Masaki Kobayashi, the acclaimed director of Japanese classics such as “HARA-KIRI” and “Samurai Rebellion” has always made a powerful stance against established authority. He made a scathing indictment of the “Code of Bushido” and criticized the way samurai clans have treated its retainers and their families. Kobayashi’s “THE HUMAN CONDITION” is his fearless indictment of the war itself that criticizes established authority. Based on the novel by Jumpei Gomikawa, this film trilogy is arguably Kobayashi’s finest films, its strong existential themes, the manner of which it exposes the aspects of good and evil, and the thin line between morality and immorality is truly masterful. The trilogy focuses on the exploits of Kaji during World War II. Kaji’s development as a man, as a husband, as a soldier, and later as a prisoner of war is brought to exposition by Masaki Kobayashi.
Disc One: “No Greater Love” (1959)
Kaji (Tatasuya Nakadai) is a young man who is a pacifist and a socialist. He marries his sweetheart Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) despite the uncertainties in the future. Kaji agrees to work as a mining supervisor in an iron and ore mining site in Japanese-occupied Manchuria to avoid getting drafted to fight a war he doesn’t believe in. Kaji becomes partly successful in reforming the working conditions in the mining site, although his ideas are often contested by his superiors. Things become more complicated when Chinese prisoners of war are forced upon the site by the Kempeitai (military police) to use as laborers. Kaji tries but fails to reconcile his humanistic theories with the realities of forced slave labor under Japan’s Imperial system.
Disc Two: “Road To Eternity” (1959)
After the climactic confrontation with the Chinese prisoners caused Kaji to lose his exemption from being drafted in the military and the fact that Japan is losing the war which makes the country more desperate for military servicemen, Kaji is now a hardened idealist. Despite being trained to fight a war he doesn’t believe in, Kaji proves himself a capable soldier and tries to implement his humanistic idealism to the treatment of other enlisted men who are being brutalized by the veterans. The film reaches its unforgettable climax as Kaji is sent to the front line to fight off the advancing Soviet army.
Disc Three: “A Soldier’s Prayer” (1961)
The Japanese Kwantung army is shattered as Kaji, along with several survivors embark on an epic journey on foot through miles of forest, desert, and fields southward in the hopes of reuniting with his wife. After Kaji survives perils including starvation and untrustworthy allies, he gets captured by Soviet forces that echoes the treatment of the Chinese prisoners meted out by the Japanese in the first film. Kaji eventually becomes disappointed that communism which he hoped would be the catalyst for human liberation, seemed no different from the oppressive systems he had struggled against. Kaji escapes into the winter wasteland in the hopes of reuniting with his wife Michiko.
Hailed as “One of the Greatest Films Ever Made”, “The Human Condition” is one film whose experience may seem inspirational but it also proves utterly depressing. This trilogy embodies both the flaws and strengths of humanity as it unrelentingly brings the faces of morality and decency into opposing sides against the natural instincts of men. The film may also prove to be inspirational as love and decency seemingly tries to find a way to survive amid the bleakness of whatever situation fate may deal one into.
The First film is the longest film of the three as Kaji takes his theories to improve the working conditions of the mining site. This is Kaji at his purest form as he tries to bring his theories into procedure. This is also where the main protagonists are faced with moral dilemmas as they try to weigh the rights and the wrongs. I loved the scenes when Kaji begins to question himself for his own decisions and the more he gets deeper into the situation with the Chinese prisoners, the more difficult it gets for him to face his wife. Kaji manages the rations and rewards the prisoners with prostitutes. The film makes a powerful statement in pointing out the potential successes of working together as embodied by the Chinese, but mistrust and suspicion becomes the main opposition for two races to work together. It also bleakly portrays the two sides of human nature as there are those who would stand to profit or take advantage of any situation at the cost of others; as kindness and understanding may sometimes prove to produce mixed results.
The second part of the film portrays Kaji in the military, under suspicion because of his revolutionary ideas. The film exposes the politics in the military and the way, soldiers tend to mimic their superiors in the way they treat new recruits. In my opinion, this part is the most damaging critical indictment of the army. Kaji represents the reasonable side of the picture as he tries to protect the new recruits whose ages range from 40 years and above. At times, the majority of the Japanese authority are too willing to turn a blind eye to the problems faced by the new recruits as the veterans appear adamant in abusing them. The adage; “Survival of the Fittest” comes to mind, as Kaji is brought to the breaking point. Kobayashi also brings some visceral scenes of brutality and violence in this film. The Soviet advance into China brings both veterans and new recruits on the same side as they try to work out their differences.
“Road To Eternity” also defines the word courage. Kaji’s main goal is to survive that may make him seem a coward in the eyes of some but inside, he is courageous enough to admit that this fight is meaningless. For Kaji and his allies, it becomes disgraceful to die in a war like a dog. Kobayashi may also be making a commentary against blind obedience and that the Japanese army were more occupied in believing in their ‘honorable’ war, than facing reality that their goals may indeed prove to be unjust. For Kaji, fighting this battle is more for a fight for survival than fighting for his own country.
“A Soldier’s Prayer” may well be the darkest and the most depressing movie of the three. While it does have its inspirational side, as it also exposes the strengths of humanity. Kaji finds reasons to hope, and to dream of freedom; in the hopes of reuniting with Michiko. This chapter also brings Kaji face to face with his morals as he is oftentimes forced to make decisions for the good of the many rather than the needs of the few. Children and old people have no place in this world, as the group is faced with starvation. This chapter also brings the consequences of being on the losing side of the war, as Japanese refugees are left aimless, hungry as the women are raped and abused, not just by Soviets but also by the Japanese themselves. There is a very disquieting sequence as a young girl retains of hope of reuniting with her parents despite being raped by the soldiers of the Red Army. She finds those hopes dashed when she becomes victimized by the very soldiers who were supposed to protect her. I found it hard to see some Japanese women offer themselves up as sex slaves to survive, at least until they can find male protection.
I suppose Kobayashi wanted to make a commentary on the manner that people tend to look out for themselves. It was real disturbing to see the Japanese prey on their own countrymen, most specifically in the POW camp. It was quite sad to see the Japanese prisoners become more abused by their fellow countrymen than by their own captors. Kaji and Terada would take food scraps to add to their rations, reported as sabotage by their Japanese superiors. Kaji tries to stay true to his own unwavering beliefs, but it is the evil done by his own countrymen that pushes him over his limits. Anger, envy, greed and pride are the film’s main themes as the prisoners of war become faced with a situation worst than those experienced by the Chinese in the mining camps. Worst not because of the hardships, but made worst because of the fact that it is the Japanese abusing the Japanese.
Kaji is superbly portrayed by Tatsuya Nakadai. The man embodies the pride that one takes from himself, that pride slowly fades when forced into situations that makes him question his own soul. Education and principle are indeed virtues but one would never know just how one can react to a dilemma until faced with one. Even certain characters such as Okishima and Kageyama are at the mercy of military politics even though they disagree on some military set principles. It is difficult to stay true to oneself when faced with a truly testing situation. Michiko embodies the soul of the Japanese wife; true and faithful. However, the film brings a certain question as to her true whereabouts. Did Michiko manage to escape or did she fall prey to the tests of the flesh?
“The Human Condition” is Japanese cinema at its best. It is very difficult to sit through the film due to its very depressing themes but one has to also see that sometimes from such desperation, courage and honor may still be born. Masaki Kobayashi bravely brings the questions of humanity into exposition; in the face of such trials, can courage, decency and hope still prevail?
A raw indictment of its nation's wartime mentality as well as a personal existential tragedy, Kobayashi's riveting, gorgeously filmed epic is novelistic cinema at its best.
Highest Possible Recommendation! [5 Stars]
The Criterion release sports a nice anamorphic transfer and has a mono track in discs one and two, disc 3 has a 2.0 Dolby Digital track.