It’s entirely fitting that throughout The Human Condition, Masaki Kobayashi’s epic three-part adaptation of an equally expansive novel by Junpei Gomikawa that was recently released on Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection, the filmmaker returns to the image of groups of people slowly slogging their way up a hill or mountain. The Sisyphean implications are clear: life is a constant ascent that never allows any climber to reach a peak or plateau.
It’s a thoroughly bleak sentiment but one that serves as a powerful allegory for a country that, even in 1959 when the first installment of the trilogy was released, was still slowly crawling out of the rubble and chaos of World War II. Or, at least, had yet to fully emerge from the shadows of that conflict.
The gloom of that period shades this multi-tiered story of Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai). In the first film, subtitled No Greater Love, he manages to escape his conscription by agreeing to take over labor-management at a mining operation in Manchuria. Kaji’s intentions are both selfless and selfish. He doesn’t want to go to the frontlines but he is also hoping to improve working conditions for the Chinese laborers and POWs at the mine.
Inexorably, Kaji is drawn into conflict. He battles with the old guard managers of the mine desperate to turn a profit, and the military police that want to continue to crush the spirit and bodies of the prisoners. Kaji’s unwillingness to bend to their will eventually lands him in the thick of the final months of WWII. The final two films in Kobayashi’s trilogy—1959’s Road to Eternity and 1961’s A Soldier’s Prayer—follow him through basic training, the battlefield, and beyond.
In a supplemental interview on this Criterion release, fellow filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda (Double Suicide, Pale Flower) reminds viewers that, at the time, few other directors in Japan were making films on the scale of The Human Condition. Those that did usually involved radioactive lizards crushing cities. The tendency for most directors in the country was to focus on small stories and intimate relationships.
The Human Condition may have one central character to home in on and tender moments in the scenes between Kaji and his doting wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), but the scope of the story goes well beyond. Kobayashi and co-screenwriters Zenzo Matsuyama and Koichi Inagaki call into question capitalism, industrialism, the immorality of war, and a lack of empathy spreading among the men in their home country.
Throughout, small moments of mercy arise: an almost quaint love affair between one of the POWs at the mine and a comfort girl paid to service these men; a conjugal visit for Kaji and Michiko during boot camp; group of soldiers feasting upon a pig at an abandoned farm. They are the brief seconds of relief before the stone tumbles back down the hill.
The films are punctuated by some stunning sequences. In No Greater Love, a group of Chinese POWs, starving and wild-eyed after a long train ride, attack the wagon carrying food for them. With the quick edits and unsettling performances by the extras, the scene quickly becomes as terrifying as a zombie attack. Toward the end of Road to Eternity, Kaji is thrown into the thick of the war as his squad faces down a tank corps. It’s one of the most thrilling battles committed to film, in no small part due to the removal of any good guy/bad guy dynamics and a fuller understanding of what is at stake for these young men.
It’s in the final act of this engrossing, breathtaking journey that Kobayashi makes his deepest impact. Kaji is alone and desperately trying to find some way back to his wife. The camera closes in on Nakadai’s face and his wide eyes as he scrabbles for food and shelter and, most of all, some shred of humanity.
We can’t look away nor avoid his growing mania and his complete loss of self-control and dignity. We are all of us standing alongside Kaji, eternally muscling that boulder ever upward.