Masaki Kobayashi, Top Ten

Masaki Kobayashi: The Definitive Ranking

I decided to discover the complete works of Masaki Kobayashi for two reasons: I loved Samurai Rebellion, and I had purchased The Human Condition a couple of years ago (after having seen it years back) and was simply not getting around to the nine-and-a-half hour long feature film, especially when I’m filling most evenings with other movies.

I was not disappointed at all.

I was also surprised at the variety of films that he had made, necessitated by his early period of being the low rung on the ladder of Japanese directors, needing to fulfill the wishes of producers and audiences directly, which prevented him from making the kinds of films that truly animated him and drove him. I was less surprised by his more introspective later turn since it seems to happen to many serious filmmakers as they leave behind the more adventurous works of their early years to realize that they are old men facing mortality. I was delighted through it all, though.

Whether he was working in melodrama, his own personal projects, or for Japanese television, Masaki Kobayashi never let his talent languish. He brought everything to his projects, and he left a very solid filmography for us to remember him by.

Below are his works ranked, with a brief note: I could not, for the life of me, find a copy of his Growing Autumn from 1979. By all accounts, it seems as though no one has seen it for at least fifteen years since a single screening at a small film festival. I also did watch his four-and-a-half hour long documentary Tokyo Trial and simply chose not to review it. It’s a good documentary and says things similarly to what he had been saying in his narrative feature films, but it’s such a different beast that I felt like it was something apart from the rest of his work.

Anyway, do check out the rest of my definitive rankings as well to bask in all the definitiveness.

18. Youth of the Son

“Anyway, the film is okay. Shorter, and they’d have to rewrite it. Longer, and they’d have to film more stuff. However, stuck in the middle it can’t quite effectively tell the story it tries to tell. There’s warmth and niceness, especially in the first half, along with a perfectly competent sense of framing and editing from Kobayashi and his technical team, but it just doesn’t quite work as a whole.”

17. Fountainhead

“So, it ends up a mixed experience. He made a film bursting with narrative movement but couldn’t connect it all.”

16. Somewhere Beneath the Broad Sky

“It’s nice. It’s not challenging, and it often feels like it’s going to go darker than it does, but Kobayashi was still seemingly smarting from the poor reaction to The Thick-Walled Room from Japanese officials. He was making safe fare to keep working, relying heavily on his mentors and friends for stylistic and narrative directions.”

15. Inn of Evil

“I can imagine one more rewrite of this script that would have pushed it from lesser-Kobayashi into the higher tier of his work.”

14. The Inheritance

“The lack of emotional connection keeps me at a small distance from the action, but the action itself is still a tense exercise and look at the corrupt side of human nature. Where Kaji refused to accept that he has lost it all and kept his efforts to retain his humanity in The Human Condition, Yasuko simply gives in completely. It’s an interesting contrast in that light as well.”

13. The Fossil

“So, sure, it doesn’t live up to the promise it sets out for itself, but it ends up a nice film, a departure in style and ideas from Kobayashi’s work of the previous two decades.”

12. Three Loves

“Still, there’s real ambition to this film. Kobayashi, probably reeling a bit from his inability to actually release his first film that could be called fully his own, returned to the genre that he had been working in, and he swung for the fences. The end result is an ambitious, somewhat affecting, and nearly unwieldy ensemble piece that centers around a clear core idea. I think Kobayashi was proving early in his career that he not only had great technical skill, but that he also has a sense of cinematic ambition that was going to pay off in spades later in his career. In this earlier, rougher form, there’s still a good bit to take in and enjoy, imperfect though the experience may be.”

11. Black River

“As it is, though, Black River is the continued evolution of Kobayashi learning to say what he wants to say within a story effectively. He’s never been bad at it, and he’s made better films, however the strength of the love triangle element’s subtext is probably the best he’s done at it. The overall package is solidly good, but that love triangle represents some very good work on Kobayashi’s part.”

10. Beautiful Days

“That’s actually quite admirable, especially from a young, hungry filmmaker who had already been slapped down by government authorities. He refused to completely subvert himself. He was still making movies that spoke to him.”

9. The Thick-Walled Room

“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.”

8. Sincere Heart

“This is a small triumph in Kobayashi’s early career, making evident that he was a solid technical director who could find emotion in a script and effectively direct his performers.”

7. I Will Buy You

“Aside from an unclear moral aspect, this is probably Kobayashi’s best film up to this point. When I first started learning about Kobayashi’s body of work (right after watching Samurai Rebellion) a couple of years ago, it was this one that excited me most to visit. Now that I have, I’m not disappointed at all.”

6. Hymn to a Tired Man

“This is an intelligent and elegant little film from Kobayashi. It’s themes feel more mature in a way, stepping away from the endless fight against an unjust system and finding a way to lead one’s life modestly and well (the stated goals of many of Kobayashi’s protagonists through his angrier films, mind you). There’s real tenderness when Zensaku returns home in the end, and it’s well earned.”

5. Kwaidan

“It’s rare to find a film in a body of work that feels both so apart and so in line with everything else at the same time.”

4. Family Without a Dinner Table

“Sharply written characters with precise visual framing (he often has two characters on opposite sides of the frame, separated by something in between, and he’s probably the most purposeful in using the third dimension of the frame to imply distances between characters) and pinpoint performances from all of his actors (Nakadai ends his run with Kobayashi delivering a wonderfully subtle bit of heartache), Family Without a Dinner Table was Kobayashi going out swinging.”

3. The Human Condition

               a. Part I: No Greater Love

“This is Kobayashi working through his own personal demons while telling an epic story and damning his own country for its crimes over the previous twenty years.”

               b. Part II: Road to Eternity

“This may be the middle third of a three-part tale, but it’s a great one.”

               c. Part III: A Soldier’s Prayer

“It may not be something to put in on a Friday night to relax from a long week, but it is an essential chapter in cinema. Very few productions have this kind of ambition or succeed as completely (Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is another such example).”

2. Harakiri

“This is one of the crowning jewels of Masaki Kobayashi’s body of work. It is an amazing combination of storytelling with purpose, told with incredible skill in his assured hands. This movie is great.”

1. Samurai Rebellion

“This movie is great. It’s absolutely fantastic and heart breaking. I’ve seen several of Kobayashi’s films including the trilogy The Human Condition and Harakiri, and I think this is the best of the ones I’ve seen from the director. It’s involving and sad, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen as it unfolded.”

A second look:

“I honestly don’t think I have a whole lot more to say than I originally did in my original review, but I do adore this film. It is one of the greatest of Japanese movies, and one of my favorites.”

25 thoughts on “Masaki Kobayashi: The Definitive Ranking”

  1. I am so, so happy you did this series. (my checking account is less thrilled to be bulking out my collection)

    Koybayashi has always been one of those discoveries I can never get anyone else into. He’s unlike a lot of his contemporary filmmakers, refusing to deal in common film tropes and archetypes common to Japanese. He is as close to an ‘honest’ filmmaker as I can think of.

    His characters are alive, real. They don’t speak in speeches or cliches, they all have motivations and reasons for what they do. There’s very, very little ‘this has to happen for the story to happen’ in his work. There’s very few misunderstanding plots, where if the characters just spoke honestly for two minutes, the conflict would end. Watching Koybayashi films, I feel like I’m seeing through a window into a real world…albeit sometimes with jazz music and dutch angles at moments of crisis.

    He gets the reputation for being ‘rebellious’ or ‘against the system’, even in Criterion’s collection (incomplete collection, sadly) of his work. He isn’t though. He loves Japan. He loves the family. He even seems to love the conformist but functional society Japan created. What he is in truth is against tyranny, against abuse of authority. He is a humanist, humanity is his concern, to quote another, very different storyteller. But he doesn’t cast his humans as bronze gods, the human as hero, the New Soviet Man…all of his humans have good sides, bad sides, are good and gentle sometimes, cruel and callous at others. I honestly can’t think of more than a handful of filmmakers who manage to capture humans as complex contradictions as well.

    There is unspoken, unspeechifyied morality in his tales, though I don’t see the religiosity Stephen Prince has assigned to him…too many of his characters are not opposed to evil because it’s wrong and sin is almost never mentioned. But right and wrong, yes, he shows us that at length….even when it can be muddled and confusing. Sometimes the ‘right’ thing can be hard to even know, but we’re always able to see what is wrong here. And he does it without beating us over the head with it with music, camerawork or preaching.

    And I get to see so many good performances: So Yammamura, Tatsuya Nakadai, even Lurch-faced Yunosuke Ito all stand out.

    I don’t know how I’d order his films, personally. My favorite might be a fight between ‘Samurai Rebellion’ and ‘I Will Buy You’. Harakiri is a powerhouse performance by Nadakai, but I actually think he’s even better in ‘Black River’. I suppose Mifune’s subtle mastery of the actor’s art, combined with his charisma, would put Rebellion on my top too. I’d put The Inheritence higher, but I’m a Noir junkie.

    Sadly we got less than 20 films from Koybayashi, while some of his peers made five times as many. But the ones we got are all, frankly, Quality.

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    1. Well, you didn’t have to convince me. I decided it on my own, like a big boy. There are often real advantages to doing the “whole filmography” thing, discovering a lot of wonderful work that gets overshadowed by more culturally impactful centers.

      The religious elements seem to be, outside of his first four or five released film, mostly aesthetic in nature, rather than thematic. In particular, Buddhist art in particular gains a prominent visual space across his films after he largely leaves behind the earlier Christian influences. His final film, according to Prince (the IMDB doesn’t even list it and I can’t find it referenced anywhere else) was a film about his art teacher from college who introduced him to the Buddhist arts.

      But beyond his thematic and aesthetic concerns, he was just so damn good at making movies. His characters were always so multi-dimensional. His filming was always at a basic level assured (that mentorship program the Japanese film industry followed seemed to produce good results in general) and often precise in ways that never drew attention to itself but always highlighted and underlined the dramatic points going onscreen.

      He really was a master filmmaker and storyteller. I, too, wish he had made more, but that lost decade of his from his drafting in 1941 to his first film in 1952 robbed us of, probably, ten films. There’s no telling what kind of filmmaker he would have been had he not been drafted and sent to his own little corner of the war, though.

      I’m just happy we got what we did.

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  2. I feel like I neglected a discussion of his editing, scene construction, shot framing and camera work in the past discussions. (and I’m probably sharing credit with several other people, just like his character choices are based on good screenplay work) So I’ll add it here:

    He was solid, visually, bordering at times on wildly romantic. He’s not John Ford or Kurosawa or Hitchcock but he knows what to show and when to go large and when to go close. His scenes don’t open or close too soon, they don’t overstay their welcome and the pacing is pretty darn good, even in 9 hour epics, you never get bored.

    Really, really good craftsman. I gotta see if I can find the other films of his that I don’t own, though it sounds like it’s going to be rough going.

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    1. The Criterion Channel has access to almost everything up to Samurai Rebellion, but everything afterwards is owned by Toho or smaller, independent Japanese film studios. It makes it kind of impossible to find English friendly versions. I was digging through Japanese DVD sites and could only find The Fossil with an English subtitle track.

      Everything else I went through places like ok.ru to find what I could. It’s really unfortunate because there’s some wonderful stuff in his later career. The inability to easily (or legally) watch most of it limits the reach of one of cinema’s greatest artists. I find it very frustrating.

      Especially since I can’t see Glowing Autumn at all.

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