For serious devotees of international cinema of high artistic quality, Paris is the centre of the world. At the moment, both Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi are having big retrospectives that are still drawing crowds long after they began before the summer. There are regular showings of all other important Japanese cineastes and even of some younger and less well known talents. But there has been one absentee, Masaki Kobayashi.
The reasons for this shameful neglect are not hard to find. Kobayashi in his greatest periods in the Forties and Fifties, now seen as the Golden Age of Japanese cinematic art, was a perfectionist who made no compromises. He chose difficult themes that the post-war public, eager to forget the horrors of invasion and occupation, found too disturbing. He was a man with a message of pacifist humanitarian convictions, and today's Japanese, especially the young, avoid like the plague what has come to be known as "the three Ds" - Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult. Koba-yashi's extremely personal idiom, his anti-violence ethos, his deliberately paced, often very long films, are at the opposite pole to the special effects catastrophes in deafening Dolbey Stereo that are today's imbecile film fare.
Kobayashi was born in the charming old port city of Otaru in the northernmost island of the archipelago. He studied ancient Oriental arts and philosophy and after graduation in 1941 entered the Shochiku studios at Ofuna as an apprentice director. But almost at once he was enlisted in the army and sent to Manchuria with the forces of occupation in Harbin. He had already demonstrated insubordination and opposition to the war by refusing promotion to a higher rank. He was captured and spent the last part of the war in a PoW camp on Okinawa, then not part of Japan.
With his release in 1946, he was allowed to start work again at Shochiku, as assistant to a very great old director, Keisuke Kinoshita, a severe and rigorous master. He started individual directing in 1952 with Musuko no seishun ("My Son's Youth") and in 1953 he both made another social melodrama in typical Shochiku style, Magokoro ("Sincere Hearts") and directed his first really personal film, Kabe atsuki heya ("Thick-walled Rooms"), with a scenario adapted by the novelist Kobo Abe from the secret notebooks of authentic war criminals, the sort of theme that Kobayashi was to return to often.
However, the distribution of this landmark film was held up for four years by Shochiku bureaucrats who were afraid of offending the American occupation authorities under MacArthur. It did not appear until 1957. The event was characteristic of many of the artistic frustrations the director was to encounter in later life.
He tried his hand, not very successfully, at psychological melodrama in the highly emotional Kono hiroi sora no doroka ni ("Somewhere beneath the Vast Heavens") in 1954, and Urawashiki saigetsu ("Days of Splendour") in 1955. He was more at home with two films of social criticism marked by refreshing realism and a humanist tendency similar to that of Kurosawa's: Anata Kaimasu ("I'll Buy You") in 1956, and Koroi kawa ("Black River") in 1957. This starred one of Kurosawa's favourite actors, Tatsuya Nakadai, soon to become Kobayashi's.
These more thoughtful, slow and elegant creations led to the gigantic trilogy Ningen no joken ("The Human Condition"), which was three years in the making, from 1959 to 1961. The first section was awarded the San Giorgio prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1960. At nearly 10 hours' running time, this monumental work is the longest fiction film ever made. Kobayashi portrays himself in the idealist Kaji (played by Nakadai), who embraces pacifist-humanist concepts derived as much from Kobayashi's own wartime trials as from the original novel by Junpei Gomikawa.
After a transitional work, Karami-ai ("Bitter Love"), in 1962, he made what perhaps remains his best-known masterpiece, and the finest Japanese film of the Sixties, Seppuku (1963), a title word of very grave resonance, for it is the ceremonious formal word used instead of the more popular and casual hara kiri - which is how it was released in the West.
It is a deeply serious film attacking the myths of bushido, the feudal moral code of the samurai in 16th-century Japan. Kobayashi commented: "When I made Seppuku, I decided that for costume films it was not necessary to be continuously realistic, as in Kurosawa's meticulously researched historical sagas, so intentionally I tried to stylise it as much as possible." The film is a mixture of styles indeed, between expressionist symbolism and harsh realism, with balletic sword fights, epic duels in the sun with figures in black kimono against stark white sand or slashing almost comically at each other among long autumn grasses, always wonderfully poetic in imagery and sound and the abstract music of the late Toru Takemitsu used to hallucinating efect.
But however hard he tried to stylise the costumes, the one great defect of contemporary historical movies becomes apparent: modern bodies and faces are not those of the 16th century, and cannot be disguised. None the less, it is a magnificent work of art, and won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1963.
It was followed in 1964 by a film based on a quartet of Lafcadio Hearn's mellifluously atmospheric weird tales from his book Kwaidan, which Kobay-ashi, using colour for the first time, turned into a ravishingly beautiful spectacle whose sumptuous settings and costumes were treated in an almost detached, abstract way that put many people off, despite the guiding sounds of Takemitsu's lovely score. It won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1965. The detached tone of criticm of rigid samurai ethics returns in Joi-uchi ("Rebellion") in 1967, when it won the Prix Fipresci at Venice and starred Tashiro Mifune alongside Nakadai.
In 1968, Kobyashi adapted one of the late Shusaku Endo's most tedious novels, Nippon no seishun ("The Youth of Japan"), on the conflict of generations during the Vietnam War, and predictably it turned out to be a dull movie. Perhaps the director was already feeling depressed by the changes occurring in the Japanese film world. The economic boom started a rapid decline in cultural values, and there seemed to be no place any more for classic cinema. So Kurosawa, Kinoshita, Ichikawa and Kobay-ashi started their own production company, Yonki no kai ("The Four Horsemen Club"), which allowed them to make decent but quite unremarkable films, hardly viable commercially in the new climate overrun by New Wave directors trying hard to catch up with the French, and making films that appealed to young people.
Kobayashi detested television, but was reduced to making a series in 1970, stipulating that he could use material from the rushes to make his own film, Kaseki ("Fossils"). He refused even to look at the television version. He also made a cheap love story in Iran, where he had been hoping to film Yashushi Inoue's novel about Buddhist China, Tun Huang - one of Kobayashi's grand projects which were never allowed to come to fruition. That Japan-Iran venture, Moyuru Aki ("Blazing Autumn") was a flop in 1978.
This great director's humiliation was complete. But he struggled on, and in 1983 he managed to make a long and impressive documentary on the Tokyo War Crimes trials, Tokyo Saiban. I remember sitting through this masterpiece in a cinema stunned into awestruck silence by this revelation of historical facts the viewers had tried to forget. It was followed in 1985 by what was virtually Kobayashi's last work, the disappointing Shokutaku no nai ie ("The Empty Table").
More than any other contemporary Japanese film- maker, Kobayashi's art was underpinned by the trauma of his wartime experiences. With the 50th anniversary of surrender in 1995, there were a number of documentaries about it and the events leading up to it, chief among them an adaptation of Shohei Ooka's Reite Senki ("Account of the War on Leyte"), written between 1967 and 1969. I was expecting Kobayashi to be represented. But, as so often happened, he was overlooked. There were some homages to him in Europe at the end of the Eighties, retrospectives at the La Rochelle Film Festival in 1989, and a more complete one in Paris in 1990. But in Britain, for purely commercial reasons, the last episode of Kwaidan was brutally cut. Humiliation and mutilation are the lifeblood of the artist. Masaki Kobayashi was one of the greatest, and suffered in silence. His death may have the effect of bringing some retrospectives. On the other hand, it may not, alas.
Masaki Kobayashi, film director: born Otaru, Hokkaido 14 February 1916; died Tokyo 4 October 1996.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies