Kobayashi: The Human Condition
Tatsuya Nakadai in The Human Condition trilogy (courtesy of Criterion)

The Humanist Dilemma in Kobayashi’s ‘The Human Condition’

Kobayashi’s The Human Condition demonstrates the impossibility of realizing the ideals of humanism.

The Human Condition
Masaki Kobayashi
Criterion Collection
8 June 2021

The Monster’s Evolution

As Kaji tries to demonstrate that his methods are having a positive impact on the output of the mine, the Kenpeitai (the Japanese military police) arrive with Chinese prisoners of war that they want stationed at the mine under Kaji’s supervision. He balks. The mine is not equipped, he argues, to function as a prisoner of war camp. He is overruled.

Kaji attempts to forge a relationship with the POWs based on mutual respect but the asymmetrical nature of his relationship with the imprisoned makes that nearly impossible. This follows from the logic of war. A nation defines itself in contradistinction to others and therefore establishes a distinction between citizen and foreigner. The citizen is accorded rights (including perhaps natural right) that can (sometimes, as in war, must) be denied to foreigners. What might be legitimately accorded as a right to a foreigner in an unbiased objective sense must be denied that foreigner based on enmity. War requires the setting aside of natural right.

The POWs, as is generally the case with POWs, are set upon attempting escape. They can’t help but see Kaji, despite what they regard as his disingenuous kindnesses, as the enemy. And because their escape attempts make it harder for him to convince the head of the camp to allow Kaji to continue pursuing his reforms, he can’t help but regard the POWs as rebellious and unreasonable. Of course, it is the logic of war that puts them in the position of being unreasonable. From the logic of the oppressor, the attempt to escape is disruptive of order. In his attempts to instill order (even through his humanistic approach), Kaji finds himself on the side of oppression. 

Until he can stand it no longer. When a group of POWs are caught in an escape attempt and are executed through beheading, Kaji attempts to intervene. He is tortured and sent to the front.

Road to Eternity finds Kaji as a private in the Kwantung Army. Because he is suspected of harboring socialist sentiments, he is abused and overworked. His sense of discipline and his marksmanship, however, bring him to the attention of his commander, who believes he will prove himself to be a superlative soldier despite his misgivings.

Once again, Kaji finds himself protecting the downtrodden, this time in the form of Obara (Kunie Tanaka), a near-sighted and clumsy recruit who becomes the whipping post for the veterans. The abuse leads Obara to suicide and Kaji is frustrated in his attempts (bordering on insubordination) to bring the ringleader of the veterans, PFC Yoshida (Michiro Minami) to justice. 

Nonetheless, Kaji’s perseverance impresses Second Lieutenant Kageyama (Keiji Sada), who knew Kaji from his days at in the research division. Kageyama wants to promote Kaji and put him in charge of a group of recruits. Kaji agrees on the condition that his recruits be kept apart from the abusive veterans. Instead, Kaji himself endures beatings and humiliation at the hands of the veterans.

Once again, Kaji attempts to ensure the dignity of others by sacrificing himself—as he had done at the mining camp and as he had done after Obara’s suicide. And once again, his efforts are compromised. The Soviets attack while Kaji and his team are on trench digging duty and many of his men are decimated. Worst of all, Kaji is forced to strangle one of his men to death to avoid detection by Soviet troops. “I’m a monster,” he screams, “but I’m still alive.”

The final film, A Soldier’s Prayer, charts a reverse trajectory for Kaji. As he attempts to escape the war with a few remaining soldiers and some local refugees, he is forced to flee Russian soldiers, avoid starvation and poisoning with the refugees, hide from Chinese peasants seeking to kill them, and deal with the contempt of a Japanese Army commander that regards Kaji as a deserter. He is eventually captured by the Soviets and placed in a POW camp.

The film doesn’t shy away from its central conviction that natural right is an ideal that is impossible to realize in the context of national struggle and war. Even to acknowledge the possibility of natural right requires a disidentification with one’s nation. All insight into natural right requires the willingness to disengage from the rule of authority because natural right insists that justice is beyond law and beyond convention.

However, living in a civil society requires tempering insight into natural right to come into accord with public sentiment. Kaji can’t reconcile his ideals, his humanism, with the reality of circumstances; he can’t reconcile the is and the ought.

The Criterion Collection recently released a gorgeous new edition of The Human Condition, directed by Masaki Kobayashi. The extras include an interview with the director from 1993, an interview with actor Tatsuya Nakadai from 2009, and an appreciation of Kobayashi from 2009. The film is a truly stunning achievement and will easily repay the time invested (roughly 9 ½ hours for the full trilogy).