The holy grail of Japanese cinema. Finally revisited!…
Kaseki is often regarded the holy grail of Japanese cinema. This is due to its reputation as the last masterpiece of legendary director Masaki Kobayashi, but also due to its unfortunate rarity. As of 2015, a DVD of the film with English subtitles has yet to be released on the market. Kaseki was the return of Masaki Kobayashi to the silver screen after several years of absence. A director, whose social critical and gloomy worldview had previously encountered evermore resistance from the major studios in the increasingly commercialized atmosphere of the 1970s. Eventually, he had to abondon the world of cinema and continued his work on television.
Based on a novel by celebrated writer Yasushi Inoue, he directed an acclaimed thirteen-part television series for Fuji Television. Cut down to three and half hours, this television series eventually became Kaseki, Masaki Kobayashi’s last really great success. A film that breaks with Kobayashi’s characteristic preference for dark social commentaries and bears witness of a certain kindness of age. No question, Kaseki is a monumental masterpiece of a great artist, however, in many ways it also represents the most untypical work of its director.
Kobayashi was a master of slow burning cinema. Enhanced by a minimalist, yet extremely powerful mise-en-scène, this slowness serves to exhaust the tension of the actions on screen to the maximum. Maybe the best example is the stoic presence of the ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo in Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962), surrounded by the distrustful samurai of the Lord on whose property Hanshiro seemingly prepares himself for his suicide.
While Hanshiro tells his life story, the samurai become increasingly impatient. Soon his true intentions are in danger of being revealed. However, although the action threatens to escalate at any moment, Kobayashi maintains the tensions of the moment until the end, which finally brings a long-awaited catharsis in the form of the inevitable sword fight between Hanshiro and the Lord’s furious retainers.
Kaseki as well is a very slow burning film, but lacks that tension which previously always had distinguished Kobayashi’s best works. Perhaps because of its television background, the focus shifts from a tension-filled mise-en-scène to the reign of a fluent montage. Masaki Kobayashi’s camera moves, travels along the construction of the Eiffel Tower in France or zooms in on the ornaments of the Romanesque churches in Spain to reveal more and more details of the environment to the audience. Yet, this unusually agile cinematography never seems random, but is always integrated into a flowing, seamless montage.
Tajihei Itsuki begins his journey through Europe in winter. Rainy weather, stark trees and muted browns and grays dominate the street scenes in Paris and Italy. In the midst of all, time and again, the impressive, but sombre architecture masterpieces of Europe, which bestow an awestruck and depressed atmosphere upon the film that ultimately reflects the tortured soul life of our protagonist.
Itsuki is presented to us as an authoritarian businessman who runs a tight ship over his surroundings. His friends and his family have long since turned away from him. His loneliness is hidden behind a mask of professional distance and business-related aloofness. But then he learns that he has only few months to live. An inoperable stomach cancer weakens his body and, as the omniscient narrator describes expressively in accordance to the German word for cancer, “Krebs”, devours him from the inside.
A plot which undoubtedly evokes memories of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru whose dying protagonist Kanji Watanabe desperately searches for a meaning in his life. However, Itsuki’s search for meaning is played out much more passive, much less actionistically than that of Kanji Watanabe. Itsuki, who seems to have achieved everything in his life, doesn’t reveal his disease to anybody. Veteran Shin Saburi plays him as an introverted man who, to the outside, endures his fate without a blink in his eyes. It’s solely the descriptions of an omniscient narrator, which give insight into the inner turmoil of Itsuki with extraordinary poetic elegance.
Saburi is supported by a highly professional arsenal of Japanese veteran actors. Of particular interest is the performance by the legendary Seiji Miyaguchi as a terminally ill friend of Itsuki. Once playing the bravest of the seven samurai in Kurosawa’s film of the same name, he now appears to be visibly weakened by age, yet, still exudes the same impressive dignity and steadfastness as in his role as master swordsman Kyuzo.
Ultimately, Kaseki is not a film about the meaning of life and waives the didactic pretense of Kurosawa’s Ikiru. It is a film about the everlasting presence of death, which only becomes apparent to most people when it is already too late. This pervasive sense of death is represented by the surreal presence of Madame Marcellin played by Keiko Kishi in a dual role as glamorous wife of a friend of Itsuki. At the same time her character also accompanies the main character as the personification of death, which now has become a natural part of Itsuki’s life.
Despite the films exuberant running time of more than three hours, Itsuki never experiences a life-changing moment. He learns to accept his fate through the restoration of long lost relationships, but this process is rarely expressed in deeds, but more often in a newfound thoughtfulness, in silent pondering and reflections on his life. Therefore, Kaseki will certainly constitute a great challenge for the patience of many viewers. In the end, however, this subtle approach provides the films with a profound wisdom and impressive maturity. It is the work of an old master who is willing to give his story as much time to breathe as necessary.
Kaseki is a very slow film, but it is also one of the few masterpieces that is able draw all of its power from this slowness. Whoever is able to engage himself with its exhaustingly monumental narrative framework will be rewarded with a picture that not only moves, but also opens the gates for the viewer to reflect on his own life. A process which often seems to be as disturbing, beautiful, exhausting and deeply meditative as the viewing experience of Kaseki.