Masaki Kobayashi (1916-1996) was an Academy Award-nominated (Kwaidan, Best Foreign Language Film 1965) director whose films spanned four decades. Four of the Japanese filmmaker’s works have been anthologized in The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System. As with previous editions of the Eclipse Series, these films—The Thick-Walled Room (1956), I Will Buy You (1956), Black River (1956), and The Inheritance (1962)—are presented with no frills and minimal-to-no restoration efforts, but have nonetheless been rescued from obscurity. The films are probing examinations of the socio-political issues that were extremely relevant in postwar Japan.
The Thick-Walled Room is the earliest film, having been competed in 1953. In an attempt to diffuse any possible American objection to its portrayal of war criminal prisons overseen by U.S. personnel, the film’s release was delayed by three years. It’s an engrossing character study focused on the incarceration of rank-and-file soldiers, punished for carrying out their orders during World War II while their commanding officers live freely. Considerably different in tone and arguably the strongest film in the collection, I Will Buy You is a baseball film that focuses on the business side of the sport. Apparently the political controversy surrounding The Thick-Walled Room resulted in Kobayashi’s directing of several milquetoast dramas during the delay prior to its release.
I Will Buy You, as its confrontational title suggests, is certainly not light melodrama. A sobering look at the ruthless job of recruiting new talent, I Will Buy You tracks the efforts of Daisuke Kishimoto (Keiji Sada), a scout for the budget-challenged Tokyo Flowers. Along with every other team, he’s trying to sign college star Goro Kurita (Minoru Ooki) and soon realizes that everyone wants a piece of the young player. It’s admittedly a little long, considering the movie is essentially a drawn-out set of contract negotiations, but the actors’ subtle work helps ground it. There is precious little baseball footage, but the film shows just how cut-throat Japan’s baseball industry was even decades ago.
Continuing the theme of social critique, Black River takes place in a fleabag apartment building run by a slumlord (Isuzu Yamada). The women work as prostitutes while their unknowing husbands are at work during the day. One ailing resident is desperately in need of a blood transfusion, yet the other tenants steadfastly refuse to donate—even the sick man’s own wife. A jazzy score and quick pace keep Black River from being the weighty drag it might’ve easily become. Sly, satirical humor is laced throughout.
Moving into the ‘60s, The Inheritance is the only non-1.33:1 aspect ratio film in the set. Its 2.40:1 widescreen framings make this the most visually arresting, but thematically we’re still drenched in sardonic depictions of economic injustice. The Inheritance of the title is what Senzo Kawara’s (So Yamamura) heirs will receive upon his imminent, cancer-hastened death. Legally, he need only bestow one-third of his considerable fortune upon his wife, Satoe (Misako Watanabe). In order to include more recipients in his will, the search begins for his three illegitimate children in order for his lawyer to make the necessary alterations. Having much in common with I Will Buy You, this is another scathing look at the corrupting power of money and greed.
As is the general case with Criterion’s Eclipse Series, the films collected in Masaki Kobayashi Against the System are not graced by any supplemental features. Each slim DVD case contains a short essay printed on the inlay. The pertinent information helps provide context to the films and Kobayashi’s career overall. The films, while all certainly watchable, show their age with scratches, dirt, wildly fluctuating contrast levels, and other visual distractions. All four black-and-white films are accompanied by their original monaural Japanese soundtracks with English subtitles. The negative points are not really a criticism of the presentation, just a reality. Kudos to The Criterion Collection for keeping these seldom seen works readily available.