Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Human Condition is a six-feature serial epic originally shown in three parts over three years. It's a career highpoint for director Masaki Kobayashi (Kwaidan, Samurai Rebellion, Harakiri), who adapted the film from a popular 1950s anti-war novel by Jumpei Gomikawa. Known in the west only by aficionados of arcane Japanese cinema, the almost ten-hour film is considered by many to be one of the best ever made. It's a gripping and frequently harrowing experience. Well known from roles in High and Low, The Face of Another and Kagemusha, acclaimed actor Tatsuya Nakadai does miraculous work as Kaji, an idealistic, stubbornly hopeful man trying to find a moral stance amid a conflagration that will wipe out millions. It's another of director Kobayashi's portraits of righteous disobedience in an intolerant social system.
The director's own war experience was similar to that of author Gomikawa's deeply conflicted protagonist. Opposed to the war and harboring uninformed notions about better conditions in Soviet Russia, Kaji languishes in Tokyo as a management trainee, waiting to be drafted. He resists the pleas of his girlfriend Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) to marry because he believes that army service is a certain death sentence. All seems saved when Kaji's company, impressed by his progressive theories, sends him to occupied Manchuria to oversee personnel at a mine. The lovers marry and soon arrive at the windswept outpost.
The mine is revealed to be a sinkhole of corruption and injustice that dashes Kaji's dreams of helping his fellow men. The Chinese miners are involuntary laborers routinely abused and cheated; the Japanese managers respond to Kaji's reforms by conspiring against him. Kaji soon finds himself in charge of six hundred additional Chinese POWs under the jurisdiction of the sadistic Japanese Kempeitai, or military police. The prisoners are determined to escape; Kaji is expected to work them to death. This is War, he is lectured, and war justifies all cruelty.
Kaji attempts to establish good relations with the prisoners, but the other mine personnel sabotage his efforts by allowing some POWs to escape. A Kempeitai officer uses the escape as an opportunity to conduct a multiple beheading. Forced to witness the executions, Kaji has become part of the moral sickness around him.
That's only the opening of The Human Condition, which takes Kaji far deeper into the horrors of Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Further chapters see him conscripted as an ordinary soldier; one entire ninety-minute film is devoted to his brutal experience in boot camp. At every step of the way Kaji resists the inhuman treatment of his fellow Japanese. Kaji's humanist philosophy makes him a suspected Communist, even as he's praised as an excellent trainee.
Kaji's natural reaction is to take personal responsibility for the injustice around him. The veteran soldiers beat Kaji savagely when he tries to protect green recruits from excessive punishment. One fellow draftee named Obara (Kunie Tanaka) cannot keep up with the others, and is harassed so badly that he threatens to kill himself. The officers cruelly blame Obara's wife for writing letters to Obara complaining about his mother.
Kaji does find a few men that share his values. One college friend becomes an officer and abandons his liberal ideals. A fellow rebel in boot camp goes AWOL. Kaji meets Tange (Taketoshi Naito) in sickbay, where the head nurse is as vicious as the military police. Tange has a laid-back attitude toward everything and advises Kaji to keep his mind on survival.
At the halfway point of The Human Condition Kaji's wife Michiko is still in Southern Manchuria. She visits him briefly before his unit marches out to oppose the better-equipped Russian onslaught. Kaji swears that he will return to her when the fighting is over, but the real chaos is only beginning.
The Japanese command is in serious denial about the impending defeat. The soldiers are unaware of the bombing of Hiroshima when they are rushed out to face the invading Russian tanks. Kaji is alarmingly naïve about the Russian communists, who he thinks will be more civilized than his own countrymen. He also doesn't realize to what extent the Chinese will want revenge on the occupying Japanese army, whose officer corps has been committing mass atrocities for years.
The balance of the epic sees Kaji picking up various companions as he makes his way South, trying to avoid capture and starvation. He eventually finds himself a prisoner in a Soviet forced-labor death camp, suffering the same injustice he tried to alleviate in the Japanese-run mine. The Human Condition transcends other anti-war films by not turning Kaji into a generic victim. Even in utter defeat, he refuses to abandon his struggle for a better world.
Director Kobayashi reportedly worked "with the script in one hand and the original book in the other", reminding us of the method used by Erich Von Stroheim back in 1925 to film the lost ten-hour Greed. The movie abounds with unforgettable scenes. A guard throws a dog into an electric fence to show the captive Chinese miners what will happen to those attempting escape. Kaji's one night with Michiko is spent in a miserable storeroom. When the Russian tanks attack, Kaji saves the life of the arrogant young Terada (Yusuke Kawazu) and gains an instant disciple. Lost in a vast Manchurian forest with a small group of Japanese civilians, Kaji must watch as they kill each other and die of starvation, one by one. A frightened Japanese farmer (Chishu Ryu) begs Kaji's deserters for protection, while terrified women offer sexual favors in the hope that they'll stay. At one point Kaji's band meets a group of die-hard Japanese holdouts intent on a suicide attack on the Russians. Kaji finally takes a stand, directing his renegades to raise their rifles at their own countrymen.
With the exception of a few brief flashbacks, The Human Condition plays as a straight linear narrative. Each third of the epic, sometimes billed as a trilogy with the titles No Greater Love, The Road to Eternity and A Soldier's Prayer leaves us anxious to know what happens next. The shooting style emphasizes characters and moral problems over style. For a movie that takes place mostly in bleak outposts and a barren wilderness, the images are consistently attractive. Yoshio Myajima's cinematography makes dramatic use of under-lit, wind-blown smoke. The beautiful forest becomes an ironic backdrop when the starving refugees begin to lose all hope.
Although its main target is nationalist militarism, The Human Condition also reveals that Kaji's faith in Russian and Chinese communism is a dangerous illusion. The Russians excuse the forced starvation in their labor-death camps by saying that the Revolution isn't perfect and that patience is required while little problems are worked out. Kaji never sees the end of war; every new situation is another theater of mass extermination.
Kobayashi's anti-war saga is a deeply affecting emotional experience. That such an uncompromised and uncommercial account of human misery could be produced in this epic form is remarkable in itself; American cinema of the time has nothing to compare. Only about twenty minutes of The Human Condition's nine-plus hours of suspense and heartbreak are devoted to standard combat action. The frightening thing is that the epic was produced just fifteen years after the cessation of hostilities. By 1960 the incalculable suffering of WW2 was fading fast from the collective memory. The political map of Asia had been re-drawn with a new set of antagonisms and conflicts.
The Criterion Collection's presentation of Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition is spread across three discs. The Shochiku "Grandscope" image is clean and bright throughout. Early chapters bear separate title sequences; the gap between episodes 1 & 2 even retains a piece of entr'acte music. The break between parts 5 & 6 is a simple cut, indicating that the last three hours may have been intended to play without interruption. Parts 1-4 are presented in monaural but surviving stereo soundtracks were found for 5 & 6. 1
A fourth DVD carries disc producer Curtis Tsui's short set of very good extras. Actor Tatsuya Nakadai appears in a new interview discussing his almost four-year experience filming the epic. Masaki Kobayashi is seen in an older Japanese TV interview conducted by fellow director Masahiro Shinoda. Shinoda contributes the commentary for an illustrated "video appreciation" overview of The Human Condition. Original Japanese trailers for all three films are present; they pitch the epic as a modern classic. Critic Philip Kemp provides the informed insert booklet notes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Human Condition rates:
Supplements: Interview with Tatsuya Nakadai, Masaki Kobayashi; Masahiro Shinoda video appreciation, trailers, essay by Philip Kemp
Packaging: Four discs in card and plastic folder in card box
Reviewed: September 6, 2009
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
1. Helpful note from reliable researcher and correspondent Darren Gross, 11.24.09:
Hi G! Quick note on the fine Human Condition review. It's a tough, gigantic film to try to boil down!
The Human Condition part 5/6 was the first Japanese multi-channel stereo film, 4-track mag stereo in this case. I believe the trailer for part 5/6 also points this out. There were several faux stereo "Perspecta" releases in Japan, but no real stereo until this film. Even Japan's first Scope release was mono, unlike all of the Fox releases who insisted on Scope/Mag Stereo for at least the first few years of the format.
The review sort of implies that the stereo tracks for parts 1-4 were lost, which isn't the case. Parts 1-4 were always mono. Cheers! Glad the site is back up! -- D.
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