Memorial Review of Dr. Stephen Prince’s A Dream of Resistance

In honour of my all-too-brief friendship with Dr. Stephen Prince, who passed in December and who cordially allowed me to sit in on his Ford/Kurosawa course a few years back, I want to celebrate his work and his love of film by re-sharing my original review of his monograph on the great Masaki Kobayashi.

A Dream of Resistance, as the blurb rightly states, is the first substantive English language treatment of one of Japan’s greatest film-making visionaries, whose collaborations and contributions echo those of greats like Ozu and Kurosawa, to whom a number of books have already paid deference, with Dr. Prince’s own, in this reviewer’s opinion, being the greatest addition to critical scholarship of Kurosawa’s work in decades.

The mark of this is Dr. Prince’s deftness of argumentation which even on points of contention treads carefully the line between scholarly deduction and conjecture. This book, a likewise detailed and carefully researched piece of scholarship pays equal attention to each phase of Kobayashi’s career, from his training under Kinoshita Keisuke to his later works, to which, at least by my reading, no other English work has even alluded.

Drawing on a wealth of interviews, Japanese scholarship, and his own incisive commentary, Dr. Prince presents a compelling but also thoroughly readable vivisection of Kobayashi’s oeuvre that, like all great criticism, leaves the films to live on for future viewers, illuminating rather than disillusioning fans of Kobayashi, perhaps even those who merely arrive for the chambara but who might, presented with Dr. Prince’s interpretations, stay for the narrative and technical brilliance of Samurai Rebellion or others of Kobayashi’s more neglected films which Dr. Prince ably makes the case for bringing to broader critical attention and acclaim.

Your mileage may vary but with my admittedly cineaste tastes I devoured the whole of the book in two sittings. Particularly notable, for me, is Dr. Prince’s attention not just to career highlights like Hara-Kiri and The Human Condition, both of which he sheds considerable light on nevertheless, but also to the early films, many of which long unavailable to Western viewers. His synopses provide the overview of a career too long obscured for monoglot critics much as Stuart Galbraith IV’s Emperor and the Wolf did for Kurosawa and Mifune’s works, while his analyses not only contribute to, but in most cases seem to originate (at least in broader publication) discussion of Kobayashi’s craft and creations.

Dr. Prince notes broader critical trends to which Kobayashi has been subject, though principally in Japanese circles, including the Judeo-Christian/Buddhist thematic through-line in much of his work but, in Prince’s hands, what for many authors would present an opportunity to hyper-extend an argument in pursuit of a parsimonious and salable revelation, unfolds in a series of nested conclusions drawn from scenarist, cinematographic, and editorial evidence which convince but never shy away from the complexities and dualities inherent to Kobayashi, like all great artists.

So, too, does Dr. Prince’s keen attention to the cinematographic, musical, and editorial nuances of even Kobayashi’s final documentary present a valuable perspective on how Kobayashi’s work, and films more generally, act upon the viewing audience. Put simply and without risking overstatement, Dr. Prince has established himself as not only the most important and accessible writer on Japanese films since Donald Richie, but also as a superior authority on film studies more generally. This book sits proudly beside my copy of The Warrior’s Camera, and will certainly distinguish itself as one of the most lovingly dog-eared and spine-creased volumes on the shelf of any other cinephile. At the very least it makes the case that Kobayashi’s work is overdue for close examination and sets the bar very high indeed for the next critic who will, perhaps inspired by Dr. Prince’s monograph, tackle Kobayashi’s stunning and varied body of work.

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Cover photograph used with permission, copyright Rutgers University Press and Dr. Stephen Prince.