Master Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi was as much a social and political critic as he was a celebrated filmmaker. He used every opportunity in his work to make comments on the necessity of political and social reform in Japan, sometimes to the detriment of his career and the fortunes of his studio (who, for example, waited three years to release the scathing indictment offered in the first film in this set). Removed from their political venting, however, the films in Masaki Kobayashi Against the System remain imminently watchable and relatable, proof positive that a master was at work.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 480I/MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1, 1.33:1
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 7 Hr. 20 Min.
Package Includes: DVDfour slimline cases in a slipcover
Disc Type: DVD-5 (single layer)
Release Date: 04/16/2013
The Thick-Walled Room – 3.5/5
The Production Rating: 3.5/5
After their defeat in World War II, a number of Japanese soldiers are indicted as war criminals and thrown into prison camps run first by Americans and later taken over by the Japanese. Among the B and C-level criminals are two of particular interest: Yamashita (Torahiko Hamada) who broods his time away behind bars hoping he can somehow exact revenge on the commander whose orders he had merely followed and who now lives free of incarceration, and Yokota (Ko Mishima) whose years in prison are made bearable by the thoughts of the beautiful girl who he hopes is waiting for him little knowing she’s now a brazen prostitute proud of having the last laugh on anyone willing to pay her price.
Filmed in 1953 but withheld for three years due to its inflammatory views on the Japanese hierarchy selling out their underlings for their own freedom and the unfeeling treatment of the Japanese by the Americans, The Thick-Walled Room may sound too politically ambitious to make an entertaining film, but that simply isn’t the case. The screenplay by Kobo Abe goes back and forth in time as we get full backstories on what brought the men to their state of imprisonment and the reasons for their present temperaments. And Kobayashi makes sure it’s not all gloom and doom as several prisoners have endearing personalities to calm some of the poisonous emotions that occasionally run rampant. Both Torahiko Hamada and Ko Mishima give superb performances that never lose our sympathies, and the tension is certainly stretched to the breaking point when Yamashita finally gets his face-to-face with his detested enemy near the climax with no possibility of knowing what he’s going to do. The brutish, callous Americans played by Japanese actors attempting to speak English phonetically are a losing proposition all around, but the film otherwise stands up very well, and the political positions are strongly and defiantly stated without sacrificing the film’s very real entertainment value.
I Will Buy You – 4/5
When college baseball sensation Goro Kurita (Minoru Ooki) becomes the most sought-after prospect for the professional ranks, many teams send agents out to entice the star to sign with them, but Kurita has turned all negotiations over to his coach/manager Ippei Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito), an unscrupulous manager who bilks as much money and as many favors as he can out of all the teams’ agents without making any promises. The Toyo Flowers’ chief agent Daisuke Kishimoto (Keiji Sada) comes the closest to winning Kyuki’s favor not only with his generous offers and gifts but also with his down-to-earth decency and lack of guile. Over the course of months, Kyuki warms to Kishimoto and begins leaning in his direction, but other forces are at work wearing Kurita’s will down: his squabbling family who become greedier and greedier and his girl friend Fueko (Keiko Kishi) who has noticed that the soon-to-graduate Kurita is not the man she originally fell in love with and resents his obsession with baseball.
Kobayashi’s scathing indictment of big time sports (script by Zenzo Matsuyama) leaves no one untouched. From parents and families to coaches and sports agents, all are somewhat vilified as grasping vipers striking at something tasty to get the biggest bite. There is genuine tension involved in the story as it slowly unfolds since Kurita begins to gain a measure of independence from the controlling Kyuki as his star becomes ever-more transcendent, and one is never quite sure whom he will inevitably select. Though that result is quite a surprise, the story takes one detour near the end which veers the story into the rankest of melodramas, unworthy of what has gone before. One nice surprise, however, is that what appears to be a predictable developing love story doesn’t materialize making for a much fresher denouement. The performances are excellent with the duplicitous Kyuki of Yunosuke Ito and the genuinely honest Kishimoto of Keiji Sada particularly standing out. Minoru Ooki as the star athlete doesn’t have much in the way of lines, but he cuts a handsome, charismatic figure on the screen, perfect for the role he’s inhabiting. Keiko Kishi as the girl friend who’s something of a pill and Mitsuko Mito as Kyuki’s pushy mistress do the best they can with the limited material they’ve been given in this male-dominated show.
Black River – 3/5
This slice-of-life comedy-drama revolves around the residents of a Red Light District flophouse apartment nearing time for demolition. Amid the housewives working as prostitutes during their daytime hours and an elderly man who desperately needs a blood transfusion from his neighbors which they’re reluctant to give due to their fear of needles is the triangle story of a sweet widow (Ineko Arima) loved by two very different men: the gentlemanly student Nishida (Fumio Watanabe) and neighborhood crime lord Joe (Tatsuya Nakadai) who gets what he wants by taking it by trickery and by force.
Zenzo Matsuyama’s screenplay sets up the most conventional of triangles which plays out even more predictably than one has any right to expect. His satirical swipes at the government and the military for crushing the spirit of the common man are also obviously drawn and not very funny or pointed. Kobayashi directs some arresting sequences: the demolition of the building is eye-catching and the girl’s planned revenge on her rapist is moodily shot even if the action is completely expected. This was the director’s first encounter with the electrifying presence of Tatsuya Nakadai, and his domination of every scene in which he appears is wholly inarguable, a combination of the fire of Richard Widmark and the suavity of Jean-Paul Belmondo and better looking than either of them. The jazz-fueled score by Chuji Kinoshita fits the rancid setting and lowbrow characters to a “t.”
The Inheritance – 4/5
When wealthy businessman Senzo Kawara (So Yamamura) learns he’s dying of cancer and has only six months left to live, he begins to think about altering his will so that his cold wife Satoe (Misako Watanabe) will only get the legal third of his estate to which she’s entitled (about one hundred million yen). Though he has no legitimate children, he tasks his lawyer, wife, and private secretary Yasuko Miyagawa (Keiko Kishi) to find his three illegitimate children and bring them to him to see if any of them are deserving of a part of the legacy. A seven-year old child is dead (which doesn’t stop the greedy wife from finding an age-appropriate substitute so she can be the trustee to another fortune), a young woman (Mari Yoshimura) is serving as a nude model, and a young man (Yusuke Kawazu) is a notorious juvenile delinquent. Participants in the legal team, however, are busy making deals with the two adult children to hide their sins so they can share in the millions to come if they can persuade the dying man that the kids are worthy of the money.
In another very bitter satire on the greed and unscrupulousness of the middle class, Kobayashi fills the widescreen frame with beautiful but nefarious individuals as rotten on the inside as they are attractive on the outside. And as we see the lengths the various people are going to in order to cover up their flaws and the deals the finders are making in claiming part of the inheritance, no one emerges with much dignity (though some do make a tidy profit). The film’s final quarter hour is awash in surprises and double dealings, making for a satisfying if exceptionally sour viewing experience. Performances are really first-rate with the chameleon Keiki Kishi emerging as the real star of this film as the calculating secretary hidden behind a veil of innocence and timidity. Toru Takemitsu adds another flavor-filled jazz score to liven up the underhandedness of the various participants.
The Thick-Walled Room – 3/5
Video Rating: 3.5/5 3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Eclipse releases have not received any kind of remastering or restoration, and the result is a picture filled with dirt, scratches, debris, and damage. The grayscale image is watchable, but don’t expect anything beyond average sharpness with whites rather dull and blacks on the milky side with sometimes inadequate shadow detail. The English subtitles are in white and are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
I Will Buy You – 3.5/5
The film is presented in its 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Sharpness is a touch better than in the previous release, and the transfer is a much cleaner and less damaged one even though there are still plenty of dust specks and some scratches here and there. Grayscale is a little better in this one, too, but the blacks are still not very deep. Vintage footage of baseball games and other large crowd sequences don’t always integrate smoothly with the studio-shot material, but that is no fault of the transfer.The white subtitles are excellent, and the film has been divided into 13 chapters.
Black River – 4/5
The film is presented in its 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Despite some specks that pop up fairly regularly, the image is quite sharp and appealing. Blacks are again a degree stronger than in the previous film making for a well above average grayscale. Sharpness is very good revealing quite a few details in facial features. White subtitles are always easy to read, and the film has been divided into 9 chapters.
The Inheritance – 4.5/5
The film is presented in its theatrical widescreen aspect ratio of 2.40:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. By far the best looking transfer in the set, there’s very little dirt, and sharpness is very good throughout. Grayscale still doesn’t present optimum black levels, but they are unquestionably the best in the set. The white subtitles are easy to read, and the film has been divided into 17 chapters.
The Thick-Walled Room – 3/5
Audio Rating: 3.5/5
The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix features soft hiss throughout and some distorted crackle on occasion. There is more bass here than one might expect in the mix, but otherwise the sound is very flat owing to the post-synching of dialogue that was done for the film.
I Will Buy You, Black River – 3.5/5
The sound mix for each film is once again Dolby Digital 1.0. There is hiss present throughout I Will Buy You but is less present (though still there particularly in the film’s second half) of Black River. But the transfers have decent fidelity even with the post-synched sound.
The Inheritance – 3.5/5
The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix is a mixture of post-synched and live recording, and the contrast is very noticeable between the two. There is hiss present fairly regularly, and there is also some flutter and some muffled crackle to distract on occasion. Otherwise, the fidelity is decent for a film of this period.
There are no bonus features on Criterion’s Eclipse releases, but each of the four enclosed slimline cases contain interesting liner notes by film historian Michael Koresky.
Special Features Rating: 1/5
The four films which make up Masaki Kobayashi Against the System are all entertaining films apart from their social criticisms and sometimes heavy-handed satirical swipes at social and governmental norms. Fans of the director or of this period of Japanese cinema will welcome this new set with open arms with two films (The Inheritance and I Will Buy You) especially noteworthy.
Overall Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
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