SCREEN GRABS Considered by some one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers of a brilliant period (the Fifties and Sixties), the late Masaki Kobayashi nevertheless never achieved the international fame of many others, including Kurosawa, Ozu, Naruse and Oshima. This despite the fact that he made one of the finest samurai movies, 1962’s Harakiri, as well as arguably the single best entry in the Japanese ghost story subgenre (1965’s color omnibus feature Kwaidan)—both great successes at home and abroad. But his subsequent films grew steadily less prominent, perhaps attesting to the fact that he was already an “old man” (turning 50 in 1966) amidst a new era increasingly fixated on young talent.
It doesn’t help, either, that his most towering work is of a nature that made exhibition difficult in the first place, and renders revival even more so: Based on a six-volume novel by Junpei Gomikawa, requiring four years’ production, The Human Condition consisted of three long features released between 1959 and 1961, totaling nearly ten hours altogether. (It is still occasionally shown in Japan in marathon screenings.) The Pacific Film Archive’s month-long Against Authority: The Cinema of Masaki Kobayashi retrospective, which starts this Saturday, offers a rare chance to see that trilogy on the big screen, as well as five other features from the director’s career peak of 1956-1967.
Not so unlike his pacifist intellectual protagonist in The Human Condition, Kobayashi himself was an art and philosophy student drafted into the Imperial Army during WW2, sent to Manchuria, and captured by the Chinese to spend time in a POW camp. Afterward he returned to Shochiku Studios to continue his apprenticeship, making his directorial debut in 1952. The first film in the PFA series is I Will Buy You, a caustic portrait of corruption in the world of Japanese pro baseball (a sport that had already been popular for nearly a century there). Indeed, criticizing institutionalized injustice would prove a running theme for him, whether demonstrated in society as a whole or something as outwardly rigid yet vulnerable as samurai codes of “honor.”
The hugely ambitious Human Condition pits the supposed “clumsy humanism” of proficiency expert Kaji (the director’s strikingly handsome go-to star Tatsuya Nakadai) against venality of every stripe. In the first film, No Greater Love, he and his wife are sent to a remote Manchurian labor camp where the cruel officials resist all his attempts at reform, no matter how effective they prove. In The Road to Eternity, Kaji is rewarded for his idealism by getting thrown into the army. Despite being branded a “red,” his natural leadership qualities inevitably push him ahead—yet again, his compassion and high principles continue to get him in hot water. “No good deed goes unpunished” remains the rule in 1961’s A Soldier’s Prayer, in which Kaji tries to rejoin his wife amidst the chaos of Japan’s final defeat by Allied forces. But his grueling journey through enemy terrain and a POW camp (now as a prisoner himself) again finds scant reward for endless self-sacrifice.
Never ponderous despite its extreme length, superbly crafted, The Human Condition was controversial at the time for showing Japan’s wartime struggles in a far-from-heroic light—slave labor, “comfort women,” executions, torture and sheer dumb meanness are all depicted as routine parts of Imperial Army life. (One of Kobayashi’s last films, not in this series, was Tokyo Trial, a 4 1/2 hour 1985 documentary about Japanese war crime proceedings.) Kaji is a great character, his virtues as credible as his vulnerabilities are vivid in Nakadai’s towering performance. While his saga may be almost unbearably bleak in the end, the trilogy’s visual beauty and stubborn insistence on individual nobility nonetheless provide a ray of hope in this brutal dramatic landscape.
After that vast endeavor, Kobayashi retreated into the small-scale domestic “battle” of 1962’s The Inheritance, an incisive, twisty morality tale of illegitimate children scrambling for the favor of a dying businessman father who hitherto hadn’t acknowledged them. After that detour, the director made his three most commercially successful features: The aforementioned Harakiri and Kwaidan, both acknowledged world classics, and 1967’s Samurai Rebellion, which stars Toshiro Mifune (who’d just had a permanent falling-out with Akira Kurosawa) as an 18th-century swordsman forced into fatal opposition towards his region’s clan lord. Playing a key support role is Nakadai, who would actually assume Mifune’s place as Kurosawa’s future principal star. It’s a handsome, ceremonial, slow-moving if ultimately bloody piece of classic samurai conflict.
Though he continued working through the mid-80s (dying a decade later in 1996 at age 80), Kobayashi’s later films met with decreasing interest outside Japan, even if they remained acclaimed at home. (Actor Tatsuya Nakadai still occasionally works today, at nearly 90.) While his work gradually fell out of international fashion, the Against Authority series suggests it holds up at least as well as many better-remembered films from the arthouse “golden age” of the 1960s. Against Authority: The Cinema of Masaki Kobayashi runs Sat/20-Sun/August 18 at Pacific Film Archive. More info here.
Among major commercial openings this week, of note is The Farewell, if only because it’s the first obvious consequence of Crazy Rich Asians’ huge success last year—another sudsy, globetrotting mainstream comedy with an all-Asian cast (led by CRA’s breakout star Awkwafina). Sure to be even bigger news at the box-office is The Lion King, the latest entry in Disney’s weird new means of endlessly milking its back catalog. Does the world really need a live-action (well, with plenty of CGI) remake of every cherished Mouse House animated classic? Apparently so, given that The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin have already been giant hits. (However, earlier this year Dumbo actually managed to lose money, grossing a mere $350 million.)
A one-night event of special interest is San Francisco Cinematheque’s For A Winter: Remembering Jonathan Schwartz, a tribute to the filmmaker and teacher who passed away last year at age 45. The program, co-presented with Canyon Cinema, will feature nine of his 16mm and video shorts. They encompassed collage, global travel, poetical text, personal portraiture and aesthetic experiment in a meditative yet adventuresome body of work. It plays Thurs/25 at YBCA Screening Room. More info here.
There’s also the San Francisco Frozen Film Festival, which returns to the Roxie this weekend for a 13th annual program of shorts from “independent filmmakers, youth, filmmakers of conscience, and artists from under-served communities.” Traversing a gamut from experimental, animated and narrative to local and international work, its whopping fifteen separate programs run from Fri/19 through Sun/21. (More info here.) The Roxie is also premiering Adam Sherman’s gonzo U.S./Japan crime fantasia She’s Just a Shadow, which opens Friday and was unavailable for preview. (More info here.)
Opening elsewhere (all on Fri/19 unless otherwise noted):
Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank
This documentary by Gerald Fox was completed in 2004 and broadcast on the U.K.’s “South Bank Show,” but blocked from wider exposure by its subject until now—famed photographer Frank, already 80 at the time, thought it too discomfitingly “personal.” Ironically, the same logic kept his infamous 1972 Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues out of public view for decade, as the subjects worried its portrait was too unflatteringly intimate (and possibly incriminating re: drug use).
Now 95, Frank has apparently relented. As a result we can finally see this impressionistic portrait, which shows him both in oft-cranky old age (resisting the yuppie invasion in his longtime NYC neighborhood, spatting affectionately with his sculptor spouse June Leaf) as well as reflecting on past career landmarks. They include his intensely controversial 1958 photography book The Americans, which discomfited people because it emphasized the less-flattering realities—racism, poverty, etc.—that our nation has always preferred to think are marginal problems. Soon considered groundbreaking, it was initially perceived by some as a deliberate insult by a foreigner (Frank was a Swiss emigre).
Then there were his variably accessible journeys into filmmaking, most famously providing the Beat Generation with its closest celluloid reflection in the Kerouac-narrated Pull My Daisy (1959). An admitted workaholic, Frank admits his failings as a husband and father, particularly given the tragic fate of troubled son Pablo. Those painful confessions are probably the reason Leaving Home remained unavailable for so long, but they help make this tribute to an important artist particularly insightful. Roxie. More info here.
Sword of Trust
Improv-based comedies may look easy, but they are very hard to pull off—even king of the subgenre Christopher Guest found collective inspiration flagging in his efforts after the much-loved Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. But this new film by indie veteran Lynn Shelton is a droll gem sparked by players who know exactly what they’re doing, and give the loose screenplay (by Shelton and Mike O’Brien) a loopy satirical snap.
Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) are a 40-ish lesbian couple who’ve inherited a Civil War relic from the former’s grandfather. They take it to caustic Alabama pawn-shop proprietor Mel (podcaster Marc Maron) in hopes of making a sale. He’s unimpressed, yet once his dim-witted but computer-savvy assistant Nathaniel (Jonathan Bass) uncovers some intel online, it looks like the item might be worth a small fortune after all. This leads the mismatched quartet down a rabbit hole of historical revisionists and white nationalists who think “the South really won.”
While it does slyly take the pulse of crazier political currents in Trump’s America, Sword of Trust is mostly just a delightful shaggy-dog tale sparked by inspired comic rapport amongst the principal players. It seldom goes for big laughs, but the cumulative effect of many small ones makes for a movie that hits a sweet spot—though white nationalists and historical revisionists probably won’t appreciate the joke. Opera Plaza. More info here.
Sea of Shadows
With species extinctions around the globe escalating alarmingly, this new documentary spotlights one such crisis you may not have known about. The vaquita is a small, dolphin-like whale that has the ill luck to claim as its habitat the Gulf of Mexico, which is shared by the totoaba—a fish whose bladder is thought by some Chinese to have medicinal value, and which can be worth up to $100,000 each as a result.
Thus between the underground Chinese market and Mexican cartels, one species is being fished into extinction, with the other facing a similar fate simply by being caught in the same nets. All this is illegal, but did that ever stop anyone when the monetary stakes are so high? This nature-slash-crime investigation ties the ongoing fight to climate change and other consequences of environmental degradation worldwide. Metreon, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.
Also known as Black Sister’s Revenge, this great 1976 comedy-action pic by underrated blaxploitation maestro Jamaa Fanaka was produced just after his outrageous cult debut Soul Vengeance and before his popular, over-the-top Penitentiary movies. Jerri Hayes plays the titular “country cousin” from Mississippi who comes to live with her more sophisticated relatives in Southern California. She seems like a real hick at first, but they’re surprised by her ability to kick serious ass when riled. She falls for an amphetamine “fender bender” who gets in trouble beating up some abusive cops. When legit efforts at raising money for his bail fall short, she turns into a Black Power revolutionary, orchestrating an armed bank robbery.
Emma Mae is a refreshingly down-to-earth heroine, particularly compared to the era’s more cartoonish Pam Grier/Tamara Dobson type blaxploitation babes. The movie straddles conventions from those films and more naturalistic African-American dramas of the period, like Claudine. It’s got Fanaka’s usual zesty dialogue and performances, while also functioning as a great time-capsule of mid-70s soul slang and fashions. Wed/24, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.