#9 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
It’s easy to see why Japanese authorities would have wanted cuts from Masaki Kobayashi’s first attempt at his hard-hitting style of story about the individual against an oppressive system. Not only did it highlight some smaller forms of the war crimes of the Japanese army during World War II, but it was an obviously political piece meant to attack the Japanese government for, what Kobayashi saw as, injustices against minor war criminals when more guilty ones were let off with lighter sentences. He dramatizes it well, the movie ending extraordinarily well, but a lot of details about the situation that seem necessary to understand what’s going on get left out (I had to look up what Class-A, B, and C war criminals were, for instance, despite the film mentioning them repeatedly), probably because 1953 Japan was marinating in the details, and he was making the film for a 1953 Japanese audience.
One thing should be known about Kobayashi. He was a pacificist who rejected the militarism of 1930s Japan and, when he was conscripted into the Japanese army, he refused every promotion, remaining a private and was captured as a prisoner of war near the end, serving a year in a prison camp on Okinawa. He was not a man out to excuse Japanese crimes in Manchuria, which he witnessed with his own eyes. He was a man with sympathy for the lowest rung of the Japanese military and society that had been unjustly treated by their superior officers and government.
The film is about a handful of war criminals in an American controlled prison in Tokyo as they wait until either their sentence is over or, for most of them, Japan becomes independent again and can determine what it wants to do with its prisoners without American input. All of these prisoners are B and C-Class war criminals, and what’s interesting is that they are all guilty. Not just in the minds of the law, but we see flashbacks to their individual crimes. Yes, they did the deeds. Yamashita (Torahiko Hamada) was ordered by his superior officer Hamada (Eitaro Ozawa) to kill a native who housed them because he might have been part of a guerilla movement. Yamashita killed the native. Yokota (Ko Mishima) was an English translator at a POW camp that housed American soldiers, and he was ordered by his superior officer to whip a prisoner who had stolen some rice. The soldier died of his wounds from the whipping. These are guilty men, but the superior officers have gotten off with lighter sentences, most particularly Hamada who was released from prison before Yamashita and has returned to their hometown to undermine Yamashita’s mother and sister.
The topical nature of the film dominates for a while, and it becomes about the details of the handover of the prison from formal American control to de jure Japanese control but remaining de facto American control all while the Japanese constitution included an article disallowing the Japanese government from freeing the war criminals. This detail is here not for the story but because Kobayashi was making a contemporary political point and trying to influence his audience’s outlook on the treatment of the war criminals still under arrest in their own country.
The final half of the film concentrates on Yamashita’s problem. Yokota has a brother out of prison who works for a leftist newspaper. After getting him to track down the innocent young girl he had known during the war (who has since become a prostitute, another attack on nostalgia from Kobayashi), he tells Yamashita’s story to his brother who then publishes it in the newspaper. This causes a row within the prison. The Class-A prisoners (sitting on a stage above all of the Class-B and C prisoners) demand that the one who wrote the story give himself up, but no one will give up Yokota. At the news of Yamashita’s mother’s sudden death, the prisoners gather together to convince the authorities to give him one day to go back home to mourn before returning (he’s followed by an official, so it makes this believable enough within the context of the film, meaning that I have no idea if they actually allowed this sort of thing). He’s already tried to escape once, but the public opinion in his favor brought on by article seems to have enough influence over the authorities to allow him out for this one day of mourning.
Of course, he tried to escape because he wants to kill Hamada. Hamada, who ordered him to kill the native and then testified against Yamashita in court, is living well on the outside while Yamashita sits in prison. The emotional reality of Yamashita finding Hamada and suddenly feeling no need to kill him, especially how Kobayashi lays out the scene with wonderfully dark shadows in the middle of the night, was what pushed me from appreciation to real affection for the film. There’s real drama here about men who did bad things but are definitely being treated unjustly in comparison to others, and I feel for Yamashita.
Kobayashi obviously chose to highlight stories (taken from real prisoners, it seems) that stack the deck in his favor. These are good men who were ordered by superior officers to do terrible things. He chose to not highlight any B or C-Class criminals who willingly or joyfully committed atrocities, and I think that undermines his contemporary political point. It’s really the political angle that holds me back slightly, but the human stuff he does bring to the fore through his characters ends up so strong that I forgive a lot of it.
It’s the work of a young filmmaker, which makes the release date of the film interesting because, by watching his films in release order, we see him regress technically (while Fountainhead is a lesser film, it’s more polished). At the same time, there’s some wonderful visual stuff on display as well. There’s a minor character who ends up in a nightmare where bullet holes start forming in his cell, and peeking through he sees the crimes he committed, driving him to suicide. It’s not only gorgeous to look at but there’s real sadness at the emotional reality of the man driven to take his own life in the face of his sins. Kobayashi brought everything he could to this, and really the main thing holding him back at all was that he was trying to be topical. Otherwise, he made a passionate film about men he obviously cared for.