b. 14 February 1916, Otaru, Japan.

d. 4 October 1996, Setagaya, Tokyo, Japan.

Masaki Kobayashi’s career coincides with the so-called Golden Age of Japanese cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the fact that some of his films such as the war trilogy Ningen no jōken (The Human Condition, 1959-1961) and Seppuku (Harakiri, 1962) had won international critical acclaim,1 the centenary of his birth in February 2016 passed almost unnoticed in the Western media.2 Kobayashi has been largely forgotten by the average Japanese filmgoer, and outside Japan interest in his work is much lower than it is for the films of his contemporaries, such as Akira Kurosawa.

Kobayashi’s politically and ethically uncompromising and economically risk-taking attitude put him in conflict with the studios he worked with, Shōchiku and Toho: this might explain the fact that he made only 22 films. Moreover, his critical view of militarism in Japanese history and the entanglement of politics and the economy in Japanese society are topics that are not attractive to young Japanese people. However, they are still burning issues in Japan and in the modern world, more meaningful than ever before. The Human Condition is not only a landmark film putting a harsh light on Japanese imperialism during World War II, it is a remarkable and universal statement against war. Harakiri, Kwaidan (1964), Jōi-uchi: Hairyō-tsuma shimatsu (Samurai Rebellion, 1967) or Inochi bō no furō (Inn of Evil, 1971) – all bearing the director’s unique signature – reveal the complex interplay between content and form, morality and aesthetics. They show in a most original way how traditional forms can be used as a tool for political criticism and ethical reflection.

Kobayashi was one of the finest depicters of Japanese society in the 1950s and 1960s, and explored the war and post-war situation by addressing controversial topics such as corruption, economic exploitation and the denial of war atrocities. The Human Condition was such a great international success in the 1960s that a remake was produced for television in 1963 directed by Takeshi Abe. It is not the film’s harsh and uncompromising realism which makes it outstanding, but its approach to Japan’s imperialist policy. As film critic Setogawa Sōta pointed out, it “was the first Japanese film that frankly depicted ‘Japanese devils’ in China in great detail.”3 Kobayashi dared to criticise openly Japanese militarism and to show the brutality of the Japanese occupation policy in China. His humanist message is close to Kurosawa’s, but his political attitude and his interest in aspects that concern Japanese society are more clearly expressed than in the work of most of his contemporaries. Not unlike Kurosawa, he was a risk-taking filmmaker who was interested in challenging formal aspects and rejected compromise, an attitude which made his position more and more insecure in the 1970s when Japanese film industry experienced a period of drought. His last film – Shokutaku no nai ie (Family Without a Dinner Table aka The Empty Table) – was released in 1985, twelve years before his death. However, his anti-violence stance and his personal style with its combination of aesthetics, historical research and emotions are as vibrant as ever.

Born on the northern island of Hokkaido, Kobayashi spent his youth in his hometown Otaru near the mountains. His penchant for views from a height was developed during these years, when he enjoyed skiing on his home island. Breathtaking views of the mountains filmed on Hokkaido appear in The Human Condition, and other films also contain impressive shots of mountain landscapes. Not unlike Kurosawa, Kobayashi uses meteorological conditions such as wind, snow, storms and heavy rain to add movement to his frames. His insistence on natural elements creates a broader context for his protagonists, connecting them even more clearly to a culture in which the contemplation of nature is central and in which there is an omnipresent awareness that the fragility of human existence depends so much on natural conditions.

Kobayashi returned to Hokkaido to shoot his war trilogy. He left the island to study ancient oriental arts and philosophy at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo in the 1930s. After graduation in 1941, he entered Shōchiku Studios but was drafted into the army shortly after and sent to Harbin, Manchuria. Being a pacifist, he refused promotion to higher ranks several times. This is a significant manifestation of his independent spirit and non-conformism. Kobayashi spent the final months of the war interred in a POW camp in Okinawa, at that time under American control.

Upon his release from the camp in 1946, he became an assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita, one of the leading directors of the period – together with Yazuro Ozu, Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi – and at that time under contract at Shōchiku. His first films are inspired by the studio’s style, which was renowned for its shomin-geki: contemporary stories and domestic dramas. The sentimental style of these productions is resonant in Kobayashi’s early films, Kinoshita clearly being a major influence.4 Kobayashi’s mentor Kinoshita was the scriptwriter of his first film, the 45-minute-long Musuko no seishun (My Sons’ Youth, 1952), and of his first feature film Magokoro (Sincere Hearts, 1953). Both are social melodramas close to the style of the studio and deal with young people’s desires and fears within a coming-of-age context.

In 1953, Kobayashi directed a far more personal film on a topic that was unusual for Shōchiku. Kabe atsuki heya (The Thick-Walled Room) is an early example of his lifelong preoccupation with the war and his deep interest in politics and society. This landmark film is one of the first Japanese films to deal with the war heritage, raising questions of responsibility for atrocities committed by the Japanese. The screenplay, by the novelist Kobo Abe, is based on the secret notes written down by former members of the army who were sentenced for war crimes. The protagonists are low-ranking soldiers, categorized as B and C war criminals. The film targets not only the brutal punishment suffered by these men at the hands of the Americans, but also the fact that many of them were framed by their superiors who escaped punishment. Without trying to whitewash his protagonists, Kobayashi suggests how badly they were treated by a system which denied all responsibility. The prison is not simply the stage on which the intimate drama of Japan’s post-war society is played out: the huis clos of the prison is turned into a metaphorical space and a dramatic character in its own right. The bleakness of the expressionist black-and-white photography, unusual camera positions, cross-fades, the subtle blending of everyday situations and dream sequences revealing the tormented spirits of the inmates are aspects that repeatedly shine through the realism at the film’s core. The Thick-Walled Room was far too controversial in 1953 – just one year after the end of American occupation – so was not released until 1957. By that time, it had lost much of its political impact.

Since there was no chance that Kobayashi’s second feature film would be released straightaway, he returned to the psychological drama more typical of Shōchiku. Mittsu no ai (Three Loves, 1954) and Kono hiroi sora no dokoka ni (Somewhere Under the Broad Sky aka Somewhere beneath the Vast Heavens, 1954) are like many other Japanese films of the 1950s in that they deal with poverty and disillusionment: the disfigurement of one of the protagonists in Somewhere Under the Broad Sky is a visual reminder of the war and the permanent mark it left on post-war society. Another film, Uruwashiki saigetsu (Beautiful Days aka Days of Splendour, 1955) affirms small-town values and recalls Kinoshita’s great success with his film of domestic life, Nijū-shi no hitomi (24 Eyes, 1954). In these films, the family is the microcosm in which the economic struggle of the (young) protagonists and their disregard for society are depicted.

Kobayashi’s love story Izumi (Fountainhead aka The Spring, 1956), however, begins to address political issues such as real-estate speculation and corruption more overtly. This is also true for Anata kaimasu, (I’ll Buy You, 1956) which adds to the domestic tale a portrayal of the corrupt world of professional baseball to the domestic tale. Kobayashi explores the machinations behind the scenes of this very popular sport in his home country, and the film ends with the dissolution of the family and a murder. Filmed in a realist manner, I’ll Buy You reveals – just as The Thick-Walled Room did before it – a penchant for expressionist lighting creating moments of profound bleakness.

Masaki Kobayashi

Black River

In Kuroi kawa (Black River, 1957) Kobayashi offers insights into a Japan of the 1950s dominated by crime, violence, corruption and poverty. The setting is reminiscent of Maxim Gorki’s play The Lower Depths (1902), a shack close to an American military base where a human drama is enhanced by strong social criticism. The greedy landlady, the apolitical student and the convinced communist form part of the cast of characters who are trying to survive in post-war Tokyo. Joe (Tatsuya Nakadai in his first leading role) is a cynical and brutal gang boss who controls the whole district. Wearing sunglasses and exuding coolness, he apes a new masculine type imported from the U.S., and the film clearly asks questions about the Americanisation of Japanese society. However, the main targets are those Japanese who adopt American trends only superficially. Social conformity is at the core of Kobayashi’s criticism, and he represents his compatriots as mere opportunists who, after having blindly followed the rules of the military regime, are now happy to adapt to the rules of democracy, whatever the cost. The society he depicts is one that accepts a continuing authoritarian rule, and this is the basis for corruption and violence. Kobayashi condemns any idealisation of poverty, having the student Nishida (Fumio Watanabe) say: “I have chosen to live in this shanty to save 600 yen. But I don’t like poverty. It makes you lose dignity.” Nishida, introduced as shy and clumsy, anticipates the rebel in Kobayashi’s oeuvre. Instead of being presented as a sympathetic character, he is a man of principles. Unlike the communist, he does not follow an ideology but confronts Joe for Shizuko’s (Ineko Arima) sake, since he is in love with her. Joe is the pure product of a society left to its own devices by its former rulers, the head of a male-dominated clan that lives from crime and violence. There is no justice system, and so the young woman kills Joe to put an end to the evil he embodies. The far bigger crime, the corruption that has created this misery and violence, goes unpunished. The image at the end of the film is a rainy road at night. A gloomy image in which Shizuko, a human miniature, vanishes into the all-enveloping darkness.5

The Human Condition is the first film Kobayashi made outside Shōchiku, and his critical depiction of the Japanese during the war was not appreciated by the conservative studio. As a producer, he took enormous risks with this monumental work: the shooting lasted 2½ years and the whole production took four years. The screenplay is based on a popular novel by Junpei Gomikawa deriving from personal experience but inspired in equal measure by Kobayashi’s own war experience as a pacifist in the Imperial Army. Kaji, his protagonist, could be considered the director’s alter ego as he is a pacifist serving in the Kwantung Army. Kobayashi raises questions which are uncomfortable still today: what did World War II turn the Japanese into? Who was responsible for the atrocities committed in their name? As Patrick Galbraith puts it: “From controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine to glaring omissions in high-school textbooks, conservative Japanese continue to fan the flames of their stained relationship with China by dismissing and denying many wartime atrocities, but the truth was laid bare 50 years ago in Kobayashi’s films.”6 Kobayashi breaks with taboos by showing comfort women and depicting the inhumane treatment of Chinese civilians in Japanese labour camps. One of the most brutal moments is the discovery of the near-starving prisoners in the cattle wagons: hundreds of men, their faces and bodies marked by hunger and exhaustion, run away into the bare Manchurian landscape, desperately trying to find food and water. Another crucial moment is the arbitrary execution of six of the prisoners by the Japanese military police. This long sequence reveals the desire of the prisoners to resist and Kaji’s own contradictory feelings, oscillating between fear and determination. He stops the execution after the third man has been beheaded but is drafted into the army because of this insubordination. In the third part, he is imprisoned in a Soviet labour camp, where he continues his struggle, this time against the corrupt system established by the other Japanese officers.

The trilogy is not only a confrontation with historical guilt but also the portrait of a society that continuously suppresses the individual. Focusing on resistance to authority, it is a major humanist document. “Human condition” is not entirely accurate as a translation of the Japanese title Ningen no jōken, which means the special condition under which a person is human. This particular meaning is revealed at the moment of the execution when Wang (Eijirō Tōno), one of the Chinese slave labourers, tries to convince Kaji to put an end to the cruel punishment of innocent men. He wonders if Kaji, still hesitating, is either a murderer who pretends being a humanist or a human being who fully deserves this name. As in most of his films and especially in his two period films Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion Kobayashi is preoccupied with the uneasy relationship between the individual and society, between personal desire and social obligations. Having a strong sense of justice and dignity, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is aware of his inner contradictions and limitations. He arrives at the labour camp determined to show that better life conditions lead to better work, but he discovers how much he himself is part of an unjust system. His rebellion is paralleled by a never-ending struggle for integrity that shows where there are no heroes. In the end, he is forced to face evil, and he kills the sadistic Kirihara (Nobuo Kaneko). Without becoming a figure for heroic identification, Kaji represents a symbol of hope in a world of opportunism and corruption. He prevents the Soviet tribunal and the Japanese officers from maltreating the lower-ranking prisoners.

Kobayashi defends bourgeois ideals in his representation of Kaji’s love for Michiko (Michiyo Aratama): his protagonist’s last words before dying in the cold are addressed to his wife. However, the individual is always seen in a broader social context that includes fundamental questions concerning an individual’s place in society. The human figure framed through a telescope lens and thus turned into a miniature suggests the individual’s place in the world. Kaji and Michiko, Kaji and the soldiers, or Shizuko in Black River appear in the emptiness of a wide landscape. In The Human Condition, Kaji has to face snow, wind, heat, dust, hunger and torture. At the end, his body is an unrecognizable shape under the snow.

Masaki Kobayashi

The Human Condition

Karami-ai (Bitter Love aka Inheritance, 1962) could be considered a transitional work about a man trying to set his house in order as death approaches. This family story that contains some whodunnit elements examines social conditions and human behaviour, creating a grim portrait of a society dominated by greed and corruption. The jazzy score by Torū Takemitsu is the composer’s first collaboration with Kobayashi.7

Realism dominates The Human Condition and Kobayashi’s films of the 1950s, realism enhanced and overcome by subtle camera movements and sophisticated lighting devices. Harakiri, Kwaidan and Samurai Rebellion, all set in the past, reveal Kobayashi’s growing interest in Japanese art forms and concepts. He first discovered this dramatic potential while working on Harakiri. “I was keenly attracted to the stylized beauty of our traditional forms,” he stated. “At the same time, since I felt I had come to the end of pursuing realism in film, this new mode of expression delighted me.”8 Harakiri is an intimate character study filmed in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio (The Human Condition had been filmed in 2.35:1), and an impressive representation of oppressive hierarchical structures. The script – adapted from a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi – was written by Shinobu Hashimoto, the scriptwriter of Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954). Hanshiro Tsugumo (again played by Nakadai) is a ronin,9 a figure who often serves as a tool to challenge authority and to criticise blind obedience. Both Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion transcend the codes of the jidai-geki (period film) and chambara (swordfight film) in order to explore the role of Japan’s feudal heritage in the construction of the collective psyche of the Japanese people in the 20th century.

In Harakiri, Kwaidan and Samurai Rebellion, there are long travelling shots in the barely furnished rooms revealing the harmony inherent in symmetrical compositions. Kobayashi’s favourite angle – from above – transforms the courtyard of the Iyi residence into the stage of a Noh play, another traditional art form Kobayashi takes inspiration from. The focus on symmetry and asymmetry is reminiscent of the formal use of grouping in Noh drama. The dialogue, written in the archaic style of public storytelling, is another device that Kobayashi uses to oppose realist conventions. The poetic imagery is heightened by sound and music: Torū Takemtisu’s score includes songs from Japanese folklore and atonal Biwa sounds.

Masaki Kobayashi


Expressionist lighting contributes to a sense of fragmentation, creating gloomy corners which immediately question the apparent visual equilibrium. Motome’s (Akira Ishihama) extremely painful death is presented in a series of fast cuts which are in stark contrast with the slow ceremonial pace of other shots. The oblique position of the camera destroys the concept of linearity presented in the architecture. It creates a disturbing moment in which the pain and the fear the young man experiences becomes even more palpable. The ideal of harmony is revealed as a means to mask the truth – underneath the apparent cleanliness, filth and violence are only too obvious. The frantic sounds of the Biwa accompanying Motome’s agonising death create strong discordances which, together with the visual strategies, challenge the idea of beauty in death and emphasise the cruelty of the ritual of self-disembowelment.

Kobayashi draws attention to the ambiguity within the concept of bushido (the way of the warrior) at the centre of samurai society. The inhumane treatment of the young Motome, forced to commit suicide with his bamboo blades, is the consequence of codes of behaviour that are accepted without being questioned. The samurai ancestor’s empty suit of armour shown in a succession of shots at the beginning and at the end of the film becomes a symbol of meaningless traditions stubbornly defended by the samurai (as the representatives of a hierarchically-based society). The Iyi family accept Motome’s horrifying death and kill his father-in-law Hanshiro simply in order to save their own reputation. Hanshiro questions this behaviour: “The samurai is a human being too. There are moments in which human sentiment is what is most important.”

Kobayashi’s focus on the individual must be understood in a broader context. Hanshiro is the veteran of the war period of the late 16th century and he refers to other historical events such as the dissolution of clans by the ruling shogun, which led to homeless and penniless ronin invading the country. “The rich,” he says “have no idea of misery.” The recourse to the jidai-geki and the past does little to mask the criticism of structures that are militarist and determined by economic policy as represented in contemporary Japan by the keiretsu (the informal business groups controlling Japan’s economy in the second half of the 20th century) and the still valid rigid concepts of loyalty and obedience. Kobayashi condemns the Japanese militarist tradition of the past and the rigid hierarchies still observed in present-day Japan through the historical prism of feudal Japan.

Social concerns are less overtly present in his first colour film Kwaidan, inspired by four traditional ghost stories retold by the Irish-Greek-American journalist Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). Kobayashi captures the beauty of old Japan while at the same time extending the limits set by non-realist film-making. According to Japanese artistic concepts, illusion is not hidden. The sumptuous settings, created entirely on a sound stage, allow a great degree of stylisation, including a tribute to surrealism. Painted backgrounds, the startling use of sound and music by Takemitsu and Kabuki together with Noh-influenced staging also contribute to this outstanding exploration of form. In the second story “The Woman of the Snow” especially, the painted décor is reminiscent of a theatre setting. Takemitsu’s innovative score contributes to a constant atmosphere of terror in which ordinary phenomena such as the cracking of wood are transformed into scary, alien sounds. Kwaidan states strong ethical positions but at the same time contains portrayals of society as well as references to recent history, mainly through atomic bomb imagery.10 Kobayashi invested all his savings in the film, but despite much critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, it was not a commercial success.11

Masaki Kobayashi

Kwaidan, “The Woman of the Snow

Samurai Rebellion is another film in which Kobayashi makes use of jidai-geki elements as a tool for social criticism. The setting is a provincial court in 1727, a hundred years after Harakiri. It stars Toshirō Mifune, whose company produced the film together with Toho. Most of the shooting took place in Mifune’s brand new sound stage in Setagaya.12

As in Harakiri, there are some frantic battle scenes combining realism with stylish choreography. The duel between Isaburo (Mifune) and Tatewaki (Nakadai) is a precisely measured but extremely intense exchange of blows. Aesthetics and space become signifiers in their own right. Kobayashi used the precepts of Japanese architecture to create a metaphorical space reflecting social norms weighing down on the characters and also the transgression of these social norms. The sobriety and symmetry of interiors symbolises oppressive sterility and dullness. The social constraints are a burden which has turned Isaburo into a prematurely aged man. However, the linearity of the architecture and tradition disappears when the protagonist – preparing his house for the battle – crosses bamboo rods at the openings, providing a counterbalance to the symmetrical concept. Isaburo has regained strength and confidence. The change undergone by the protagonist is subtly reflected by his mask and costume and by the actor’s sense of presence and outstanding performance.

Masaki Kobayashi

Samurai Rebellion

The conflict between giri (feudal authority) and ninjo (human feeling) has been part of the samurai film since the silent era.13 Kobayashi makes use of this contrast in the development of his central character, Isaburo, from an obedient but lucid servant (the very meaning of the term “samurai”) to an independent fighter for justice. Donald Richie called the film “a relentless attack on the feudal traditions inherent in Japanese society”14, and topics such as social hierarchy and history are approached in a complex manner within the framework of a domestic drama in which Isaburo is not the only one to rebel. The Japanese title could be roughly translated as “An Order of the Emperor (or a high-ranking person): The Sad End of the Bestowed Wife”. Lady Ichi (Yōko Tsukasa), the main female figure, refuses to accept the traditional woman’s role as object and becomes even more worthy of admiration than the men. Her resistance is a radical gesture against the rules imposed by the ruling elite and within a male-dominated world. The choice of title indicates that the film is not a conventional chambara and underlines Toho’s wish to target a wider audience. The importance given to the domestic was also a strategy to distance the film from the rival studio Shōchiku, which had produced the successful Harakiri.

Kobayashi considered his next film, the adaptation of Shusako Endo’s novel Nihon no seishun (The Youth of Japan aka Hymn to a Tired Man, 1968), as a sequel to The Human Condition. The central character is a man (Makoto Fujita) who, haunted by the memory of the war, confronts a society which still denies its past. Unlike his son who is eager to join the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and does not care at all about the past, the father faces up to the spectre of history: “When we were in the army, this is what we did.” Torn between social responsibility as a husband and father and personal desires, he disappears at the end of the film, having found a solution to his dilemma.

In 1969, Kobayashi, Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa and Keisuke Kinoshita formed the artist collective Yonki no kai (which could be translated by “committee of four knights” or “committee of four musketeers”) with the aim of rescuing Japanese cinema in its time of difficulty.15 However, the only film they produced – Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970) – was a commercial failure, after which the collective disbanded.

Inochi bō ni furō (Inn of Evil, 1971), another jidai-geki, was adapted by Nakadai’s wife Tomoe Ryū from a novel by Shugorō Yamamoto. The Japanese title could be translated as “We give our lives for nothing” – an idea at the core of this tale of altruism where a group of thieves and murderers give their lives to save a young couple. Evil is represented not by these outcasts, who are “crippled humans”, but by the ruling class, the rich, and corrupt police: references to contemporary Japan are clear. The expressionist lighting for the nightmarish chase in the swamp at the end of the film turns the human body into a mere silhouette while the go-yo lanterns, which seem to float in the darkness, create a haunting background.

Despite box-office successes, the collaboration between Kobayashi and Toho did not last long. However, it is not sure who decided to put an end to it – the studio bosses or the director himself.16 Kobayashi, disliked television, but directed a series in the 1970s on condition that he could use some of the material for a feature film he was planning. Kaseki (Fossils, 1975) was about a successful architect (Shin Saburi) diagnosed as having cancer, and adds a dimension of fantasy to its existentialist discourse by introducing a female character (Keiko Kishi) who is the embodiment of death. The protagonist starts questioning his life, which has been dominated by work. When he learns that his disease can be cured, he retires to the mountains – Kobayashi’s home ground – to find out what could be more important than fame and pursuing a career.

After this he made Moeru aki (Glowing Autumn aka Blazing Art, 1978), a Japanese-Iranian co-production, is a film about a woman (Kyōko Maya) in love with carpets who, at the end, travels to Iran. This film was a huge commercial failure. However, Kobayashi continued fighting for his personal projects, giving little attention to economic risks and political controversies.

Tōkyō Saiban, (The Tokyo Trial, 1983) was an important documentary on the twenty-eight war criminals sentenced at the Military Tribunal for the Far East, and an independent production. The fact that Kobayashi added to the archive material of the trials and the Great Pacific War footage of the crimes that the countries presiding over the court had committed in their colonies in Africa and Southeast Asia during the three years of the trial and the Vietnam War was a source of irritation and a probable reason for its rejection by many American and European critics. Kobayashi’s critical attitude stems from his political convictions as a communist and anti-imperialist, and he shows clearly the changing ideological positions of the former allies – Americans and Russians – immediately after the war. His film, far from being nationalistic, is a courageous statement against violence and oppression.

Family Without a Dinner Table deals with the conflict between individual needs and social requirements in a contemporary setting: a father (played by Nakadai) takes the side of his son, who has been arrested for terrorism. The uncompromising attitude of the father, unusual in the system he lives in, results in the breakdown of the family. The film deals with the inner conflict of the middle-aged protagonist and his refusal to take responsibility for his son’s actions. He is, however, fully aware of his own limitations as father and husband (his wife committed suicide). The film ends with a glimpse of hope when he meets his grandson for the first time. The beautiful landscape of Hokkaido shot under a blue sky is the appropriate setting for a new beginning. It is in the grassland and hills of the northern island that the townsman comes to peace with himself. As if his career comes full circle: the filmmaker returns in this last sequence of his last film to his home region which inspired him so much.

Like Kaji, like Hanshiro, and like the protagonist of Family Without A Dinner Table, Kobayashi stuck to his principles and resisted entrenched power – as both a member of the Japanese Imperial Army and as a filmmaker. His films were concerned with the struggle of the individual against corruption and conformism, and reflected his anti-authoritarian views. The Human Condition, Harakiri, Samurai Rebellion and Inn of Evil insist that responsibility lies within the hierarchical system, one that in both the past as in the present, is integral to the Japanese way of life. The recourse to historical settings suggests that these views are controversial in modern Japan: in Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, Kobayashi addresses the very issue of history and the role of the individual. The ronin Hanshiro is erased from the history books, but his ancestor’s suit of armour has been repaired and the blood which covered the walls has been washed away as if his struggle for life and his violent death in the Iye residence had never taken place. Ichi’s and Isaburo’s resistance are crucial events that will not be recorded in official histories. The rebellious actions of Hanshiro and Isaburo, both ending in death, reveal the futility of individual rebellion. Kobayashi’s worldview is ultimately pessimistic: the dissident, even if morally the victor, cannot change the world. Yet we can observe him and his fight for justice. There is a glimpse of hope in Samurai Rebellion when the wet nurse, having witnessed Isaburo’s last desperate fight, saves the little girl. This woman might spread the story of love and rebellion, and Ichi and Isaburo may perhaps not be forgotten. Kobayashi’s chambara-inspired films are not concerned with the question of honour and the idea of how to die a beautiful death but with the essential question of how to live as a human being.

Masaki Kobayashi

Samurai Rebellion

If only for the key moment in which the filmmaker shows a man who leaves well-trodden paths and becomes a human being in his own right, it is worth coming back again and again to Kobayashi’s work. When Isaburo leaves the stone-paved path in the courtyard of his house, thereby endorsing his full support of his daughter-in-law, his zori leave footprints in the carefully-raked sand. At this moment, he transgresses the visible as well as the invisible boundaries which keep him prisoner of the rigid code that Kobayashi never tired of questioning.



Feature Films

Magokoro (Sincere Hearts, 1953)

Kabe atsuki heya (The Thick-Walled Room, 1953)

Mittsu no ai (Three Loves, 1954)

Kono hiroi sora no dokoka ni (Somewhere beneath the Wide Sky, 1954)

Uruwashiki saigetsu (Beautiful Days, 1955)

Izumi (Fountainhead, 196´56)

Anata kaimasu (I’ll Buy You, 1956)

Kuroi kawa (Black River, 1957)

Ningen no jōken (The Human Condition, 1959-1961)

Karami-ai (The Inheritance, 1962)

Seppuku (Harakiri, 1962)

Kwaidan (1964)

Jōi-uchi: Hairyō tsuma shimatsu (Samurai Rebellion, 1967)

Nihon no seishun (The Youth of Japan, 1968)

Inochi bō ni furō (Inn of Evil, 1971)

Kaseki (The Fossil, 1975)

Moeru aki (Glowing Autumn, 1979)

Shokutaku no nai ie (Family Without a Dinner Table, 1985)



Tōkyō saiban (Tokyo Trial, 1983)


Short films

Musuko no seishun (My Sons’ Youth, 1952)


Select Bibliography

Claude R. Blouin, Le Chemin détourné : Essai sur Kobayashi et le cinéma japonais (Montréal: Hurtubise HMH, 1982)

Claude R. Blouin, Le Cinéma japonais et la condition humaine (Québéc: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2015)

Giacomo Calorio, Toshirō Mifune (Palermo: L’Epos, 2011)

David Deamer, Deleuze, Japanese Cinema and the Atom Bomb: The Spectre of Impossibility (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014)

Stuart Galbraith IV, Stuart IV, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. (New York/London: Faber and Faber, 2002)

Stuart Galbraith IV, Japanese Cinema (Hongkong/Köln: Taschen, 2009)

Patrick Galloway, Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook (Berkeley: Stone Brdige Press, 2005)

Patrick Galloway, Warring Clans, Flashing Blades: A Samurai Film Companion (Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2009)

Linda Hoaglund, “A Conversation with Kobayashi Masaki” Positions 2,2 (Autumn 1994): p. 384-405

Keiko I. McDonald, Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006)

Joan Mellen, The Waves at Genji’s Door: Japan Through its Cinema (New York: Pantheon, 1976)

Donald Richie, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, revised and updated. With a foreword by Paul Schrader (New York: Kodansha, 2012 [2001])

Donald Richie, “Samurai Rebellion: Kobayashi’s Rebellionwww.criterion.com (24. October 2005)

Nicholas Rucka, “Samurai Rebellionwww.midnighteye.com (28 September 2011)

Tadao Satō, Currents in Japanese Cinema (New York: Kodansha, 1987)



  1. The first film of the trilogy won the San Giorgio Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1959. A special prize was awarded to Harakiri at the Cannes Film Festival in 1963.
  2. However, a small selection of Kobayashi’s films was presented at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York in May 2015, and retrospectives are planned for 2016 at the Australian Cinémathèque in Queensland and the Melbourne Cinémathèque in Victoria, as well as Tokyo’s Eurospace Cinema for summer 2016
  3. Quoted in Takashi Yoshida, “Historiography of the Asia-Pacific War in Japan” (3 June 2008),
  4. It would be unfair to try to pigeonhole Kinoshita’s work. Though he represented the studio’s style, he was a filmmaker who refused to be bound by questions of style or genre. Because his film Rikugun (Army, 1944) was considered too critical of the regime in power, Kinoshita was not allowed to make another film until 1946.
  5. A brief digression is appropriate here. Black River marks the beginning of Kobayashi’s long and fruitful collaboration with Tatsuya Nakadai. In Black River, the actor’s performance and his very presence and give birth to a new kind of male figure whose coolness and self-confidence have nothing of the vulnerability of Toshirō Mifune’s young yakuza in Kurosawa’s Yoidori tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948). Nakadai displays brilliantly the socio-pathological side of the character he plays by means of a cruel smile or a scornful glance, but he also manages to convey moments of tenderness and sadness in a very subtle manner. The role of Kaji in The Human Condition is a cinematic tour de force, allowing Nakadai to reveal in a nuanced way Kaji’s inner journey and his final agony. Nakadai’s disturbing performance in Harakiri explores a wide range of emotions, from elation to grief. The self-discipline and powers of concentration of the actor, who spends a great deal of time kneeling, are admirable, and his charisma and intensity make this static performance extraordinarily compelling.
  6. Stuart Galbraith IV, Japanese Cinema (Hongkong/Cologne: Taschen, 2009), p. 22.
  7. Takemitsu wrote the music for several other films by Kobayashi including Harakiri, Kwaidan, Samurai Rebellion, Inn of Evil, Moeru aki (Glowing Autumn, 1979), the documentary Tōkyō saiban (Toyko Trial, 1983) and Shokutaku no nai ie (Family Without a Dinner Table aka The Empty Table, 1985).
  8. Linda Hoaglund, “A Conversation with Kobayashi Masaki,” Positions 2:2 (Autumn 1994): p. 382.
  9. A masterless samurai
  10. Cf. David Deamer, Deleuze, Japanese Cinema and the Atom Bomb: The Spectre of Impossibility (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 151.
  11. For its release in the UK the fourth episode was severely cut.
  12. Like Harakiri, Samurai Rebellion was adapted by Shinobu Hashimoto from a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi.
  13. Cf. Donald Richie, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (New York: Kodansha International, 2001) and Alain Silver, The Samurai Film (Woodstock/New York: Overlook Press, 2004).
  14. Samurai Rebellion: Kobayashi’s Rebellion,” http://www.criterion.com (24 October 2005)
  15. Cf. Tadao Satō, Currents in Japanese Cinema (New York: Harper & Row, 1982).
  16. Cf. Donald Richie, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (New York: Kondansha, 2001), p. 165.

About The Author

Andrea Grunert is an independent scholar (Ph.D University of Paris X with a dissertation on the films of Clint Eastwood and the American Frontier) and freelance writer and lecturer in film and cultural studies. She has widely published in France and Germany. She is the editor of three books published by the Charles Corlet in France: Le corps filmé (2006), L’écran des frontières (2010) and <em<De la pauvreté (2013).

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