To the rest of the world, Japanese cinema is mostly identified with three big names – Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. For Japanese critics, the cinema of Ozu and Mizoguchi are considered “national” in that they are closer in form and content to the cultural character of Japan while Kurosawa is said to be influenced by Western literature, film techniques and genres. Kurosawa, indeed, put Japanese cinema on the global map and the themes of his films had a universal resonance. While these trio were at their peak, their younger contemporary Masaki Kobayashi carved out a distinct name for himself with his “anti-national” cinema. Kobayashi’s films interrogated the Japanese nation, its culture, traditions and stood for the rebellion of the individual against the oppressive structures of society. In his cinema, Kobayashi was an anarchist.

Stephen Prince’s A Dream of Resistance is the first book length study (in English) of the cinema of Kobayashi. It is significant not only because it draws critical attention to an important but under-studied filmmaker from Japan, but also because the book is a deep philosophical engagement with Kobayashi’s cinema. In that sense, the book is more a work of film philosophy than film theory. In this book Prince, an expert on Japanese cinema, 27 years after his immensely enjoyable The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa (1991), offers a profound, passionate, and introspective account of another Japanese master.

A Dream of Resistance moves in a chronological manner, giving interesting details on Kobayashi’s early life, his entry into filmmaking, his early films, his most creative years, and his later works. Kobayashi was born in Hokkaido, an island in the north of Japan, which was one of the last territories to be integrated into the Japanese nation-state. Thus, the region had a sort of distance from the fervor of modern Japanese nationalism. Kobayashi was raised in a liberal family and Prince suggests that the social climate in Hokkaido and his upbringing might have contributed to Kobayashi’s anti-establishment outlook. However, Kobayashi was not an atheist and Prince argues that Kobayashi’s films had Christian and Buddhist themes in them. It is also interesting to learn that Mahatma Gandhi’s pacifist ethic had an influence on him. (p. 283) Kobayashi had “a perception of immanence, of divinity manifested in the material world.” (p. 18) This then meant that the individual was sacred and inviolable.

Prince expertly uses the philosophy of the Christian existentialist Paul Tillich in his reading of Kobayashi’s cinema. Tillich was a German theologian who had to flee Nazism for his humanist and pacifist views and take asylum in America. Prince takes from Tillich the concept of the vertical dimension, “the phenomenological connection of spirit with verticality” (p. 4), and adroitly uses it to explore the significance of high-angle shots in Kobayashi’s films. Usually used to show an individual with less or diminished power, in Kobayashi the high-angle indicates an elevation of spirit and Prince provides several examples from Kobayashi’s films to back this argument. The use of this technique visually recorded Kobayashi’s belief in the sovereignty of the individual and the indomitability of the spirit that yearns for freedom.

As a pacifist, Kobayashi hated being drafted in the war. He had no sympathy for aggressive Japanese nationalism and he empathised with its victims, especially the Chinese. After Japan’s defeat, Kobayashi was held as a POW in an American camp but was soon released. He joined Keisuke Kinoshita, a moderate-liberal director with a diverse repertoire of films to his credit, as an assistant director. As a director, Kobayashi would direct 19 feature films and two documentaries. Harakiri (1962), Kwaidan (1964) and Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu (Samurai Rebellion, 1967) are some of his internationally known films. In the rest of my review, I will focus on his masterpiece.

Prince argues that since Kobayashi did not make collaborationist films during wartime, he was able to boldly and conscientiously confront the traditions of Japanese militarism and feudalism after the war. Kobayashi’s films had “a logic of negation, showing the scorching magma of history engulfing the individual.” (p. 121) One can see here echoes of Hegel’s famous pronouncement on History as a slaughter-bench where individuals, their intentions and their ambitions are sacrificed. Indeed, some of Kobayashi’s most iconic heroes are tragic figures who rebel against the burden of history only to be crushed by it.

Kobayashi’s The Human Condition trilogy is the film that established him as one of the greatest filmmakers of Japan and its protagonist, Tatsuya Nakadai, as one of the greatest actors from that country. Nakadai was to Kobayashi what Toshiro Mifune was to Kurosawa. Nakadai made 11 films with Kobayashi, including the memorable Harakiri. The Human Condition was the collaboration that cemented their relationship. Running to more than 9 and a half hours, the trilogy is one of the longest narrative films made and is a profound meditation on war and its consequences for society and the individual. It was based on Gomikawa Junpei’s six-volume novel by the same name, which was published from 1956 to 1958. Kobayashi’s trilogy was released from 1959 to 1961, a remarkable achievement given the short period of time. On its release, the film won both national and international acclaim. In its narrative intensity, epic scope, technical brilliance, powerful acting, and an overall expert handling of mise-en-scène, the film towers over most war movies made in the rest of the world. The only two close competitors that I can think of are Edvin Laine’s The Unknown Soldier (1955) and Sergei Bondarchuk’s Voyna i mir (War and Peace, 1966-67). To watch Kobayashi’s The Human Condition is both penance and boon.

In Kaji, the protagonist of the film played by Nakadai, Kobayashi saw “a character like himself, who was torn between his opposition to war, his failure to act on that opposition, and his abilities to excel as a soldier in disregard to his principles.” (p. 125) This is a complex, evolving character, doing seemingly inconsistent things, overwhelmed by war and its disasters, trying to survive as ethically as possible in a situation where living with integrity is near impossible. Through Kaji, Kobayashi offered an “absolute rejection of military culture and the imperial policies with which it allied itself.” (p. 129) Prince argues that the film offers a logic of negation, “a refusal to adjust to the world as it is for the sake of survival or prosperity, and, with this refusal, a willingness to gesture beyond the here and now for the sake of an ultimate morality.” (p. 129)

Kaji witnessing the execution of Chinese prisoners

In the first part of the trilogy, Ningen no joken: Dai 1 hen (No Greater Love, 1959), Kaji evades being drafted into the army but is assigned to a labour camp in a mine in Japanese occupied Manchuria, where he is in charge of Chinese labourers. He tries to convince his superiors that more humane working conditions will increase productivity and initially, opposes the excesses of individual Japanese who ill-treat the Chinese. However, it takes a while to dawn on Kaji that it is not individuals, but the system which is cruel. This he learns from the Chinese captives, and begins to empathise with them more, though largely helpless to ameliorate their conditions. Kaji is not a “ready-made hero”; he is interrogated by Kobayashi and the shortcomings of his ideas of passive resistance are shown. (p. 134) What is remarkable is that in the positive portrayals of the Chinese prisoners and their defiance, the Japanese director not only shows the opposition to imperialism, but embraces the “enemy” and their perspective. (p. 145) It is the heroism of the Chinese that actually brings out the heroism in Kaji. In the end of the first part, Kaji registers a strong protest against the executions of Chinese and is then imprisoned and tortured by the army. But Kaji is defiant and unbroken. He is released and shares a brief sweet moment with his wife Michiko, who is a moral anchor for Kaji throughout the trilogy, only to soon find out that he has been drafted into the army.

A defiant Kaji confronting his superior in the Kwantung

The second part, Dai 2 hen (Road to Eternity, 1959), shows Kaji’s experiences in the Japanese Kwantung Army. Prince claims that Kobayashi’s depictions of military institutions and practices is sociological. Kaji is routinely harassed by his superiors and so are his friends. Kobayashi shows the brutality of military discipline in this part, especially “ritualized sadistic treatment of conscripts on the theory that brutality made good soldiers.” (p. 151) Such brutalised soldiers, humiliated and ill-treated by their seniors, often take out their rage on civilians of the enemy camp. A key purpose of brutalisation in the military is to erase all traces of empathy and to make of men non-thinking killing instruments. This practice encourages a ritual bullying of those unfortunate enough to be considered as weak or effeminate. Kaji’s friend Obara is repeatedly beaten and harassed for not being “man enough”. Unable to bear this, he commits suicide. Kaji gets into greater trouble by seeking to testify that it was harassment that led to Obara’s suicide. However, Kaji does not blame this or that military officer, but the military itself for this death. Kaji saw the army as the real enemy, reflecting the sentiments of his creator, who cursed the military life when he was a conscript (p. 154). The part ends with the Soviets routing the Kwantung, and Kaji killing a Japanese soldier accidentally. He now fears that he has become the thing he hated.

In A Soldier’s Prayer, the Japanese have been defeated and Kaji and few of his friends are on the run. Kaji’s only goal is survival and reaching his Michiko alive. He bayonets a Soviet soldier to avoid capture and at this point his personal ethics have gone for a toss, a reflection of the chaos around him. A bunch of Japanese soldiers are looting civilians, while others are foolishly fantasising about regrouping and kicking the Soviets out. Chinese partisans in Manchuria continually harass the fleeing Japanese, while Soviets commit atrocities. Few films have been made on the rapes committed by the anti-fascist forces in World War II, mainly because of the apprehension that, without the right handling, they may end up as ammunition for fascist rhetoric. French Moroccan troops in Italy were responsible for thousands of sexual assaults. Vittorio de Sica’s La ciociara (Two Women, 1960) was a rare film that covered this horrific event through the poignant story of an Italian mother and daughter.

Kobayashi however saw sexual violence as a structural problem of war, a general refusal of victors to see the conquered as humans with rights and liberties. In a harrowing scene, a body of a Japanese woman is carelessly thrown on the road from a passing truck of Soviet soldiers. Kaji, who believed that the Soviets would be better than his own government, is aghast. A woman character tells him that “Nothing is more pitiful than the women of a defeated nation.” Kaji’s friend Tange, who has communist sympathies, sees such transgressions as regrettable but believes that the ultimate outcome of history will be beneficent. Kaji questions this crude historical materialist outlook and argues that what seem to be minor incidents or transgressions from the point of history can be very crucial to the individual. In a very mature way, Kobayashi is not equating the crimes of the Japanese and the Soviets; he is issuing a challenge to socialists to hold higher standards than fascists. He also expresses his opposition to a view of history that sees the individual as mere collateral.

Realising that there is nowhere to go and that there is no honour in senselessly going down fighting, Kaji and his friends surrender to the Soviets. The Japanese are interned in camps and ill-treated there. Kaji finds out that a particularly brutal Japanese officer Kirihara, a rapist and murderer, has been assigned by the Soviets to manage the inmates. Kirihara and his henchmen harass Kaji and his friends. Kaji, who still has some hope about the socialists, tries to communicate with Soviet officials. “The fact that socialism is better than fascism is not enough to keep us alive,” Kaji tells his captors. He also expresses his anguish over the ill-treatment of innocents while scum like Kirihara flourish. However, the Japanese translator, working for Kirihara, deliberately conveys a different message, annoying the Soviets. In this scene, facing the Soviet officers, behind whom a larger-than-life image of Stalin bears down on him, Kaji is sapped of his will and is broken inside. Kaji, who was defiant when facing his Japanese torturers, is now of bent shoulders and shattered expectations. The drastic change in Nakadai’s body language conveys the inner turmoil of Kaji. He who could be a hero before fascism is confounded and crushed by Stalinism. The fundamental message of Koestler’s chilling novel Darkness at Noon (1940) was that Stalinism’s victims cannot have the privilege of being martyrs. Progressive causes that have become perverted do that to dissidents.

Kaji before his Soviet captors

Kaji is sentenced to hard labor as penalty. His friend is worked to death under Kirihara and this angers Kaji, who kills Kirihara by dumping him in human waste. Kaji then flees the camp and dies alone in the winter cold, frozen to death. Prince argues that “Kaji’s death was intended to have a redemptive meaning, to point towards a means of overcoming evil and offer the audience a sense of hope” and that this death is a resurrection, a martyrdom for humanity (p. 172-173). Prince claims that the film was inspired more by Christianity than by a leftist ideology (p. 130) and also that the protagonist’s approach is moral and eschatological, closer to spirituality than Marxism (p. 166). In The Human Condition as in his other films like Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, Kobayashi is neither portraying nor privileging the revolution of a class but the revolt of an individual against society. Conscience, agency, individuality, self-assertion, reflexive morality and freedom are what Kobayashi’s heroes pursue. These are core concerns for both Christian existentialism and anarchism. Kobayashi, fondly referred to by Nakadai as The Demon,1 perhaps draws his strength from both.

Stephen Prince, A Dream of Resistance: The Cinema of Kobayashi Masaki (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2018).