17 April 2013 | TheHighVoltageMessiah
Kobayashi's study of a world gone mad
"Kabe atsuki heya" (or "The Thick-Walled Room") was the third film of director Masaki Kobayashi, who would go on to make such masterworks as "The Human Condition", "Hara-kiri", and "Samurai Rebellion". In "The Thick-Walled Room", one can see many of the elements Kobayashi would use to greater effect in those later films – the sense of political consciousness, the criticism of corruption within society, and the focus on human failings.
The film takes place four years after the end of World War II, and concerns a group of low-ranking Japanese soldiers imprisoned by the Americans for war crimes. It soon becomes clear that these people are small fry, forced into their actions by their superiors and doomed to take the fall for the actions of the army. Meanwhile, their superiors, who are shown to be brutal and actually bear most of the guilt, manage to escape unscathed.
As you can imagine, this subject matter was considered most controversial during the time the film was being made. The studio, afraid the film would offend Americans, demanded the film be severely cut. Kobayashi refused to do this, and so the film was shelved for three years. Although completed in 1953, it did not come out until 1956. Then it was lost in obscurity once again – that is, until the Criterion Collection finally released it on DVD as part of its Eclipse Series. At last, as of April 2013, "The Thick-Walled Room" can be widely seen.
Of course, the film isn't as polished as Kobayashi's greatest work, and it is clear that at this point he was still maturing as a filmmaker. But there is, nevertheless, a lot that is very good about this film. The prisoners are not depicted as wronged saints but as fallible human beings. They can be arrogant, deluded. They have tempers. They can be cruel to one another. The backstories and histories of these characters are also quite well-handled. Through these histories, Kobayashi is able to broaden his scope and analyze the after-effects of the war all across Japan, and not just focus on the goings-on inside the prison. One example of how Kobayashi does this is when one of the prisoners recollects a girl he met during the war. He is infatuated with the memory of her, idealizing her innocence and purity, and has hopes of settling down with her if he ever is set free. But the prisoner's brother, who comes sometimes to visit him, knows the hollowness of these fantasies. That innocent girl has grown into a cynical prostitute. Her character makes a bitter remark on the state of the nation that rings throughout the film: "The war made us insane. And we're still insane."
"The Thick-Walled Room" is an interesting study of degradation and corruption in postwar Japan. It is also compelling for what it shows about Masaki Kobayashi's early career. Hopefully, now that the film is more readily available, more people will have the chance to see it.