Masaki Kobayashi’s Wartime Odyssey is worth every minute of the 9.5-hour journey
Masaki Kobayashi is separated from contemporaries like Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu through two personal and paradoxical elements. First, there’s Kobayashi’s outspoken cynicism towards the regimented fealty of Japanese society and culture; the second, the hope that the individuals within such an oppressive system can collectively push for social change and the ultimate public good. This duality between the individual and the toxic whole — and the psychological anguish inherent in undertaking such challenges — is imbued through much of Kobayashi’s work, from early films at Shochiku through the sharp-tongued samurai spectacle Harakiri, to even the spooky technicolor feast Kwaidan. I’d long heard that the Human Condition trilogy proved the best exploration of Kobayashi’s themes–but its gargantuan nearly ten-hour length was intimidating, to say the least. And even if Harakiri and Kwaidan were immediate favorites of mine after a first viewing, it was daunting to imagine such overwhelming and impactful experiences drawn out to such a grueling length. Even in summary, The Human Condition is epic in scope and exacting in tragic detail. Long available on DVD by Criterion in the States, the film finally received a Blu-ray upgrade this month–and it was time to make the journey through what some have called the best Japanese film trilogy of all time.
Originally filmed and released in three installments of two parts each, the nine-and-a-half-hour The Human Condition, adapted from Junpei Gomikawa’s six-volume novel, tells of the journey of the well-intentioned yet naive Kaji–played by the Japanese superstar Tatsuya Nakadai–from labor camp supervisor to Imperial Army Soldier to Soviet prisoner of war. Constantly trying to rise above a corrupt system, Kaji time and again finds his morals to be an impediment rather than an advantage. A raw indictment of Japan’s wartime mentality as well as a personal existential tragedy, Kobayashi’s riveting, gorgeously filmed epic is novelistic cinema at its best.
THE HUMAN CONDITION I: NO GREATER LOVE (Parts 1 & 2)
This first installment sees Kaji first enter the moral minefield of World War II by way of supervising a Manchurian mining labor camp in order to earn a coveted exemption from military service. Having raised his fair share of eyebrows at his previous job with his “socialist-oriented” theories of fair working conditions for laborers of all types, Kaji immediately clashes with the corrupt officials and bitter Chinese prisoners who want nothing more than to see him gone. Kaji’s also trapped in a zero-sum power dynamic burdened upon him–the Chinese see his colonizing presence as nothing more than devilry, full of empty promises of change, while his fellow Japanese see him as an equal threat to the Chinese, potentially stoking unrest among the prisoners by simply giving a damn about protocol and basic human decency.
While Harakiri methodically unfurled its biting criticism of bushido over the course of its runtime, I was blindsided at how immediately critical The Human Condition was about the brutal atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II. Anchored by a riveting performance by later Kobayashi regular Tatsuya Nakadai, Kaji’s fight to hold true to his principles is assaulted on all sides every minute of this 3-and-a-half-hour first installment. It’s a death by a thousand cuts as Kaji seems to make progress to win the hearts of the prisoners, only for officials around him to scheme behind his back–often costing lives as much as goodwill.
Kaji’s isolation is vividly externalized by the barren wastelands of the camp, which makes the possibility of holding true to anything–principles, relationships, power–seem just as as remote and infinitesimal. With its sandy, windswept dunes that tower like black voids, the quarries also stirringly evoke the rapidly-shifting power dynamics of the film–frequently blurring Kaji’s ideal role as a representative for prisoners and an inevitable push towards his role as their captor and executioner-by-proxy.
To his oppressors’ gain, Kaji is slowly drained of his drive to better conditions as higher-ups replace the workforce with Prisoners of War from the Chinese front. Emaciated and near-blind from their journey, they’re so far removed from their humanity at first glance that their first appearance is accompanied by a horror-film stinger. Here, Kaji’s struggle shifts–as his fellow guards and officials find themselves freed from the bare-minimum of treating prisoners humanely under the ethos of patriotic punishment of their enemies. What’s so striking about this first installment of The Human Condition is while a major focus is on how Kaji’s noble goals are left to wither in the face of systemic oppression, Kobayashi is just as attuned to how sickeningly gradual the process of depersonalization can be. It’s not just a film about the relationship between prisoners and the imprisoned — but how one group of people can quickly regard another as inhuman before catching on to their own bizarre behavior.
As a counterpoint, Kobayashi seizes whatever glimpses of hope he can from the darkness of oppression and malice. There are occasional successful escape attempts, which Kaji chooses not to report; brief romances marred by tragedy between prisoners and the comfort women forced to join them; and above all, the love between Kaji and his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama). While Kaji tries to shield her from the realities of the labor camp, it’s clear that the toll of his secrecy isn’t just taken on Kaji’s sanity, but his increasingly tenuous relationship with Michiko–and it’s through her earnestness to keep him on the path of a truly honorable man that Kaji finds the resolve to further grind against the powers that be. In the most moving scene of the film, Kaji’s efforts aren’t wholly in vain as the imprisoned Chinese, led by Wang Heng Li (Seiji Miyaguchi), rebel against further executions after a failed escape attempt. It’s as cathartic scene as ever there was one in Kobayashi’s filmography–and one whose effects ripple with cynical consequence throughout the rest of the trilogy.
THE HUMAN CONDITION II: ROAD TO ETERNITY (Parts 3 & 4)
In stark reaction to the brazen courage at the fiery heart of the trilogy’s first chapters, Kaji is thrust headlong into the military system he fought against and tried desperately to avoid. Stuck with menial, humiliating duties alongside similarly-punished men forcibly conscripted into the Kwantung Army, Kaji witnesses firsthand how petty individual self-interests and a blind devotion to the absurdities of military rank and protocol can devolve the best of men into the worst of beasts.
Amidst bitter barracks rivalries that are quickly covered up to present the illusion of unity, Kaji is forced to undergo trials that systematically push his honest, anti-corruption efforts to their limits. In one shocking instance, the ritualized hazing of one soldier culminates in his borderline-accidental suicide — and faced with even more brutal punishments if he doesn’t comply, Kaji is forced to deliver the soldier’s widow the company-approved line that the soldier’s home life is what drove her husband to kill himself. As it would later be explored in Harakiri, Kobayashi rigorously takes to task the blusteringly unwavering devotion Japan had to its military and its accompanying power structure. It’s a power landscape where the only rule is unquestioning devotion and loyalty–which naturally fosters an environment festering with abuses of power and conspiracies of silence. More than once, Kaji faces attempted bribes for promotions to look the other way, or is beaten into submission–because that’s what those in power believe incentivizes or strikes fear into the men in their ranks.
In most cases, they’re right–several other instances show how these men either exploit their rank to get what they want or exploit the most trivial (to them) situations to seize whatever glory they can get. One sequence sees two soldiers go after a flare that may or may not have been fired by mistake–they stumble upon a family of farmers who have nothing to do with the situation, but in the interest of time and potential glory, one soldier decides he’ll frame a farmer for the flare incident. These petty squabbles of power have true life-or-death consequences for the Chinese whose land they’re occupying–and throughout the trilogy as a whole, Kobayashi pulls no punches at frankly illustrating the perversions of power the Japanese committed at the expense of the Chinese.
These first two films broach the topic of Japanese occupation in a graphic way I would never have expected from a film of this period–one that illustrates the whole of the Japanese military campaign as a fruitless, vain exercise in ego-boosting, fueled by baseless nationalistic pride and toxic masculinity. While The Human Condition faced initial rejection by Shochiku due to its controversial antiwar themes–particularly in the midst of 1950s Japan–Kobayashi and source material author Gomikawa had little reason to pay their hesitations any heed in developing the film adaptation. For both men, The Human Condition was a largely autobiographical endeavor, with both Gomikawa and Kobayashi drawing on their war experiences on the front to portray these sentiments and events as accurately as possible. Much like Elem Klimov’s later Come and See, these artists recognize from personal experience the immense responsibility inherent in depicting war–and throughout The Human Condition, there is no valor to be found in battle or murder–just an apolitical drive to stay alive, with all other nationalistic ideals as flimsy window dressing tacked on to baser, more insidious goals.
It’s all too fitting that this second installment features the only combat seen in the trilogy–here, Kobayashi features the Soviet assault on Japanese forces, fittingly depicted as a blood-curdling moment of surrender and defeat. Where other more “patriotic” films would depict this as a sequence to later be avenged, Kobayashi instead dramatizes this as a moment of reckoning put off for far too long–as three hours of built-up infighting and blind patriotism come crashing down in the face of reality. As the forces that be finally meet their end with Kaji still trapped within them, Kaji’s goal shifts to the most basic of all–while he strives to be a good human being, he now prioritizes staying alive at all costs.
THE HUMAN CONDITION III: A SOLDIER’S PRAYER (Parts 5 & 6)
With the destruction of a unified front against the Soviets, the Kwantung army is decimated into small bands of factions spread throughout Manchuria. After he’s forced to kill, breaking one of his last personal credos, Kaji swears off any continued Army service and heads for his former hometown–and hopefully Michiko, his wife. The most episodic and at times surreal episode of the trilogy, Part 5 of The Human Condition feels at times like a lost chapter of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Lost in an endless dark forest, Kaji and the dwindling group of survivors he carries in tow are left to fend for themselves against the elements. Plenty of them debate about who’s to blame for the loss of the war, but for the most part, these fruitless hypotheticals are cast into a growing void–in the face of defeat, there’s no more order or rank to cling to and therefore no more sense of purpose. It’s as if Kaji, by sticking to his sense of individualism and belief in the public good, is the only one to emerge on the other side of his years of ideological strife with his reason for being mostly intact.
Kaji, however, now finds himself contending with a more dangerous enemy–his fellow soldiers who refuse to admit their own defeat or have decided to pursue their own interests more lawlessly than ever. From partisan, ideologically fluid soldiers hoping for a victory for Chiang Kai-She to disparate pairs of families, Kobayashi barrels Kaji from a removed sense of responsibility for his fellow man into direct life-or-death situations with cruel, split-second decisions. The conflicts devolve from the intangible to the all-too-primal, with an unnerving sense of fluidity. Those who join Kaji’s tribe may disappear from it within hours, their fates unknown. Kaji naturally feels responsible for their condition–but as those around him increasingly surrender to their natural states, he’s forced to choose between his senses of compassion and self-preservation.
It’s in these last few sequences that The Human Condition places Kaji in the most ironic position of all–as a Prisoner of War in a Soviet labor camp, a full 180 from the opening moments of the Trilogy. The Soviet-occupied territory has been set up by Kobayashi as a sort of tentative paradise–one where everyone does the labor they’re capable of, and where everyone strives for the collective good of the people. Kaji’s dream quickly chills in the face of reality–as his own fate is filtered through the short-term self-interests of those who are entrusted with his care. The final chapter is a fittingly Kafkaesque descent into bureaucratic madness, as fears of unrest among the prisoners quickly see Kaji turned into a scapegoat, his cries for decency and compassion lost in translation by an interpreting prisoner who sees every moment as a chance to curry more favor with his stoic employers.
Kobayashi’s unflinching lack of sentimentality towards Kaji’s closing plight may easily frustrate those who have invested nine-and-a-half hours into such an equally relentlessly hopeful protagonist. What is the point of suffering, if not deliverance from such a world of unending cruelty? But Kaji’s suffering isn’t meant to alienate its rapt audience, even as he detaches further from a reality that increasingly rejects him. While The Human Condition may depict senseless depravity the closer it approaches its final set of end credits, Kobayashi’s cruelty isn’t the point. Even to its last closing frames, Kobayashi celebrates Kaji’s unerring sense of righteousness and hope–that even driven to the point of madness, stripped away from a sense of order and duty warped by those in power, the fundamental function of a human being is to care for others, and that someday humanity could someday be united in that single, primordial purpose to better each other’s lives.
What prevents us from doing so, however, are the worse angels of our nature–the ones that create borders between lands and classes of people, an individualism that requires surrender to nationalism. It’s easy to hope–but it’s easier to give in. But the ultimate prayer of The Human Condition is that even in the face of cruelty, we will never lose that inner sense of self–the one that keeps a light fueled in the darkness. And if that light goes out–that the world was briefly a better place despite our bitter ends because we kept it going.
Criterion presents The Human Condition in a 1080p 2.39:1 HD transfer, sourced from a digital restoration by Shochiku from each film’s original 35mm negative. The restoration is accompanied by restored monaural Japanese/Chinese tracks for No Greater Love and Road to Eternity, as well as 4.0 surround tracks in Japanese, Chinese, and Russian for A Soldier’s Prayer.
Despite using the same original restored source as their 2009 DVD release, Criterion’s Blu-ray of The Human Condition is able to utilize the newer format’s capacity for greater visual clarity to awe-inspiring and frequently sobering ends. Kobayashi’s layered, rich cinematography is preserved in great detail–with strong contrast between blacks, whites, and greys. There are moments of print damage, notably in the forest segments of part 5, but many of these damage artifacts are inherent to the original negative and the harsh conditions of shooting on location in Hokkaido. The audio tracks are frequently immersive, even in the earlier films’ monaural tracks–dialogue is prized, while foley work of gunfire, weather, and the roar of tanks in part two are fittingly overwhelming yet never smothering other aural elements.
- Masaki Kobayashi (Disc 1): An excerpt from a 1993 Directors Guild of Japan interview between Kobayashi and fellow filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda, discussing the multi-year production and release of the film.
- Masahiro Shinoda (Disc 2): Kobayashi’s contemporary discusses the lasting legacy of The Human Condition on Japanese cinema and the films’ critical lens of the World War II experience as it relates to the country’s post-war culture.
- Tatsuya Nakadai (Disc 3): The star of The Human Condition discusses his experiences making the film, his relationship with Kobayashi over the decades, as well as the trilogy’s overall impact on his career as one of his first starring roles.
- Trailers for The Human Condition’s original individual releases.
The Human Condition is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection.