleasant afternoon has been ruined by the necessity of spending time with this “unpleasant” man. We then flashback to some time previously when Yasuko was just a poor secretary working for a top executive and lamenting over her sad life in her “concrete coffin” of a tiny apartment. When her boss discovers he has a terminal illness he makes a surprising declaration – he isn’t going to leave all of his money to his wife. The law says she has to get a third so she will, but the couple had no legitimate children and Kawara wants an heir. Apparently, he has three illegitimate children with whom he did not keep in contact so he intends to find these young people of differing ages and divide the money between them. As you can imagine, this news pleases no one and it’s not long before everyone is scheming how they can manipulate the situation to grab some of the money for themselves.

Shot this time in 2.40:1, The Inheritance has a slightly more whimsical air than some of Kobayashi’s other efforts. Aided by Toru Takemitsu’s jazz infused score, there’s a feeling of a chaotic, black farce lurking below the surface as the complicated schemes and counter schemes play off against each other all while an old man lies dying and largely, it seems, alone. In fact, the dying man himself is relegated to little more than a plot element, a physical countdown to the zero hour of his death and the release of his funds. Though charged with the task of tracking down these, until now forgotten, offspring, Kawara’s underlings immediately start thinking about the best way to spin their assignments. Maybe it’s better if they just can’t find the kids, or maybe if they find them and manipulate them into a more beneficial course of events. The only thing that matters is sticking to the course of action which is most likely to bring them into contact with the money.

The children themselves? Well, they’ve not turned out quite the way Kawara might have hoped. He stated that they’d only get the money if he finds out that they’re honest, decent, right living people. However, the oldest, a son, is a delinquent college student who likely wouldn’t be able to cope with receiving a sudden large lump sum of money so he’s out. The middle daughter is a nude model living a lifestyle Kawara would most likely regard as “immoral” so she will require some “fixing” if her side is to prevail. The youngest child, a seven year old daughter, has sadly passed away after being adopted in another town. However, the enterprising wife and her paramour have an ace up their sleeve in the form of another child they can substitute in her place. This child is quiet, well behaved and in all an ideal candidate for Kawara’s money (if only she actually were his daughter).

Our story is being recounted by Yasuko, so how does she fit into all of this? Commentator, heroine, perpetrator? We can guess a little of what must have happened from her appearance in the later framing sequence with which the film began. Though apparently wealthy, this Yasuko doesn’t seem particularly happy (even bar her unwanted reunion with Kawara’s lawyer). After being entrusted with the task of tracking down the oldest son who then develops a crush on her, Yasuko finds herself ensconced in Kawara’s household and eventually becoming his mistress. The affair begins with a quasi-rape after which Yasuko receives a large amount of money in a white envelope – an offering which repeats itself after each encounter with Kawara. At first she tries to pretend there was something more to it but eventually admits she got used to taking the money. Though she later tries to refuse Kawara’s offering, the corruption has already set in.

Recounted in a world weary tone by Yasuko, The Inheritance is another, though less abrasive, look at greed and lack of moral authority. Kawara is dying and perhaps regrets his devotion to his career rather than something with a greater legacy. However, he evidently showed no interest in his children before and has no real desire to meet and have a relationship with them before it’s too late – he simply wants an heir. His marriage turns out to be mostly physical convenience and even his wife is not so broken up about his illness so much as irritated to have sacrificed the last seven years and only receive a third of what she assumed would all be hers. The underlings scheme amongst themselves and unwittingly open a door for a challenger nobody expected. In some ways, from our point of view, the “right” person won but this was a game that had no right to be played. A sordid farce of squabbling over a dying man’s estate and for what, in the end? A fancy hat? Kobayashi doesn’t push as hard here as he has before, this time he casts veniality as black comedy rather than a social evil but still the lesson is clear, in most cases avarice will get you nowhere and even if you play the slow game and win you may not like where it takes you.


The Inheritance is the fourth and final of the early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.

 

Black River (黒い河, Masaki Kobayashi, 1957)

20140731_762128Masaki Kobayashi is still not enamoured with the new Japan by the time he comes to make Black River (黒い河, Kuroi Kawa) in 1957 which proves his most raw and cynical take on contemporary society to date. Set in a small, rundown backwater filled with the desperate and hopeless, Black River is a tale of ruined innocence, opportunistic fury and a nation losing its way.

The tale begins as a poor student, Nishida, moves into a rundown tenement owned by a tyrannous landlady who collects rent payments as if drinking in souls. Nishida looks around his new abode with a depressed air as the landlady advises him that he can always clean the place up. The vast majority of his possessions are books and the studious Nishida quickly sets himself apart from the ordinary working class denizens of this forsaken place to whom he clearly feels himself superior. However, he does take a liking to a local waitress. This too is destined to go wrong as when Shizuko visits him late after work one night hoping to borrow a book, she is grabbed by a gang of guys who attempt to assault her. Another man turns up and disrupts them but it quickly transpires that the whole thing is a ruse set up by the local gangster, Killer Joe, who then rapes her himself.

The modern, jazz inspired score and classic love triangle plot are almost a seishun eiga cliché but Kobayashi is only partly interested in the central trio with the ruined girl at its core. Casting the net wider, he’s interested in each of the wretched people that live in this place which is on the fringes of an American military base. From the obvious and blatant pan pan girls to the secret prostitutes and black marketeers, the American military has become a disruptive force in the area offering the weak minded easy, if dishonest, ways of living. That is to say, the problem is not “the Americans” or “the occupation” so much as it is the society which is allowing itself to become corrupted by Western values.

In this place, it’s everyman for himself. One of the community is ill, probably with tuberculosis. At one point he’s in desperate need of a blood transfusion so the wife hysterically asks everyone else if they have a matching blood type which they all deny (some of them obviously lying). Nishida admits he has a match, but outright refuses his blood despite the fact that this man will likely die without it. This doesn’t matter however because someone remembers the wife herself is a match but even she did not want to volunteer her own blood to save the life of her husband. Later when he is rushed to hospital she will delay his departure trying to take all their worldly goods with them in case the husband dies and his relatives turn up to claim everything.

The landlady has hatched a plot with Killer Joe (played by a young Tatsuya Nakadai in his first film role) to evict the tenants, knock the place down and build a love hotel catering to the American troops. They have a small problem as a committed communist lives in the building and refuses to move – he also tries to organise some community action where he tries to get them to club together to reduce energy costs as the local American base doesn’t pay their bills and the community has to foot the bill for the entire area. Nobody really cares though and no one wants to pay.

Killer Joe plays the tough guy in swanky clothes and sunglasses but his authority is hollow and really he’s just a scared little boy. He rapes Shizuko because he’s too lazy and frightened to bother about doing things in the more conventional way. She, for herself, is too pure to consider herself anything other than ruined by her traumatic experience and immediately petitions Joe to marry her (he, predictably, laughs and offers to let her move in with him). She’s disgusted with herself but is completely in thrall to Joe, both attracted and repelled by him. Gone are her demure outfits and white parasol, in with the dark, figure hugging dresses with exposed shoulders, loose hair and pretty pearl earrings. Her love for Nishida is the one aspect of her former self that she clings to as a way of keeping her innocence alive. Eventually she decides the only way to reclaim her honour and be free of Joe is to kill him and kill the new self born in her by his violence.

Innocence, once lost, is not something which can ever be truly regained. Nishida makes the typically male decision and is saved from his folly by a typically female one, but the ending here can never be anything other than tragic for all involved. It’s the usual B-movie conclusion, leaving only a lonely white parasol lying abandoned on the road to ruin. The message is clear, the world is cruel because we allow it to be and that is a fact that is unlikely to change.


Black River is the third of four early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.

Here’s a scene from about half way through the movie:

 

I Will Buy You (あなた買います, Masaki Kobayashi, 1956)

20140731_762129In I will Buy You (あなた買います, Anata Kaimasu, a provocative title if there ever was one), Kobayashi may have moved away from directly referencing the war but he’s still far from happy with the state of his nation. Taking what should be a light hearted topic of a much loved sport which is assumed to bring joy and happiness to a hard working nation, I Will Buy You exposes the veniality not only of the baseball industry but by implication the society as a whole.

Kishimoto works as a scout for a popular Tokyo baseball team. His job is to find the promising young players and charm them into accepting a contract before any of the other teams get to them. His first assignment doesn’t go well when he arrives at an ace pitcher’s home only to be told the subject in question is recovering from having lost a finger in a workplace accident. No major league career for him – Kishimoto heads home without even introducing himself. The next prospect is very exciting – a semi-well known college ball player who might be persuaded to turn pro. However, the student, Kurita, is “managed” by a benefactor, Kyuki (whose name literally means “ball spirit” in Japanese) who seems to be a difficult man to deal with. Nevertheless, Kishimoto is young, ambitious and determined to get Kurita on side by any means possible.

It’s just baseball, one might think but it’s almost as if we’re playing for souls. Everyone is lying, everyone is double crossing everybody else and everyone has their own interests at heart all the while swearing they only want the best for Kurita. Kurita has become a trophy, no one has even thought to ask him if he actually wants to keep playing baseball. He’s no no longer a person for them so much as a flag to be captured. This might actually work out quite well for Kurita himself who, it turns out, is far from the country bumpkin everyone has him pegged as. Though surrounded by carping relatives who are also all intent on exploiting his talent, the possibility of Kurita suddenly discovering the power to make his own decisions is a threat to everyone that they haven’t even considered yet.

Kyuki himself is the bad guy we’ve all been set up to be suspicious of but may actually turn out to be the most decent hustler in the picture. They say he spied for the Chinese during the war but is it a rumour you can really believe or just the jealous slurs of his various rivals? He himself says he taught Chinese girls to use the bayonet and carries an air of aloofness that makes him seem untrustworthy. He’s bankrolled Kurita’s education and taken on the position of a father to him over the last four years but how much of that is genuine feeling and how much financial investment? Kyuki is a married father with a family out of town but is sort of living with the older sister of Kurita’s girlfriend which is an awkward situation in itself. He also claims to have a serious gallstone problem which requires an operation though others claim he’s putting it on. Who is Kyuki, with his suspiciously apt name and hard nosed attitude can we trust him, or not?

I Will Buy You is a characteristically angry and cynical effort from Kobayashi and though it’s still a fairly early work carries some of his later technical prowess. Stripping the mask away from what is assumed to be a gentle pastime, the film lays bare the money hungry desperation of post-war Japan. Money ruins everything, even something as innocent as baseball. The Kurita from the end of the film is not the idealistic young student who came to Tokyo but a canny self-interested individual. Whether or not this transformation, and the accompanying transformation of Kishimoto whose eyes have been well and truly opened, is for the better or not maybe a matter of personal perspective but it’s not hard to guess where Kobayashi stands.


I Will Buy You is the second of four early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.

 

The Thick-Walled Room (壁あつき部屋, Masaki Kobayashi, 1956)

4473285465_b5cf3a248fThere’s a persistent myth that Japanese cinema avoids talking about the war directly and only addresses the war part of post-war malaise obliquely but if you look at the cinema of the early ‘50s immediately after the end of the occupation this is not the case at all. Though the strict censorship measures in place during the occupation often made referring to the war itself, the rise of militarism in the ‘30s or the American presence after the war’s end impossible, once these measures were relaxed a number of film directors who had direct experience with the conflict began to address what they felt about modern Japan. One of these directors was Masaki Kobayashi whose trilogy, The Human Condition, would come to be the best example of these films. This early effort, The Thick-Walled Room (壁あつき部屋, Kabe Atsuki Heya), scripted by Kobo Abe is one of the first attempts to tell the story of the men who’d returned from overseas bringing a troubled legacy with them.

The Thick-Walled Room is set inside an American detention centre for soldiers who have been declared B or C class war criminals. In essence, these are the rank and file men who were “just following orders” or committed random acts of desperation because they believed it was necessary to survive. The men are kept fairly well in the prison, they aren’t treated cruelly though they are sent for forced labour in a stone quarry. The main protagonist of the story, Yamashita, insists on maintaining a beard as a form of mini rebellion (quipping that he’s trying to grow a rope to hang himself). He feels betrayed by a superior officer,  who ordered him to commit an atrocity and then cut some kind of deal to deny it afterwards and get off scot free – he returned to Yamashita’s home town, has married and is lording it over Yamashita’s own family as some kind of devious landlord.

The others in the cell include a young romantic dreaming of a girl he met in the war who, it turns out, has long forgotten him and is now living in the pleasure quarters. The film also doesn’t shy away from the other implications of the war with a Korean soldier also among the detained who laments what’s happening both to the country of his birth which is now once again at war and his adopted country tearing itself apart in guilt and defeat. When asked whether he’s from North or South Korea the soldier hesitates, perhaps offended by the question, and simply replies “I am Korean” before walking off. Others dream of home and wives and families and this whole thing being over. However, they’re all at the mercy of two governments – the Americans and the Japanese and though they believe they may finally be released when the treaty is signed, it’s never that simple.

Masaki Kobayashi begins the themes he would return to over and over again – the depths of human cruelty, repression, indifference, vengeance. These are man who risked their lives for a god only to find he was a man and nothing more. They’ve come back alive, but different. Not only must they deal with the shame of defeat and now being prisoners of their enemies but also with entire war guilt of a nation. These are just the little guys, they did as they were told even if they didn’t want to or they killed and stole to survive. They have done terrible things to those who had no role in the conflict, this is not in dispute, and they pay a heavy spiritual toll for those actions. The people who ordered and orchestrated these deliberate reigns of terror, however, have largely escaped or lied and cheated their way out of the hangman’s noose.

Kobayashi uses a lot of expressionist techniques more reminiscent of silent cinema than of the more recent films of the era. Whilst the men are inside the cell there is nothing outside it, the war still exists in here and in their minds. We start off leaning on the walls of the cell only to find ourselves thrown back into the heat of the jungle and finally thrown out again after encountering our dramatic event. The faces of the dead pass in montages across the screen crying “murderer” and “war criminal” in a constant vision of recrimination. Even if they are eventually released, these men will be in prison for the rest of their lives.

In fact, the film was so controversial that the release was held back until 1956 even though the American occupation was technically over before it was completed. Though it isn’t the most accomplished of Kobayashi’s films, The Thick-Walled Room includes many of the ideas and motifs that he would return to throughout his career. Kobayashi wants us to see things as they are and were from all angles. He sympathises with these men but doesn’t excuse what they or the nation as a whole has done, as he would continue to do he seeks a way forward that acknowledges the past but will bring us to a more compassionate future.


The Thick-Walled Room is the first of four early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.