Japanese filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi was a studio rebel with a cause

His cinema underlines the contradictions and hypocrisies of post-war Japan.

Cinema exists at the meeting point of the contradictory relationship between stasis and movement. It moves when static and is static when moving. Masaki Kobayashi’s films fit into this cusp between pure perception and reactionary affect. The filmmaker was born in 1916 and died in 1996, which makes 2016 his birth centenary year.

Masaki Kobayashi.
Masaki Kobayashi.

Kobayashi’s films tread the thin line between aggressively socially aware cinema and painstakingly constructed aesthetic high art. His movies serve as a bridge between the self-consciously Japanese cinema of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi and the ultra-modernist approach of the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s. Kobayashi’s reactionary cinema, which is blatantly critical of authoritarian power, blurs the borders between form and content as well as realism and expressionism.

‘The Human Condition Part 1’.

Best known for his nine-hour magnum opus released in three parts, The Human Condition (1959-61), Kobayashi’s cinema underlines the contradictions and hypocrisies of a post-war Japan ravaged by rigid and corrupt systems that caused a kind of malaise among the population.

In The Human Condition, Kobayashi reflects on his own act of rebellion as a soldier in the Japanese army during WWII, where he refused to be promoted to a higher rank as an act of dissent. These sentiments are reflected through his protagonist and alter ego Kaji (played by Tatsuya Nakadai, arguably Japan’s greatest living actor) and his pacifist views on a Japan that was being increasingly disfigured by values of hyper-nationalism.

Like most important Japanese studio directors of the ’40s and the ’50s, Kobayashi’s work constructs rebellion against authority within the codes of the studio system. Like his contemporary, the revered Akira Kurosawa, Kobayashi used the jidai-geki or period drama to reflect on contemporary Japan’s moral crisis.

This approach is best elaborated in his masterpiece Harakiri (1962). Originally titled Sepukku, the much more sombre word for ritual suicide, the film recounts the tale of a ronin, or a masterless samurai, who attempts to take revenge on his former lord under the pretence of committing ritual suicide before his court. Kobayashi choreographs the entire film like a samurai sword fight sequence, using elaborate camera movements between geometrical frames that fragment the theatrical movements of the ronin, who is played by Nakadai.


Kobayashi’s interest in using architecture as a means for representing social oppression is heightened in his second jidai-geki Samurai Rebellion (1967). This time Kobayashi subverts the action drama into a family film (shomin-geki) whose characters disturb the geometrical balance of ace cinematographer Kazuo Yamada’s visuals through their random movements.

Characteristic of samurai productions during this period was the destruction of the film set in the climax, stripping the narrative space of its artifice and forcing the audience to confront the “reality” of isolated characters, as they stand free from the authoritarian society to which they belong.

Within the confines and logics of this cinematic reality, Kobayashi’s movies are essentially the filming or re-construction of the war crime. This filming of the war crime is either through the use of a narrative space that explores the naked image of violation or through the deployment of documentary footage as “the real”.

For example, in his early work The Thick-walled Room (1953), about the secret notebooks of war criminals, Kobayashi elaborates the workings of a machine-like puzzle with several speeds and distances. On the other hand, in his late documentary Tokyo Trials (1983), on the trial of Japanese war criminals, he uses unmediated footage of battle to construct overt and subliminal meanings.

Slightly tangential is his early masterpiece, Black River (1957), an exploration of sordid corruption around an American military base. The film explores society’s underbelly through aesthetically constructed sequences of untidy and ugly interiors, which are contrasted against a naturalistic approach to the exteriors that further the blurring of “the real”. The film’s jazzy, atonal approach synthesises noir-tinged crime melodrama, and is arguably Japanese cinema’s first foray into genre cinema.

‘Black River’.

Amongst his other notable films was Kwaidan (1964), based on a series of ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn. The film shows Kobayashi’s training as a painter as it moves from the naturalistic Black River and the stylised Harakiri to a much more controlled visual and aural world of parallel realities. The film was the most expensive Japanese film in its day and was shot entirely on a hand-painted set inside an airplane hangar.


Following his exit from the studio system in the late ‘60s, Kobayashi formed a group with directors Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Kon Ichikawa called Yonki-no-kai or The Club of the Four Knights to produce quality films. The venture floundered following the box office failure of Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970).

The failed collaboration did eventually lead to the production of Kaseki (1975), a television film that Kobayashi termed “raw footage” for a more complete feature production. Kaseki, about a man with incurable cancer, uses cinema’s exploratory possibilities to reflect a society that is doomed to self-destruct, this time thanks to state-allied capitalism.

Kobayashi’s last work The Empty Dining Table (1985) possibly suggests terrorism as the only option to challenge state-led power. The film dramatises a confrontation between a radical youth terrorist group and the police. In a climactic sequence, all but one set of parents of the young men apologise for their behavior, reinforcing the director’s social critique.

Although his output was unprolific by Japanese standards, Kobayashi himself seemed to be sure of the longevity of his uncompromising approach. He stated in a 1993 interview with Peter Grilli, “The fact that I was able to fully complete my films, with no regrets, is a significant factor in why, watching them today, they don't feel dated, they remain relevant.”

‘Samurai Rebellion’.
We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Why should inclusion matter to companies?

It's not just about goodwill - inclusivity is a good business decision.

To reach a 50-50 workplace scenario, policies on diversity need to be paired with a culture of inclusiveness. While diversity brings equal representation in meetings, board rooms, promotions and recruitment, inclusivity helps give voice to the people who might otherwise be marginalized or excluded. Inclusion at workplace can be seen in an environment that values diverse opinions, encourages collaboration and invites people to share their ideas and perspectives. As Verna Myers, a renowned diversity advocate, puts it “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Creating a sense of belonging for everyone is essential for a company’s success. Let’s look at some of the real benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace:

Better decision making

A whitepaper by Cloverpop, a decision making tool, established a direct link between inclusive decision making and better business performance. The research discovered that teams that followed an inclusive decision-making process made decisions 2X faster with half the meetings and delivered 60% better results. As per Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino, this report highlights how diversity and inclusion are practical tools to improve decision making in companies. According to her, changing the composition of decision making teams to include different perspectives can help individuals overcome biases that affect their decisions.

Higher job satisfaction

Employee satisfaction is connected to a workplace environment that values individual ideas and creates a sense of belonging for everyone. A research by Accenture identified 40 factors that influence advancement in the workplace. An empowering work environment where employees have the freedom to be creative, innovative and themselves at work, was identified as a key driver in improving employee advancement to senior levels.


A research by stated the in India, 62% of innovation is driven by employee perceptions of inclusion. The study included responses from 1,500 employees from Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico and the United States and showed that employees who feel included are more likely to go above and beyond the call of duty, suggest new and innovative ways of getting work done.

Competitive Advantage

Shirley Engelmeier, author of ‘Inclusion: The New Competitive Business Advantage’, in her interview with Forbes, talks about the new global business normal. She points out that the rapidly changing customer base with different tastes and preferences need to feel represented by brands. An inclusive environment will future-proof the organisation to cater to the new global consumer language and give it a competitive edge.

An inclusive workplace ensures that no individual is disregarded because of their gender, race, disability, age or other social and cultural factors. Accenture has been a leading voice in advocating equal workplace. Having won several accolades including a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate equality index, Accenture has demonstrated inclusive and diverse practices not only within its organisation but also in business relationships through their Supplier Inclusion and Diversity program.

In a video titled ‘She rises’, Accenture captures the importance of implementing diverse policies and creating an inclusive workplace culture.


To know more about inclusion and diversity, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Accenture and not by the Scroll editorial team.