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Masaki Kobayashi’s war time epic, The Human Condition, at 9 hours and 45 minutes, in black and white, with subtitles and melodramatic Japanese acting will not tempt many.  Too bad.  Acclaimed by  British film critic David Shipman (and many others) as  “unquestionably the greatest film ever made,” the shots, from close up human encounters to panoramic views of the Manchurian plains dwarfing the silhouetted lines of prisoners struggling to maintain their footing and their lives are a wonder. Shadows and light, at the forced-labor mine, at night in the village, in intimate interiors or an escape through a jungle are a palette of emotion never far away from that of language and gesture.  A story like this, of one man’s resistance to militarism and brutality within the army, has seldom been told at all, much less with such unflinching power.

Besides its length, the second disincentive is the then Japanese standard of acting — over-acting as it seems to us– with exaggerated facial gestures and verbal exchanges delivered at full shout between almost all men at all times.  There are some conversational moments, even joking — ribald and otherwise– that enlarge the range of the voice, and even quiet and intimate scenes between Kaji [Tatsuya Nakadai, one of Japan’s great cinematic heart-throbs] and Michiko [Michiyo Aratama.] The over application of the shout-now-shout-louder mode, of weeping and pleading, of close-ups with eyes rolling to suggest fear seem to come from an earlier time, almost a gas-lit proscenium stage where exaggeration is required to reach the audience in the back and, yes, it does push against a full appreciation of the film.  All I can suggest is to consider it a ‘style,’ like kabuki, or even western opera, which, despite the lack of ‘realism,’ we can be deeply moved by and come away with a story appreciated.  As I went back over scenes for this review I found the exaggerated style was less obtrusive.

A full length, serious, treatment of a country’s military and national defeat, particularly by a citizen of that nation, is rare indeed, though the Japanese have done better than most other nations.  Fire on the Plains [Kon Ichikawa, 1959] and The Burmese Harp [Kon Ichkawa, 1956] are two serious movies which brought to the Japanese public the real horror of the war in which they had been engaged, without a moment of the jingoistic ‘we were stabbed in the back’ claims of so many post war movies.  Kobayahsi’s The Human Condition exceeds both in reach and in execution. To use as his instrument of dissection of national shame that most suspect of all heroes –a war resister– is to double the task he set himself.   I can think of nothing that comes remotely close to this movie.  At one point Kaji exclaims:

It’s not my fault that I’m Japanese yet it’s my worst crime that I am!

We could search for a year of Sundays and not find a similar emotion expressed in other, western, war movies. Nor did Kobayashi escape condemnation from many.

The sweeping –and still not available in English– 6 novel series of Junpei Gomikawa, were used as the foundation of the movies.  Added to that were his own war time experience and sensibilities   Kobayashi, as a young man,  had opposed Japanese militarism, and the war itself.

In 1942, shortly after starting his apprenticeship at Shochiku [film studios,] he was drafted into the army and sent to Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Like Kaji, Gomikawa’s protagonist, he found himself in constant conflict with the brutal ethos of the Imperial Army, refusing to rise above the rank of private. “I withheld myself from becoming an officer,” he later recalled. “I had a strong conviction that I must resist authoritarian pressure. I was wholly against the power that bore down on us, and I was against the war itself.” At the end of the war, again like Kaji, he was captured and interned in a POW camp—though in Kobayashi’s case, he was held in Okinawa by the Americans, rather than the Russians, a mercifully less traumatic experience. (Critereon Collection essay)

Divided into three movies, each with intermissions, we move week by week, sometimes day by day from the winter of 1943 to a few weeks after the Russian invasion of Manchuria, August, 1945.  Kaji, the principal character — and Kobayashi’s alter-ego–  moves in the first film, No Greater Love, (1959) from being an idealistic young man into a trial of divided loyalties at the mine where he is supervisor to a Chinese workforce held behind barbed-wire.  At the end, his military superiors, fed up with his kid-glove approach, terminate his exemption from military service. The second film, Road to Eternity, (1959) is occupied almost entirely with his time as a recruit in an increasingly desperate [Italy has just surrendered] and brutal army.  Again he acts as a protector to weaker men, taking the brutality of the veterans –this is how recruits are toughened up–  on to himself, his humanism tested at every turn.  Sent out to dig tank-traps, his company of 160 is all but wiped out by the approaching Russians in battle scenes that for grittiness and fear are equal to the best from Hollywood of those years.  Part three of the trilogy, A Soldier’s Prayer, (1961) picks up after the Kwangtung army is demolished by the Russians and follows Kaji and two friends in the longest, most severe escape and evasion movie ever made. They pick up others, soldier and civilian, old and young, prostitutes and families, and drop them off — to exhaustion, accident, Russian and Chinese pursuit– for something like 1,600 kilometers.  Again Kaji tries to protect the younger and weaker as he progressively loses his humanist core, murdering his nemsis from the first part and stumbling off alone in the final scenes, hallucinating Michiko’s voice and promising he will soon be with her again.

Each of the films is a gauntlet through which he runs, his idealism and belief in “that most beautiful word ‘man'” tested to the extreme. Though he never loses his Cary Grant good looks, he is not the hero who always wins as the Hollywood conceit has it, but a study of a two year long change in character from survival-through-hope to survival-through-anything it takes.  It is the most unflinchingly honest portrayal of war — from its personal cruelties to its impersonal catastrophes– I have ever seen.

Each of the films could be watched by itself, without the other two — though I don’t recommend it.  The first, No Greater Love, sets it up, of course. We see him in snowy southern Manchuria, afraid to commit to his girlfriend for fear of being called up, then granted an exemption to try out his labor management ideas, taking her to the northern reaches of Manchuko — Japanese occupied Manchuria– and setting up a household in pretty typical Japanese fashion– tatami mats on the floor, husband home at end of day to a nice dinner served by the pretty wife.  In fact Manchuria is so much a part of Japan by this time, it is considered home by many — think French Algeria.

The mine is run by a large Japanese firm, but under military governance. The kempeitai, the feared military police, can show up at any time, and they do.  The regular workers, we take it, are Japanese, though we never see them.  A town has grown up around the mine, complete with high walls, markets and prostitutes.  Kaji is assigned a different sort of work force, “special workers” — arriving from the northern frontier in box cars reminiscent of those we are familiar with from Nazi Germany.  The first test of his methods is to meet the 300 prison workers with only 7 civilian supervisors — no weapons, no army, though it is available and eager. The Chinese fall out of the trains, emaciated and starving; 12 were ‘baked to death’ in the cars Kaji screams at his boss.

His superiors and colleagues, abusive almost to the man, are not only contemptuous of his ideas, and sniffing an odor of ‘redness’ about him, but challenge him at every turn.

“What is a man?  He is not poetry or morality.  He’s a mass of lust and greed that absorbs and excretes.”

If the workers don’t produce, they die, is the prevailing ethos. Whippings and beatings are the motivators. The Emperor and his Army needs the iron. Production quotas are raised by 20% The Chinese, in turn, don’t appreciate Kaji’s efforts on their behalf.  They are, after all, still prisoners, and still being worked to death.

Not only is he to oversee the workers, but also several households of ‘comfort women,’ Chinese and Korean. Recurring episodes of prisoners escaping, for which he is under suspicion by the military, are woven into relationships with the women. A Chinese civilian, working for Kaji, is seduced into making common cause with the prisoners, leading to short electrical black outs when small groups throw sleeping mats over the wire and run. She tells the young man that he should act out of Chinese fellow feeling,  and a snuggle with her, but in fact escaped prisoners are worth something — for reasons not made clear– and she herself is pushed by a Korean lover and his thuggish compatriot.

As if Kaji doesn’t have enough problems with his abusive superiors, his wife, who waits for him to come home to dinner as if from a normal job, suffers greatly when he won’t talk to her about how his day was.  Feeling excluded ‘like some stray dog’ she alternately wails, and apologizes, criticizes and cajoles.  It’s a little unfair but I was ready for her to be sent away, again partly due to the Japanese over-acting of the period.

The prisoners pull off several escapes before the camp manager decides to try trickery to see if Kaji is involved.  He is not, but the failure of the trick leads to several escapees immolating themselves on the 3,300 volt electrified fences and to Kaji’s crucial decision:  what will he do about the kempeitai plan to behead seven who tried to escape?

His decision leads to his own ‘enhanced interrogation’ and eventual lifting of his exemption at movie end.  So yes, it is a complete movie, somber and rich with history and grand human questions.  What does a good man do when enmeshed in an evil system?  How does one fight back — for fleeing at this point never rises as a possibility.  There was no friendly Canada for a man who didn’t support the war.

Road to Eternity (1959) is entirely about Kaji’s time in the lower ranks of the Kwangung, occupation army, and the one of the three which it seems to me would yield less if watched alone — unless you have a particular interest in say, comparative national army training and war-readiness.   Much of it takes place in an unbelievably brutal barracks, where recruits are hammered into submission and discipline by the ‘veterans.’  Kaji continues trying to influence things to the good, taking the weaker and less skilled under his protection — for which he is abused even though he has shown superior marksmanship, and organizational strengths.  It is through this abuse that Kaji begins to lose his belief that good example and good works will convert people to a better way of being.  He begins to find a savagery in him that will continue through the third film of the trilogy, and which will keep him on his feet and trekking home through enemy infested land.

His wife, Michiko, is not as present in this film as in the first, though she does make a pleading visit to his commanding officer which gets them a sweet, if awkward, night together in a side cabin to the main camp.  It is of some interest that Kobayashi includes Japanese innuendo and outright crude soldier comment on sex and other bodily functions — this being 1959, and with a sexually conservative Japanese audience in mind.  The most revealing perhaps, are several insults about ‘riding his wife’ delivered to Kaji during the ‘enhanced interrogation’ of the first film. Sexual humiliation and torture have a long, dishonorable history.

By this time it is spring of 1945. News of the end of the war in Europe reaches the men, and fear of Russia over running Manchuria grows.  Kaji is sent with his recruits to dig defensive trenches and gets caught in a Russian tank onslaught.  Despite his pacifist inclinations he acquits himself bravely and even enters into the berserker zone when he strangles one of his own men, to keep him from screaming in delirium and revealing their position to the Russians.

Interestingly, the battle scenes are realistic in the extreme, but not crafted to ensnare the viewer in ‘this is my friend, this is my enemy’ feelings.  We know Kaji and his men but the sympathy we feel is for all those caught in such a war, not just because we have a particular bond with them.  The movie closes as Kaji runs screaming across the battlefield “I’m a monster, but I’m still alive!”

The third part of the trilogy is A Soldier’s Prayer (1961) and it too could be watched as a single movie, perhaps the most interesting of the three if considered one by one.  Kaji and a few of the surviving men are practicing escape and evasion, heading south where they think they will find the remnants of the Kwangtung army, or at least ‘home.’  The prayer is Kaji’s to return to Michiko and somehow, take up a life in a better Japan.   For those who admired Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, either the novel or the movie by John Hillcoat, this is the real thing.  Three soldiers, out of the company of 160, heading into enemy terrain.  Kaji, the one-time pacifist, kills a sentry, up close and personal with a bayonet blade in order to break through the line.   Unending tramping, near starvation  being turned away by Chinese peasants who have no fondness for their Japanese overlords, hiding from Russian and Red Army troops, finding themselves before a Japanese officer who demands a fight to the death.  They start in the jungles and after days find themselves on abandoned and sere plains.  They are joined by desperate thrown-together families, of prostitutes, colonists leaving their farms, pregnant mothers, and weeping children.  When one dies the others rush on, without ceremony.  Small handsfull of rice become temptations to murder.

The group finds a small village of Japanese, mostly women, then terrified by an impending slaughter, surrender to the Red Army.  In a camp as bad as the one he tried to reform, his belief in the goodness of the socialist army is starved and beaten away. He sets out on his own, in the cold of winter, after chain beating a collaborationist Japanese officer to death, and dies himself, unable to go on, asking Michiko to forgive him for not having returned to her. In fact, her only presence in this film is as the ghostly grail towards which he drives himself.

What will stay with me long after the details of plot and story fade is the stunning photography Kobayashi and his cinematographer, Yoshio Miyajima, managed throughout.  Before the lightweight and mobile cameras of later years came along, and in a forbidding geology — I haven’t been able find where the scenes were actually filmed, but there are real iron mines, and rugged terrain–  the shots are often static frames into which characters move. The camera is not a character as in so many modern movies.  As a result also of the earlier technology there are instances when a sort of amateurishness surfaces — as when a horse and rider bear down on Kaji and he stands his ground.  There are no closeups of horseflesh inches away from his face, the kind we take for granted today, but rather a series of cuts that don’t actually convince; we fill in.   The beatings, fist to face, often look more staged than real.  But interestingly, we are no less convinced that terrible things took place and savagery was at the surface everywhere.  Perhaps the lack of ‘realism’ allows our imagination to go back to work as was necessary for all story telling up to the past decade.

There is no movie I know of that so starkly and observationally looks at the ravages of war — principally as it affects one, decent, man but with plenty of collateral damage in every scene to show us: this is what we have become.

And gosh, as a reader prior to being a movie-goer, wouldn’t it be wonderful to get Junpei Gomikawa’a 6 novels in an English translation?

Other interesting essays:

Philip Kemp for Criterion