The adjectival uses of the word “human” reveal an underlying contradiction at the heart of our existence. On the one hand, English usage would have it that a person is “merely human” and therefore susceptible to the inherent weaknesses of our animal nature. On the other hand, we might concern ourselves with the “human side of the equation”, by which we allude to the better angels of our nature—our supposedly characteristic predisposition to kindness and fair-dealing.
Thus, the adjective “human” alternately and equally refers to the noble and the ignoble, the charitable and the savage, the angelic and the monstrous. To be human is to be at least capable of the inhumane.
This is a quandary for any outlook that purports to stem from humanism. We tend to think of humanism in roughly two ways: the celebration of the noble aspects of humankind or the making of allowances for human weakness. Humanism, in this broad sense, is a concern for other human beings. Often, our concern gravitates toward an idealized view of humanity. Either we idealize the other beings we are considering, or we idealize our own behavior as befitting what a human being ought to do.
The difficult part of humanism, one might therefore think, stems from understanding and accepting how humans really are. Even ascertaining what makes one human, as opposed to this or that kind of person, is no simple task. What do we owe the other person in their capacity as a person?
This seems to be the central question that resonates throughout the brilliant trilogy of films directed by Masaki Kobayashi entitled The Human Condition, which was recently released in a beautiful new edition by Criterion Collection. The trilogy, based on the six-volume novel by Junpei Gomikawa, includes No Greater Love (1959), Road to Eternity (1959), and A Soldier’s Prayer (1961). The films chart the progress of a young idealist, Kaji (rendered in a stunning and wide-ranging performance by Tatsuya Nakadai), during World War II.
Kaji is a pacifist with leanings toward socialism. Most importantly, he considers himself a humanist with an abiding moral sensibility that cannot be corrupted by circumstance or the horrors of war. This doesn’t make Kaji a pure innocent, nor does it make him an incarnation of an angel. Kaji is imperious, overly self-assured, and even cruel on occasion. And yet, we identify with Kaji because he is so insistent on trying to do the right thing, even though what he regards as the right thing is in stark contradiction to the conduct expected during wartime.
As No Greater Love opens, Kaji resists being drawn into a war that strikes him as pointless barbarity. The opening scene is framed by an archway that Kaji and his sweetheart Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) pass through as they walk away from a marching file of Japanese soldiers. The soldiers march away, leaving him defiantly behind. Indeed, framed by that archway in that manner during a snowstorm, they seem almost unreal. But their presence haunts Kaji’s relationship with Michiko and his standing in Japanese society. Michiko accuses him of running away—she means running from her and from marriage. But he is running from so much more. He cannot, however, run for long. The war draws him in while he endeavors to resist.
Kaji, throughout the films, laments the fact that he must choose how to live within the context of his being a Japanese citizen during war. As he puts it much later, “I can’t help being Japanese” and yet he is ashamed of his citizenry—not for the sake of being Japanese per se, but rather because, for him, being Japanese at that point in time means being complicit with the conduct of what he regards as a savage war. Each choice he makes, and many of those choices are consciously designed to ameliorate the situations in which he finds himself, only further entangles him in guilt for the consequences of a war he despises.
Kaji, at the beginning of the trilogy, works in a research department at the South Manchuria Steel Company. He has been researching ways to encourage productivity in the mines while not abusing the local colonized Manchurian miners. Kaji summarizes his work with a simple dictum: “Men should be treated as men.” But, he contends, doing so in a colonial situation, where the labor is enforced rather than voluntary, is…his supervisor supplies the euphemism, “difficult”.
His supervisor suggests that Kaji’s understanding is all well and good on a theoretical level but wonders whether it can be practically implemented. Simply put, can you treat “men as men” when they are enslaved or imprisoned? He offers Kaji a job overseeing the labor at a Manchurian mining camp; the job comes with an exemption from military duty.
The offer creates its own set of problems. On the one hand, he is granted exemption from the war and can marry Michiko without worrying that she will be a war widow. On the other hand, the mine is an extension of Japanese military power over people of another nation. By employing forced labor, the mining camp is just another iteration of the dehumanizing efforts at controlling others.
He takes the job in hopes of implementing his ideals, of treating the Chinese labor force with as much dignity as possible. Of course, the other administrators of the mine resent his efforts. Not only are they accustomed to eking out a bit more work from abusing their workers to meet quotas, but they have also grown accustomed to the colonialist logic that the subordinated are not truly human, or at least not as human as the colonists (whatever that might mean).
In essence, Kaji subscribes to some form of “natural right”; that is, the notion that all human beings are owed certain rights just by virtue of their status as human. It’s a familiar idea, of course, and many of us might take it for granted as being the case. But natural right is exceedingly hard to comprehend as soon as one proceeds to any practical implementation of it (just as the supervisor suggested to Kaji).
We might rightly insist that natural right is how we ought to understand our relation to each other as human beings. Of course, it is considered impossible by many (following from the philosophy of David Hume) to derive an “ought” from an “is”—meaning just because something is a certain way doesn’t mean it ought to be that way. Certainly, Kaji would agree with this: he recognizes the dehumanizing absurdity that resides at the heart of the logics of colonialism and war.
It is, however, equally difficult to realize an “is” from an “ought”. As Kaji learns, even if one is utterly convinced that natural right is reasonable and even if Kaji convinces some of his coworkers of this, insisting on humane treatment of the colonized achieves relatively meager results.