Wall Eyed

Masaki Kobayashi’s THE THICK-WALLED ROOM is a corker. All his films seem to cork, really, and I mean that in a good way.

Japanese war criminals await release. Many of them don’t understand why they’re imprisoned while the men who gave the orders go free. But the way to peace lies in acceptance of guilt — not made easier when there’s no bloody justice in the world, of course.

Kobayashi considered himself a hardboiled realist at this point, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from tough and challenging scenes, but his realistic detail is delivered with a lot of stylisation. The soundtrack is particularly important, with the noise of prison rock-breaking continued across scenes where it couldn’t be present, creating an oppressive, unrelenting effect.

So Kobayashi is an expressionist as well as a realist (and he has the Dutch tilts to prove it). The film features flashbacks and the transitions into them are really interesting — one set are delivered via a hallucination sequence in which the titular room is blasted into Swiss cheese via gunshots which sound more like the blows of the masonry hammers. When the terrified prisoner looks through the newly-created spyholes he sees scenes from his past, including one where he’s forced to use a bound man for bayonet practice.

But then Kobayashi cuts to a reverse angle taken from inside this temporal peepshow and we can see a huge eye in the background, staring from the landscape. Not an optical effect — a big, constructed prop. I want to listen in on the production meeting where MK explained what he wanted and why. But I don’t speak Japanese.

Stephen Prince, in Masaki Kobayashi: A Dream of Resistance, relates this eyeball to the big sky-eyes painted on the cyclorama in KWAIDAN. An audience gazing from outside of our spacetime. But maybe they are ourselves, from some future vantage point.

A Dream of Resistance

Oh — Fiona also noted that when a character on day release is hypnotized by a shop display of knives, it’s a fairly direct quotation from M. I can put the images together and make one sequence:

Still Kobayashi

2 Responses to “Wall Eyed”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Another Kobayashi that I love, possibly more, is The Inheritance, which is a vicious satire about corporate culture and consumerism. It’s like that Mad Men show but more honest.

    The Thick-Walled Room is interesting but kind of compromised because it seems to excuse the soldiers themselves for participating and following the orders. I mean yeah the point that the rank-and-file war criminals get taken down and not their superiors is a valid point but that’s not sufficient to excuse them for their actions.

    As it is, the scenes in the film showing the violence is haunting. Like that bit where the soldier murders an absolutely innocent peasant. It’s just brutal. And obviously Kobayashi deserves credit for addressing a subject like this in the period after the American Occupation and the ascension of the party that featured most of these absconding war criminals.

  2. Fiona Watson Says:

    I am now a hardcore Kobayashi fan. He’s in my top 20 list of favourite directors. When I announced this to David he just laughed and reminded me I’d said exactly the same thing after seeing Harakiri/Seppuku, which brought my grand total of Kobayashi films up to two!

    I know exactly what you mean about the murder of the peasant, who welcomes them into his home and gives them food. I was a bit sleepy and for a moment got confused between the man giving the order and the man carrying it out. I couldn’t understand why he’d go from friendliness to deadly animosity in a heartbeat. The answer of course, is that he was two different people.

    As far as the killing itself goes, I think we have to take into account the psychology of the people at that point in history. You just didn’t disobey a superior. No matter how abhorrent the job you were given to do. I know this sounds dangerously close to “I was just following orders”, but in Japanese society I think this was largely true, and this tendency to behave like sheep is exactly what Kobayashi was explicitly criticising.

    Implicity, there’s some Buddhist acceptance of guilt that has to be worked through before the soldier who followed orders has to go through before he can be at peace.

    This anti-authoritarian stance turns up in Kobayashi movies over and over again, even in Kwaidan, where it seems even ghosts and demons have unbendable rules that result in unhappiness all round.

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