The Human Condition (film series)
|The Human Condition|
|Directed by||Masaki Kobayashi|
|Produced by||Shigeru Wakatsuki (I-III)
Masaki Kobayashi (II, III)
|Written by||Masaki Kobayashi (I-III)
Zenzo Matsuyama (I-III)
Koichi Inagaki (III)
Junpei Gomikawa (novel)
|Music by||Chuji Kinoshita|
|Edited by||Keiichi Uraoka|
|Running time||579 minutes|
The Human Condition (人間の條件 Ningen no jōken?) is a Japanese epic film trilogy made between 1959 and 1961, based on the six-volume novel published from 1956 to 1958 by Junpei Gomikawa 五味川純平 (1916–1995). It was directed by Masaki Kobayashi and stars Tatsuya Nakadai. The trilogy follows the life of Kaji, a Japanese pacifist and socialist, as he tries to survive in the totalitarian and oppressive world of World War II-era Japan. Altogether, the trilogy is 9 hours, 47 minutes long, not including intermissions.
No Greater Love
The first film, No Greater Love (1959) opens with Kaji marrying his sweetheart Michiko despite his misgivings about the future. The couple then move to a large mining operation in Japanese-colonized Manchuria where Kaji is a labor supervisor assigned to a workforce of Chinese prisoners. He tries and ultimately fails to reconcile his humanistic ideals with the brutal reality of forced labor in an imperial system. The movie ends with him being drafted to military service, in order for his superiors to do away with his disturbing presence at the Labor camp.
Road to Eternity
In the second film, Road to Eternity (1959), Kaji, having lost his exemption from military service by protecting Chinese prisoners from unjust punishment, has now been conscripted into the Japanese Kwantung Army. Under suspicion of leftist sympathies, Kaji is assigned the toughest duties in his military recruiting class despite his excellent marksmanship and strong barracks discipline. His wife Michiko pleads for understanding in a letter to his commanding officer and later pays Kaji a highly unorthodox visit at his military facility to express her love and solidarity. Kaji considers escape across the front with his friend Shinjo, who is similarly under suspicion due to his brother's arrest for communist activities. Distrusting the idea that desertion will lead to freedom, and faithful to his wife, Kaji ultimately commits to continued military service despite his hardships.
When Obara, a poor-sighted, weak soldier in Kaji's unit, kills himself after troubles from home are compounded by ceaseless punishment and humiliation from other soldiers, Kaji demands disciplinary action from his superiors for PFC Yoshida, the ring leader of the troops who pushed Obara over the brink. While Yoshida is not disciplined, Kaji helps to seal his fate by refusing to rescue the vicious soldier when both men are trapped in quicksand while in pursuit of Shinjo, who finally seized the opportunity to desert. Part three of the trilogy (and the first half of this film) ends as Kaji is released from hospitalization related to the quicksand incident and is transported to the front with his unit.
As part four opens, Kaji is asked to lead a group of new recruits and promoted to private first class. He accepts his assignment with the condition that his men will be separated from a group of veteran artillerymen, who practice intense cruelty as punishment for the slightest offenses. Often taking the punishment for his men, Kaji is personally beaten many times by these veterans, despite his personal relationship with Second Lieutenant Kageyama. Demoralized by the fall of Okajima and continually battling with the veterans, Kaji and most of his men are sent on a month long trench digging work detail. Their work is interrupted by a Soviet army onslaught that produces heavy Japanese casualties and the death of Kageyama. Forced to defend flat terrain with little fortification and light armament, the Japanese troops are overrun by Soviet tanks, and untold men are killed. Kaji survives the battle, but is forced to kill a maddened Japanese soldier with his bare hands in order to prevent Soviet soldiers from discovering his position. The film ends with Kaji screaming, "I'm a monster, but I'm still alive!" and running in desperate search of any other Japanese survivors.
A Soldier's Prayer
The final film in the trilogy is A Soldier's Prayer (1961). The Japanese forces having been shattered during the events of the second film, Kaji and some comrades attempt to elude capture by Soviet forces and find the remnants of the Kwantung army in South Manchuria. Following the bayonetting of a Russian soldier, however, Kaji is increasingly sick of combat and decides to abandon any pretense of rejoining the army. Instead, he leads fellow soldiers and a growing number of civilian refugees as they attempt to flee the warzone and return to their homes. Lost in a dense forest, the Japanese begin to infight and eventually many die of hunger, poisonous mushrooms and suicide. Emerging from the forest on their last legs, Kaji and the refugees encounter regular Japanese army troops, who deny them food as if they were deserters. Carrying on further south, Kaji and his associates find a well-stocked farmhouse which is soon ambushed by Chinese peasant fighters. A prostitute to whom Kaji had shown kindness is killed by these partisans, and Kaji vows to fight them rather to escape. However, overpowered by these newly armed Chinese forces, Kaji and his fellow soldiers are nearly killed and are forced to run through a flaming wheat field to survive. Kaji then encounters a group of fifty Japanese army holdouts who are attempting to resume combat in alliance with Chiang Kai-shek, whom they believe will be supported by American forces, in a civil war against Russian-backed Communist Chinese. Kaji, a believer in pacifism and socialism, rejects this strategy as misguided and doomed to failure. Eventually, Kaji and a group of Japanese soldiers, whose number has grown to fifteen, fight through Russian patrols and find an encampment of women and old men who seek their protection. Kaji is driven to continue moving in search of his wife, but decides to surrender to Soviet forces when the encampment is besieged.
Captured by the Red Army and subjected to treatment that echoes the violence meted out to the Chinese in the first film, Kaji and his protégé Terada resist the Japanese officers who run their work camp in cooperation with Soviet forces. While such resistance amounts to no more than picking through the Russian's' garbage for scraps of food and wearing gunnysacks to protect them from increasingly colder weather, Kaji is branded a saboteur and judged by a Soviet tribunal to harsh labor. With a corrupt translator and no other means of talking to the Russian officers with whom he feels ideological sympathies, Kaji becomes increasingly disillusioned by conditions in the camp and with Communist orthodoxy. When Terada is driven to exhaustion and death by harsh treatment from the collaborating officer Kirihara, Kaji decides to kill the man and then escape the camp alone. Still dreaming of finding his wife and abused as a worthless beggar and as a "Japanese devil" by the Chinese peasants of whom he begs mercy, Kaji faces his ultimate trial in the vast winter wasteland.
The British film critic David Shipman described the trilogy in his 1983 book, The Story of Cinema, as "unquestionably the greatest film ever made." In his review for The New York Times in 2008, A.O. Scott declared that "Kobayashi’s monumental film can clarify and enrich your understanding of what it is to be alive." Critic Philip Kemp, in his essay written for The Criterion Collection's release of the trilogy, argues that while "the film suffers from its sheer magnitude [and] from the almost unrelieved somberness of its prevailing mood . . . The Human Condition stands as an achievement of extraordinary power and emotional resonance: at once a celebration of the resilience of the individual conscience and a purging of forced complicity in guilt (of a nation and, as the title implies, of the whole human race), which Kaji attains through his death, and Kobayashi through the making of this film."
- Orr, James Joseph. The Victim As Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan, p. 107.
- Shipman, D. The Story of Cinema, Hodder and Stoughton 1984, p.984
- A.O. Scott "Cry the High-Minded Hero in Brutal Japanese-Occupied Manchuria", New York Times, 18 July 2008
- Philip Kemp "The Human Condition: The Prisoner", The Criterion Collection, 9 September 2009
- No Greater Love at the Internet Movie Database
- The Road to Eternity at the Internet Movie Database
- A Soldier's Prayer at the Internet Movie Database