The Human Condition (Ningen no jōken) made by Masaki Kobayashi is a one of the most incredible achievements of Japanese cinema. The Human Condition’ is an extraordinary saga and unprecedented film ever in its 579 minutes length and a marathon of masterpiece, buoyantly becoming apparent of this masterful film trilogy.
It’s a mammoth humanist drama, originally filmed and released in three parts, the nine-and-a-half-hour, adapted from Junpei Gomikawa’s six-volume novel. This movie is about the journey of the goodhearted yet naive Kaji, performed by Tatsuya Nakadai (considered as a handsome Japanese star of 60s), from labor camp supervisor to Imperial army soldier, and then to the Soviet’s POW, in his constant determination to rise above a corrupt system. Kaji’s finds his morals as an obstacle time and again through the Japans wartime approach as well as a personal tragedy, and Kobayashi’s spellbinding, gorgeously filmed epic is novelistic cinema at its best.
No Greater Love (1959) is the first of the trilogy. The film opens with Kaji marrying his sweetheart Michiko despite his misgivings about the future. The couple then moves to a large mining operation in Japanese colonized Manchuria where Kaji is a labor supervisor assigned to a workforce of Chinese prisoners. But this being 1943, he finds hard to get away and escape the war, with the work going on in the mines being seen as important to the war effort and his arrival there being followed not long afterwards by the Kempeitai (Military Police arm of Japanese Imperial Army) offering up some 600 prisoners of war as slave labor for the company.
Kaji’s determines to improve conditions for the workers, including the prisoners of wars, and often at his own expense. 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. So much so the message is that there’s no greater love than the love a humanist for his fellow men and women. In the same time, his love for his wife Michiko is so touching with two showering each other that can seem inharmoniously at odds with the rest of the story tones in the midst of ruthless inhumanity.
Road to Eternity (1959) is the second of the trilogy. In his actions Kaji having lost his exemption from military service by protecting Chinese prisoners from unjust punishment, has now been recruited 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.
Separated from his loving wife- Kaji again gets into trouble in the military. Kaji considers escape across the front with his friend Shinjo, who is similarly under suspicion due to his brother’s arrest for communist activities. Disbelieving 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.
Often taking the punishment for his men, Kaji is personally beaten many times by Japanese Army 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 defenses 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 (1961) is the last of the trilogy. This film released after two years of the first and second part, this is so stylistically made. The tone and message sets the movie into a different altitude. Kaji’s prime battle in first and second trilogy is against the face of great inhumanity and brutality. Here his is to stay alive in the face of his unit having been wiped out in a Soviet attack so that only he and two others survived that veritable massacre of a front-line battle. His only aim is to return back home and in situation of being lost in a dense forest, the Japanese begin to in fight 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.
Though 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. Just the time being captured by the Red Army, subjected to bad treatment-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.
Throughout it all, Masaki Kobayashi outstanding film-making is so fine and thoughtful, considered and serious, and beautifully written. Kobayashi demonstrates his ability to hold many elements in balance, the oblique music, the subtle visual threads and the nuanced performances. The joy of it is its trust in the viewer to engage and discern and the powerful performance of lead actor Tatsuya Nakudai who truly convinces in his role of a Japanese man unfortunate enough to be an idealist with a strong sense of justice and love of humanity at a time and in places where those very attributes led him into harm’s way with a vengeance.
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 and the dark side of the war and nations self-destructing pride implies the human uncertainty as Kobayashi reveals through the film and strongly avowed that there is worth in the searching heart of humans under pressure, of humans who still strive to be better in peace…….
You know we are surrounded by so many wars around us even in the day like today, and I’m sure our thoughts and words won’t save us. Nothing can save us from ourselves anymore. For me, there are too many reasons for drawing into this beautiful movie, but probably the most important one is because I believe watching it can lead us to make better people of ourselves. At least it will make you feel like redemption in those nine hours
- Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
- Produced by Shigeru Wakatsuki & Masaki Kobayashi
- Written by Masaki Kobayashi; Zenzo Matsuyama; Koichi Inagak & Jumpei Gomikawa (novel)
- Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai & Michiyo Aratama
- Music by Chuji Kinoshita
- Cinematography Yoshio Miyajima
- Edited by Keiichi Uraoka
- Production Company: Ninjin Club
- Distributed by: Shochiku
- Release dates: 1959–1961
- Run time of 579 minutes
- Country: Japan
- Language: Japanese & Mandarin