You know I really enjoy this game. Reviewing a film takes a certain amount of skill, a certain amount of time. To truly understand a movie you have to get into it. To do this I find the best thing is to watch it at least twice; once to get to grips with the plot, characters and the story arc, to enjoy the show as it were. The second time is to really get to grips with it; the subtext and hidden means conveyed by the use of light, shadow, and camera angle; what the actor’s over or under performance tells us; to really dissect the movie.
So please spare a thought for me in reviewing The Human Condition (Ningen no jōken) (1959-61), a 9 hour and 47 minute anti-war film trilogy detailing the overhanging depression, soul crushingness, and brutality of war under the corrupt system in Imperial Japan.
Fun, Fun, Fun.
Director Masaki Kobayashi ambitious adaptation of Junpei Gomikawa six volume epic is one that is, strangely, partly autobiographical for both of them. Equally they were critical of Japans wars and treatment of POW’s; pacifists and socialists, they were both drafted into the Imperial Army and captured. It’s no surprise that the trilogies hero Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) holds similar views. Kobayashi called on his own experiences in the Imperial army to add weight and realism to the trilogy.
It took Kobayashi years to persuade Shochiku Co. to let him make the movie. When it opened in Japan it sparked a wave of controversy; here was a movie that, in a nation that was still struggling with its legacy over World War 2, was not only critical of the Imperial Army, it was also saying the corruption in it existed at every level and at every turn.
No Greater Love (1959)
The trilogy opens with Kaji and his fiancé Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) in Japan as the snow falls and the troops move out. Kaji is in no rush to marry Michiko, worried that any day now draft orders will arrive and he’ll see himself being led out to die on the frontline. When his friend Kageyama (Keiji Sada) gets his papers, Kaji considers breaking it off with Michiko, only to receive a promotion at the steel firm he works for and military exemption. A report he’s written on a more humane management of the Chinese workers to increase production in mines gets him the chance to put his theories into practise. It also brings suspicion of him harbouring Leftist and Humanist views. Wasting no time he and Michiko marry and set off to one of the mines in the hinterlands of Japanese controlled Manchuria.
Should point out again that this isn’t a cheery movie.
Kaji moral and ethical views come into conflict with those at the mine; from the corrupt boss down to the pit-team overseers as violence is used to maintain high production quotas, and prisoners die regularly in “accidents” on site. Kaji finds himself placed in charge of 600 Chinese POW’s who arrive at the mine half-starved in boxcars, or just plain dead, and a group of 60 prostitutes. Almost immediately his methods are met with scorn by the owners and overseers whose continued brutality leads to escape attempts. As Kaji and Michiko try to eke out a normal home life; their romance is mirrored by Shunran Yô (Ineko Arima) and Kô (Kôji Nanbara), a prostitute and prisoner whose romance could be a movie of its own.
From there the story becomes one of Kaji trying to maintain his morality, his ethics, in a world where those around him desire his failure and conspire against him. Things eventual come to a head when Kaji is arrested and tortured after a botched execution and has his exemption revoked.
See what I mean about its lack of cheer?
Road to Eternity (1959)
The second movie starts in a snow covered army training camp somewhere in Manchuria. The war is obviously not going well at this stage and Kaji’s platoon is filled with old men, young boys and the unhealthy. Still under surveillance by his superiors and assigned the toughest roles for being a Red; Kaji proves to be an excellent soldier and marksman, helping the others in his platoon. The new recruits are at the mercy of a group of veteran soldiers whose mission statement seems to be “make life hell for others” and make life hell they do with great gusto.
Obara (Kunie Tanaka), the weak and short sighted recruit, is the victim of a brutal campaign of humiliation, culminating in a scene that must have been the inspiration for Full Metal Jacket (1987). In many ways the film seems to be the inspiration for Full Metal Jacket; following a group of soldiers through a brutal training regime that destroys so much and leaves so little behind, all the way to their first engagement with the faceless enemy.
After being lifted to squad commander, Kaji and his men find themselves at the front. Desperate to protect them from the daily beatings from a new group of veterans, Kaji works to gain his men a measure of respect from the others; that is until the Soviets decide to launch a massive attack, wipe out the veteran units, and Kaji’s platoon find themselves having to defend against tanks in open flat country without enough guns. Despite its lack of gore there is a horror to the battle scene as men are surrounded and gunned down like dogs as the tanks roll by. As one of Kaji’s platoon cracks under battle fatigue, Kaji is forced to kill him to prevent the Soviets from finding them. Standing alone on the battlefield Kaji cries in a heart rending scene “I am a monster but I am going to remain alive!”
A Soldiers Prayer (1961)
Picking up where Road to Eternity left off, Kaji and the few surviving men of his platoon try to make it back to Japanese held Manchuria. Haunted by the battle and the killing of a Soviet guard in cold blood Kaji just wants to get back to his wife Michiko.
At this point the film becomes a nightmare death march across a ruined land as Kaji’s group collects refugees, military and civilian alike, desperate to make it to the south. Children starve to death while others euthanize their families, and survivors walk through a field of rotting corpses. Along the way they meet pockets of military units ready to make the last valiant stand because their officers suffer from terminal insanity. You do begin to question if Kaji has died in the battle and this is the hell he must suffer.
As soldiers turn on the civilians, Kaji develops a simple mantra: Stay alive, get home to Michiko. After beating a soldier that attacked and possibly killed a young girl, Kaji and his followers are captured by the Red Army. In the POW camp he is labelled a troublemaker by Japanese officers now working with the Soviets and is placed on rag picking duties. Sentence to hard labour through the actions of a corrupt translator with a grievance against him; Kaji is all but broken as the snows fall and the Chinese villagers hurl abuse at him. He suffers the worst insult yet; being called a “Fascist Samurai” he has now reached the same level as the labourers he once oversaw, and like them fights to hold on to his humanity.
It might be tempting, sane even, to just watch one movie in the trilogy and call it a day. Tempting but the wrong attitude; each film stands as both a unique story and part of an overarching narrative that has to be taken in together to really get to grips with the story, its themes and commentaries. The story is so multi-layered that any attempt to break it down or edit it would kill it quicker than the brutal torture in the story.
For an anti-war movie Kobayashi has made a film lacking in combat; 20 minutes in all of the trilogy. Those 20 minutes however are enough to carry its anti-combat message. Most who go into battle will only get 20 minutes anyway before the inevitable happens. The rest of the trilogy is a condemnation of War itself. It’s a machine that destroys land, people, and ideas.
We can put this trilogy in several genres; Kobayashi use of shadow, low wide angles and image contrast makes it at times seem like a Film Noir. The isolation of the characters from the rest of the world, caught up against an unstoppable killing machine in a bleak, empty wasteland transforms it into a survival horror. It also feels Orwellian at times. Not in the Big Brother sense but in the small man trying to stand up against the megalith of a totalitarian, draconian regime that leaves you drained after watching.
The running theme throughout is to remain Human in the Dehumanising nightmare of war. No Greater Love shows how the policies of war, profit over people, strip them from the very humanity. Road to Eternity on how the military breaks recruits down from people into killing machines that will follow every order. A Soldiers Prayer shows what war does to the people and the land; transforming it into a horror show of insanity and death. Throughout it all Kaji fights not against the enemy but against war itself.
Worth pointing out that you should watch this trilogy surrounded by those you love to provide moral support. If Dehumanisation is its main theme, its second is that hierarchy is the root of all misery. Those at different levels of it, be it a work pit overseer or veteran troop kick those below them at every turn and chance to inforce their hierarchy, with status provide their reason and defence. It’s interesting to note that Kaji’s progress goes from one in authority down all the way till he is at the very bottom of the packing order. While in a post of authority he tries to help those under him in the mines; only problem is no matter how much he tries a benevolent slave master who doesn’t use a whip is still a slave master. It’s something Kaji never fully realises until he is at the bottom.
Love is the third and final theme throughout the trilogy. Kaji’s love for Michiko keeps him going when all hell is breaking loose around him. Shunran Yô and Kô love help them through the brutality of the force labour camp. Kaji’s love for humanity, justice, are his driving forces throughout the story. The trilogy makes a distinction between love and sex; with quite possibly the most miserable sex scene ever captured on camera as village girls and soldiers are desperate to have something that numbs the pain.
But Love is a two edge sword; twice Kaji has the chance to run for freedom; to flee to the North and out of the war and both times he refuses because of his love for Michiko. Is Michiko a chain holding him in the war or is she his talisman keeping him going against it all?
One thing that gets thrown around a lot in the Human Condition and in writings about it is that Kaji is naïve and idealistic. And somehow this is some form of flaw. As a flinty hearted, jaded bastard I can tell you now that there is nothing wrong with naivety or idealism. It’s these qualities that allow Kaji to treat others as human beings, to see beyond the war and believe that people can be worth saving; they are the aspect of his character that help to keep him going against it all. It makes him a Just man while those around him seem ready to become some form of man-rat hybrid.
Some might see Kaji as a character that’s too perfect and those people need re-watch the trilogy it now. Kaji is far from perfect; he only marries Michiko when he knows he’s not going to war and he leads survivors along a hellish death march, unwilling to listen to anyone else. He is genuinely confused and upset that the Chinese labourers don’t recognise the good work he’s been doing for them; not realising that no matter what, he is still a jailer. But he learns from his mistakes, his flaws and defeats and in doing so becomes one of the most well rounded characters in cinema. His arc as a character is not one that changes his views but one that makes him become more committed to them through his experiences.
The film isn’t without its issues. For one, every other character does honestly seem to be part of a carnival of bastards. Not just one or two in positions of power but across the spectrum everyone else seems to be a two-dimensional prick. A more effective way of showing power corrupts would have given them a normal life outside of their control zone. What’s more disturbing; a cruel bastard that is always a cruel bastard or one with a happy home life who loves their wife and kids? Save for Kaji most characters are throw away pieces that come and go at such regularity that given the size and scope of the movie you have to ask yourself were they there or was it a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep. At some points groups of characters enter, are given motivations and drives; in the next scene they’re gone. That’s it. Just gone.
As mentioned before the run length is off putting and you do need to psych yourself up before you begin watching it and then pace yourself throughout. But if you can get past that, past the length and the fever dream hell of a lone sane man in a world high on war then you are in for the ride of your life.
So like I said; Fun, Fun, Fun.
Dir: Masaki Kobayashi
Scr: Masaki Kobayashi, Zenzo Matsuyama, Koichi Inagaki
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Ineko Arima, Keiji Sada, Ineko Arima, Kôji Nanbara, Kunie Tanaka
Prd: Shigeru Wakatsuki, Masaki Kobayashi
DOP: Yoshio Miyajima
Music: Chuji Kinoshita
Run Time: 579 minutes