WWII is a frequently used setting throughout the course of cinema history. No matter what, every critically acclaimed filmmaker must have at least one film set in-between the time period of 1939 – 1945. Steven Spielberg presented the horrors of the Holocaust in unflinching black-and-white realism in Schlinder’s List. Wolfgang Petersen fused together the claustrophobic and mechanical environment of a German U-96 submarine, with a suspense-filled narrative in, Das Boot. Even Quentin Tarantino and Bryan Singer touched upon the idea of alternate realities, offering their own spins on assassinating Hitler. But perhaps with all of them joined together, they will never match the power, force, and size that Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition presents itself in. Whilst clocking in at nine and a half hours and based upon Junpei Gomikawa’s series of novels of the same name, Kobayashi’s film is one of the longest ever made on the subject of WWII, as well as one of the most critically acclaimed. Encompassing so many themes including the dangers of corruption, love, the horrors of war and survival, it would prove impossible to summarize the impact that this film has made since it was first released. But here we are, attempting to do so.
Kobayashi presents The Human Condition in three parts – equalling a trilogy, each lasting just over three hours in length. The first part, entitled No Greater Love, introduces us to the character of Kaji (played by a fresh-faced Tatsuya Nakadai). Kaji is a Japanese pacifist and socialist, he has just been married to his sweetheart, Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) and he has worried about their future together – fearing that he shall be drafted to the Imperial Army soon enough. However, Kaji’s governing body brings him exemption from the army to work as a labour supervisor at a large mining facility in Japanese-colonized Manchuria. His new boss tasks him to the workforce of Chinese prisoners but soon discovers that his own humanistic ideals and morals fail to reconcile with the savage slave labour in an imperial system.
The first 40 minutes of No Greater Love feels like the opening prologue to the colossal trilogy, which Kobayashi patiently sets up. Kaji sees the world in simple black-and-white terms but comes off as naïve and arrogant – not heroic. Kaji believes in the humanistic treatment of the prisoners, but during the course of the trilogy, the officers and guards force him to take part in the camp’s brutal punishments and strict rules and regulations – almost like a gear would to a machine. The perfect example to summarize this is the scene where the labourers first arrive at the camp. Picture this, supervisors spot the train in the distance. The chimneys omit the blackest of smoke – signifying that something unpleasant is about to land at Kaji’s doorstep. He looks fearful, almost as if he is about to pass out. The train continues, picking up rapid speed towards him. And once it arrives, the most unimaginable conditions are finally revealed. The Imperial Army have overstuffed men and women alike in each carriage. None of them were given any food or water during the journey, and when the guards open the doors, there is a stench of death that plagues the air. Suddenly, all the prisoner’s dash to the rice fields in order feed themselves. With horror in his eye, the crowd drags along Kaji, and he whips thousands away from food. This is a humane leftist, his moral descent has already begun – which Kobayashi reinforces that this is just the beginning, it won’t get any happier from here on out.
No Greater Love also displays the power and beauty of Yoshio Miyajima’s cinematography, shooting against vast landscapes with Nakadai placed firmly away from the camera – being shown as a tiny speck against overwhelming amounts of the bleakest locations imaginable. A blade of grass does not exist in this wasteland. Nothing but mounds of dirt that last for miles. Kobayashi actually did not shoot in Manchuria where the first part takes place, but instead opted for his home island of Hokkaido, as shooting in Communist China would prove impossible at the time for a Japanese filmmaker. This is the power that No Greater Love introduces us to, an appetizer of what is to come.
The second part, Road to Eternity, picks up immediately where No Greater Love left off – with Kaji’s worst nightmare coming true. The governing board at the mining facility have taken away his right for exemption from military service following an event that he caused [which I dare not spoil], meaning that, his employers have drafted him to the Japanese Kwantung Army. The commanders task Kaji with excruciatingly tough assignments since they suspect him of leftist sympathies. The commanders, whilst left impressed with Kaji’s strong discipline and excellent marksmanship, the road to make Kaji a respected soldier is a long and strenuous one. Many of Kaji’s compatriots accuse him of being communist, and thus Kaji becomes an isolated figure because of where he stands with others.
Road to Eternity cements Kaji’s moral stance from black-and-white moral coding to a grey zone. A prisoner in No Greater Love tells Kaji that his life has been nothing but a “series of errors”, as every action that he takes, there are immediate, tragic consequences. And in Road to Eternity, two tragedies rock Kaji right down to the core, the first he blames on another selfish soldier, the other, he does not. Road to Eternity, in many ways, is a precursor to Full Metal Jacket. It is unknown whether Kubrick had seen Kobayashi’s monumental film, but both bear striking resemblances that it is impossible not to compare. With the first half of Road to Eternity, Kobayashi and fellow screenwriter, Zenzo Matsuyama, translates Gomikawa’s original text into this muddy, miserable boot camp. The drill instructor screams down anyone who is out-of-shape and punishes those who steps out-of-line in an R. Lee Ermey fashion. There is also a Private named Obara (Kunie Tanaka) who rings true to a poor sighted, weak soldier who comes from a Private Pile mould. Obara gets mercilessly insulted by not only the drill instructor but also by his fellow compatriots for being such a poor soldier. Obara gets dragged through long marching distances which he can barely keep up, he fails at target practice constantly, even after Kaji has shown him how to do it properly. In many ways, Kobayashi is viciously critiquing Japanese Army life, much like Kubrick did afterwards. Unlike Kubrick though, Kobayashi did serve time as a private during WWII, so he must have had an immediate connection with Kaji, as they both shared similar views.
There are so many moments in The Human Condition that are horrific and/or depressing making it a hard pill to shallow. But that does not mean that the filmmakers show glimmers of hope throughout. One such instance comes in Road to Eternity where the commanders grant Michiko one night with Kaji again. They give the couple a storeroom for them to share the night. Kobayashi and Miyajima shoot one, long continuous take of them together, always keeping them frame, dropping or tilting the camera if needs are. This gives the scene a lovely moment of tenderness between both Nakadai and Aratama among objects associated with war – sandbags, grenades and rifles entrap them in an isolated room, making the inevitable presence of war linger on in the background. Perhaps it suggests that Kaji and Michiko are not going to see each ever again? That this will be their last dance.
The second half of Road to Eternity focuses on a large-scale battle between the Japanese and the Soviet Army. Tanks arise over the horizon in a picturesque quality, but the rest of the battle is not so glamorous, to say the least. As the battle rages on, Kobayashi gives camera work nothing but ground level. Nakadai and his fellows are in ditches throughout suggesting the new levels that they have sunken too.
The last part, A Soldier’s Prayer, follows Kaji and the fellow survivors of the battle traversing the Manchurian countryside. Kaji’s only wish at this stage is finding Michiko and putting the horrors of his past behind him. Along with their journey, they stumble upon a group of civilian refugees who wants to evade the war zone, as well as elude capture by the Red Army. Eventually, they all find this small Manchurian encampment. However, once they decide to stay there – this proves itself as a big misstep, as the Red Army often visit this encampment detain the rest of the Japanese soldiers in a prisoner of war camp.
Of the trilogy, this is the part which is the culmination and inevitable cracking of Kaji’s mind. Kobayashi inserts images and sounds associated with hallucinations which suggest that Kaji has been forever changed by the alarming sights that he has witnessed. Michiko’s voice is heard at seemingly random points, the edit shows certain murders from earlier entries again. These images will forever haunt him, and this escalates and builds to a psychological nightmare of a scene where the Red Army puts Kaji on trial. This is one of the finest, tense and stark trial scenes ever put to celluloid for an anti-war film. The place where Kaji thought that prisoners were treated like human beings, the place where no-one is treated like caged animals, is far removed from the truth. Corrupt inmates are given authoritative power over the weak, such as the translator in the trial, who manipulates the language barriers between the Russians and the Japanese. Prisoners are treated in brutal and scathing conditions – almost treat like dirt, which is probably worse than the mining camp’s conditions much earlier on. And the cherry on the very top is one last insult from the Russian commander to Kaji, who labels him as a “fascist samurai”, a final, humiliating yet bitterly ironic blow to Kaji’s rights as a human being.
The Human Condition is a film that likes to beat you over the head about the horrors of large-scale war and how the human spirit is tortured through this machine. But like many other Word War Two movies, it is certainly overly preachy and film-goers should not view it in one, consecutive sitting. Arrow Academy have done a stellar job with the release and presented Kobayashi’s film with multiple options to view it – either as a three-part international version or as the original six-part Japanese cut. The Japanese version splits each film in the trilogy in two, ending at about 1 hour 15 mins – 1 hour 40 mins each. This makes The Human Condition easier to digest in the process, where you don’t have to worry about forcing down 3 hours of this each night. But the confident direction, career-defining, but exhaustively excellent performance from Nakadai, and Miyajima’s sparse, beautiful and haunting location cinematography make The Human Condition a technically brilliant tale that blends so many themes together. This is a must see for any fan of world cinema.
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
- Original Japanese mono soundtrack (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
- Optional English subtitles
- Introduction to the film by critic, Philip Kemp
- Selected-scene commentary by Philip Kemp
- Theatrical trailers
- Booklet featuring archival interview with director Masaki Kobayashi, and a scholarly essay discussing post-World War II Japanese culture