A look inside Sugamo, a prison where low-ranking war criminals are incarcerated. These men have all the time in the world to ponder their crimes, what led them to commit them, when they might someday be released, and the fates of their superiors who often got off scot-free. Some, like Kawanishi (Kinzo Shin), are haunted, and some follow through on their suicidal impulses. Kyo is a Korean imprisoned due to sheer bad luck, disturbed by news of war breaking out at home. Yokota (Kô Mishima) was a translator, forced to participate in the beating of an American P.O.W. to death. The only thing keeping him going is his love for Yoshiko (Keiko Kishi), but she’s no longer the sweet girl he briefly knew. Yamashita (Torahiko Hamada) carries a boiling bitterness inside him… the same officer who ordered him to murder an innocent islander and then lied at his trial is now exploiting his family.
I had a $10 credit to use at the Criterion store, so I decided to pick up their Kobayashi set, even though all but Black River were blind buys for me. I don’t usually take that kind of risk, but I’ve yet to see a bad — or even mediocre — film by him. The streak continues, and at this point I’d have to say Kobayashi is one of the most consistently great directors I can think of, even if none of his movies rank among my very favorites. I should also note that the screenplay (based on the memoirs of real “B- and C-class” war criminals) was written by Kôbô Abe, whose collaborations with Teshigahara are so fantastic.
This is an early work by Kobayashi, and as such it feels a little unpolished in places (the American actors are, predictably, terrible). But the material is strong, and presented using interesting techniques that incorporate both flashbacks and nightmarish fantasies. It’s a bleak story that in some ways acts as an introduction to Kobayashi’s massive Human Condition trilogy, addressing some of the same concerns about the brutalities of war and lack of culpability for those responsible. Any small redemptions or rays of hope are overshadowed by cynicism.
Many reviews say that Kobayashi does not excuse these men, but I disagree. At least to some degree, the film points fingers elsewhere and implies that war criminals on this level were simply “following orders”. Doubtlessly many of them were, but as much as I admire Kobayashi’s efforts to humanize these people, I felt a more even-handed approach would have included at least one character who was more responsible for his atrocities. I think again of Nanking, and the accounts of Japanese soldiers raping and killing to their hearts’ content. Yes, the higher-ups should pay for their crimes, but that doesn’t mean the foot soldiers shouldn’t.
But, I don’t want to make the film sound so didactic… it’s more concerned with the human aspects than the political (although Communism is discussed quite a bit) and on that front, it succeeds with compassion. The artfulness of the director is clear even at this early stage in his career. Rating: Very Good (85)