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The Thick-Walled Room

(1956, Kobayashi)
A film from Masaki Kobayashi

"War criminals are the masks of peace, worn by the merchants of death."

Set in the years after World War II, The Thick-Walled Room follows a group of Japanese soldiers imprisoned for crimes against humanity committed during the war. Throughout the film, they go from coping with the real guilt and regret of their actions to struggling and questioning the reasons for their imprisonment. Part of their resentment is reflected in the above line, which one of them quotes in the last act. I don't know where the quote comes from, but it seems to capture the way that these prisoners are being used as scapegoats for the decisions of higher-ranking officers and leaders, who they were following orders from.

This film was the first notable film directed by Masaki Kobayashi, who later in his career directed Harakiri, which I love so I really wanted to dive into something, anything else from him. The main group of prisoners we follow is comprised of mostly six soldiers, all from different backgrounds and different approaches to their situation. However, most of the focus falls on Yokota (Kô Mishima) and Yamashita (Torahiko Hamada), both of which are struggling with family situations back in their homes that are directly or indirectly tied to them being imprisoned. These include financial difficulties for lack of a provider, the social stigma of their situation, serious illnesses, or the continuing clash against the current government.

Overall, the film has an interesting and thought-provoking premise. Most of these subplots are quite serious and profound, especially coming from Kobayashi, who was a war prisoner himself. Unfortunately, his decision to spread the narrative among so many characters results in the plot feeling somewhat scattered and without focus. There are also a few expository sequences that feel clunkily written, and the pace of the film is not as tight as it should have. There are some solid performances, though, and Kobayashi does craft some powerful images and moments. There's a scene in particular that stuck with me, where a character is being haunted by visions and images of the crimes he committed as the walls around him break down in a hallucinatory sequence.

Overall, I was pleased with this film. There is a powerful message on how society perceives this people and the way guilt is put upon them as a burden they can't carry, even if they're not the ones directly responsible for it. Kobayashi shows promise as a director with some neatly constructed sequences and visuals. I just wish that the script and the overall execution was better, because I believe that deep down there's a really great film here; perhaps behind a thick-wall.