In an appreciation of Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (Ningen no jōken), included as a supplement on Criterion’s release of the nearly ten-hour three-film epic, Masahiro Shinoda says, “The Japanese felt guilty about the war. We had an aversion to war… so it was the best time to accurately depict war in films.” In another interview with the actor Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays the main character, the idealistic humanist Kaji, he recalls all night and marathon screenings of the films that were always popular and sold out. It’s a testament to both Kobayashi’s work and the feelings of the Japanese people after World War II that such a harsh attack on Imperial Japan, delivered in a relentlessly bleak tone, was made at all, let alone that it succeeded at the box office.
Director Kobayashi rose to prominence in the mid-‘50s directing realist films with a leftist social message for the Shochiku studio. He was fond of addressing the ways in which societal institutions corrupt and destroy the individual, as in 1957’s Black River (Kuroi kawa), about the criminal elements that form around a US military base in Japan after the war.
Kobayashi served in Manchuria during the war. He was a skillful marksman who harbored anti-war feelings and refused to let himself be promoted above private because, as Shinoda says, “He was resolved to share the burden of war as a common citizen.” He also was interested in and then became disenchanted with socialism as an antidote to Japanese imperialism and was later captured and put into an American POW camp. When author Gomikawa Junpei released his book The Human Condition to great acclaim, featuring a protagonist whose wartime story was remarkably similar to his own, Kobayashi bought up the rights and pressured Shinoda into funding his epic, broken up into three films and labeled as six parts between 1959 and 1961.
The first film, No Greater Love is concerned with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the relationship with the Chinese people. Kaji, a bright-eyed young worker for the South Manchuria Steel Company, is sent to the Loh Hu Liong mines in order to manage the Chinese workers. He has written a paper about how using less exploitative and corrupt practices will lead to greater output and he is eager to put his theories into practice. But mainly he takes the position so that he will be exempted from military service.
He moves to the dusty backwater of the mines with his young wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) and immediately clashes with the other managers and his superiors, who think that the workers are lazy and cheating and need to be dealt with harshly. He is eventually put in charge of a group of Chinese POWs – who arrive “baked to death” in train cars in a moving scene of mass desperation – and attempts to work with a group of representatives, led by Wang Heng Li (Seiji Miyaguchi), to give them suitable working conditions.
Kaji cannot balance or please the different warring factions within the mining camp – the POWs, the mining corporation, the Japanese military, the Chinese citizens assisting the Japanese, the “comfort women” hired to please the men – and feels increasingly guilt-ridden and complicit with the Japanese abuses and atrocities. His best efforts frequently result in miserable outcomes, punishments for the men Kaji is trying to protect. Though he is the victim of a complex hydra of institutional cruelty and corruption, Kaji is also too naïve, immature, and self-centered in his approach. The prison leader Wang weighs hard on his conscience, urging him to save some prisoners scheduled for execution: “You’ll either be revealed as a murderer wearing the mask of humanism or as one worthy of the beautiful name… ’man’.”
Kaji’s enemies in the work camp plot against him and when the Chinese POWs revolt – in another magnificent set-piece – Kaji’s military exemption is revoked. He is overjoyed at being let out of his job and miserable at the prospect of being separated from Michiko. The first film ends with the uncertain contrast of Michiko and Kaji in each other’s arms, posed against the sharp ridges of hills while a Chinese prostitute in the background screams at him to “die, Japanese devil”.
This first portion is notable for some of the most striking cinematography by Director of Photography Yoshio Miyajima. He uses deep focus to emphasize the distance between the mineworkers and their bosses, and uses silhouettes and large geometric formations to convey the large-scale brutality of the workers marching to the mines.
Thematically the first movie is also quite daring in its depiction of the Chinese as the sympathetic subjects and the Japanese as the villains, discussing Japanese exploitation of the Chinese through prostitution, forced labor, and senseless killings — topics that are still controversial in Japan today.
The second film, “Road to Eternity”, concerns Kaji’s experiences in the army. Immediately Nakadai does a fantastic job of conveying the interim development of his character through the shift in his bearing. (His use of physicality throughout all three films is remarkable.) Nakadai stands taller, his neck more rigid, and his attention is more focused and less desperate — Kaji is older, leaner, and tougher from his previous experience and knows he has to keep his nose down in order to survive and get back to Michiko. Nakadai would subsequently star in many of Kobayashi’s other films – most prominently Harakiri (Seppuku) and Samurai Rebellion (Jōi-uchi: Hairyō-tsuma shimatsu) — and his ability to make himself haggard and beaten while retaining a glimmer of optimism in his eyes made him the ideal hero for the director.
Though Kaji tries to stay disciplined, he soon gets embroiled in a similar series of moral dramas within the army as at the mine, primarily in trying to protect the nerdy weakling Obara (Kunie Tanaka) from army abuse and trying to prevent his friend Shinjo (Kei Sato) who, like Kaji, is under surveillance as a possible “Red”, from doing anything stupid. Kaji is more mature than before and takes on more leadership qualities, but his well-intentioned attempts to protect the downtrodden still get him and his men in trouble. But this section is more focused on examining the Japanese military system. In his Criterion commentary, Shinoda does a good job at examining how the first two films detail how Japanese masochism led to militarism, imperialism, and war crimes.
The second film ends with the only extending battle sequence of The Human Condition, where Kaji and a handful of men attempting to battle a column of Soviet tanks invading Manchuria. It is fantastically original in conception and execution. The men are hiding in small fox holes that fit one or two men. When the tanks initially arrive they shoot shells towards the fox holes but we cannot tell where they are or who is getting hit. Periodically the men pop their heads out of the holes like rabbits or attempt to run between holes to provide ammunition or take care of the wounded. The scene climaxes with the tanks rolling over the holes while Soviet foot soldiers pick off the survivors.
The second film ends the night after this battle when Kaji accidentally strangles one of his own soldiers when trying to keep him quiet while the Soviet troops still patrol the battlefield. He says, “I’m a monster. But I’m going to stay alive,” and staggers across the empty plain asking if anybody else is still alive. It’s a highly disturbing scene that signals the existential shift to the last film.
Kobayshi specialized in social message films and sometimes The Human Condition suffers from the weaknesses of the genre – speechifying, characters that represent themes and ideas instead of real people, and an overbearing melodramatic score. But the director contrasts his larger, more abstract instincts with a realism that focuses on complex character developments and interactions. Though Kaji sees himself as suffering and righteous – one soldier says, “You’re acting like some Zen priest” — we are clearly meant to see his many inconsistencies as a flawed hero. He is more Hamlet than Christ figure.
The third film, A Soldier’s Prayer, shows off Kobayashi’s strengths in creating a character and is the most nuanced and complicated portrayal of the war and the sufferings of the Japanese, Chinese, and Soviet military and civilian citizens. As Kaji’s hopes and prospects dwindle, the story gradually winnows down from the grand scale of the mining camp to the individual terror of Kaji struggling to survive day today. Kobayashi uses voice-over monologues conveying the characters’ thoughts to emphasize the interiority. Minor characters like anonymous Soviet guards are given a nuanced ranged in their propensity for violence and compassion according to their needs.
This final section covers Kaji’s wanderings after the battle with his remaining troops as they try to find a way out of Manchuria and back home. Eventually, he ends ups, ironically, as a mistreated POW in a Soviet work camp. Along the way, Kaji faces an endless series of indignities. He realizes that the Soviet and Chinese armies, who he thinks should be for the “people,” are actually no better than the Japanese. Overall he finds it increasingly hard to sustain what remains of his humanist beliefs. Towards the end he has the following dispirited conversation with his friend Tange (Taketoshi Naito):
Kaji: “Is that the universal solution to human dilemmas: ‘It can’t be helped’?
Tange: “History will correct that. Not you or me.”
Kobayashi concludes the final film with the barest thread of optimism as to the possibility of retaining one’s humanity in war.
The Human Condition is a remarkable achievement, but I would not recommend watching it in one sitting to recreate the marathon screenings in ‘60s Japan. It starts bad and gets worse and its parade of human atrocities proceeds at a drumbeat pace that can become numbing.
The Criterion set includes the original Japanese theatrical trailers and they are startling in how explicit they are in advertising the movie’s anti-Japanese and dark themes, one printing in bold words: “Is the human life nothing more than flower petals tossed on the waves?”
The trailers also emphasize the films’ epic scale: the three-years-in-the-making production, the astounding cinematography, and appearances by nearly every major Japanese movie and theater star in supporting roles. (This no doubt made it easier for the original audience to navigate the overwhelmingly large cast of characters.)
This strange mix of star-studded spectacle and brutal national cleansing is an odd one. I wish the Criterion set provided some more information and context about its creation and the original audience reaction. Did The Human Condition’s popularity rest on audience identification with Kaji? Did they feel crushed and helpless against the conformism of the Japanese military and industrial establishment?
Shinoda says that when Kobayashi made these films it was the “best time to accurately depict war”. I wonder what makes for these brief windows in time when societies allow themselves to examine their worst impulses. In keeping with the frustrating futility expressed by The Human Condition, one could point out that societies are usually most receptive to anti-war films when the wars are over and their message is essentially useless to those that suffered. Kobayashi’s epic is extraordinarily powerful in depicting Kaji’s anger and sorrow, his flailing inability within himself and due to those around him, to affect any real change.