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Criterion's latest Eclipse showcases just how volatile and unpredictable a talent Masaki Kobayashi was during his prime in the 1950s....
Criterion / 440 Minutes / 1956-1962 / Unrated / Street Date: April 16, 2013
Masaki Kobayashi’s output in the 1950s occupies a kind of middle-point between Ozu and Oshima (as oblique and unfounded as that might sound). Movies like The Human Condition and the quartet of films included on this Masaki Kobayashi Against the System Eclipse box set showcase a formalism that is reminiscent of Ozu, but there’s a cultural bite to these tales that Yasujiro never made any overt aims to instill. They’re not anarchic like Oshima’s works from the sixties and seventies, but there’s a slow burn to them, nonetheless.
That being said, these pictures are more interesting and culturally viable than they are good. The way pictures like The Thick-Walled Room (1956) and Black River (1956) contemplate relations between the U.S.A. and Japan in a post-war world is intriguing, and the surprisingly acidic I Will Buy You (1956) peeks into the world of Japanese baseball with a seriously sharp set of fangs certainly connect, but they’re more valuable as artifacts of a time and place in Japanese cinematic history than they are as standalone movies.
The more melodramatic – and, as it turns out, more interesting – The Inheritance (1962) is almost enough to even things out, but as indicative as this box set is in terms of defining Kobayashi’s importance as a moralist storyteller, it never bubbles up enough dramatic surge to truly impress. Viewers deeply moved by The Human Condition might find echoes of that monstrous film’s thematic tone in these pictures, but even the most strident Kobayashi defenders might refer to these as relatively minor works from the filmmaker.