Masaki Kobayashi’s monolithic trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-61) is a legend in cinema history. Based off of the six part novel by Junpei Gomikawa (which has never been translated into English, fun fact), the 9 hour trilogy is an epic chronicle of one pacifist’s journey through the last years of Japan’s involvement of WWII and its defeat, while exploring and navigating the brutal heart of darkness of the governing systems of imperialism and aggression, alongside its often vicious and intolerant perpetrators. Seen through the eyes of Tatsuya Nakadai who plays Kaji, we take an ardently non-conformist journey through Japan’s savage heart.
Using the recently re-released Arrow Films version (found here) I will be detailing the experience of the 9 hour epic in three parts. Each film is divided according to its Japanese version into two parts, making for six parts in total, the names of which title the entry.
No Greater Love (Ningen No Joken I in Japan) is the first experience and introduction into the world which Kaji inhabits. And Kaji is onscreen for almost 90% of the film’s running time, anchoring us in place around the constant swirling cast of characters which move alongside him. Given a chance to be exempt from military service, Kaji and his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) move to a mining camp in Manchuria to govern the labour management, who Kaji believes are being ill-treated and thus causing low productivity.
Not just that, but it becomes Kaji’s battleground as he fights an ideological war on how human beings should be treated. For the first in a war epic, there’s little to no experience of anything you might see as traditional warfare. Instead Kaji takes on the welfare of Chinese POW’s against tyranny, corruption, fervent nationalism, hostility from the POW’s and the snakes in the grass which threaten to take him down. Make no mistake, in entering any part of The Human Condition, you are entering a world of moral and ethical conflict.
Kobayashi’s technical work on display here is very simple, very clear. Strong, multilayered deep focus compositions abound throughout the entire film. The film stages its action very classically, but by doing so keeps everything in focus, making sure not to drive the film into Kaji alone. The film follows Kaji, but Kaji spends little time on anything else beyond the welfare and the warfare of his friends (who could be enemies) and his enemies (who are enemies). Because so much of the action takes place through different depth planes, shots seem to breathe and the editing of the film is set to a slow pulsing rhythm which only rarely feels at times it drags. Of course, to the hyper sensitive, hyper frenetic editing paces of today’s visual media, the film will naturally feel slow.
But its slowness allows time to ponder and reflect on the events unfolding. So too does its sparse, austere sound. Technological limitations of its time mean audio tracks were mixed in mono sound, with the third and last film being the first in Japan to release with a stereo sound mix. Technological details aside however, the film is constantly quiet. Dialogue fills the space and the sound of brutal thuds and slaps on flesh recur, and the musical score reveals its melancholy tone, or allows for a few fleeting seconds of joy to burst through the screen. Mostly though its sound is devoid of distraction, which keeps the film more “pure” if you would like. The clatter and din of reality may be absent, but then this isn’t a documentary.
Kaji’s clash with the forces of reality is incredibly prevalent however, as the film chains us to him as we watch his ideas meet the muddy and soiled nature of real men and women against his unbreakable spirit. His unwillingness to compromise continually places him in danger, aggravates his situation, allows him to be played and fooled by those willing to exploit his desire to protect others from harm. You could imagine how this might get repetitive after 2 out of its 3 hours, but Kobayashi mines the source material (how much, if any was written purely for the film I cannot say) and brings to life not only engaging subplots, which explore ideas that can’t be expressed through Kaji, such as the story of the prostitute (comfort-girl) who falls in love with a hardliner idealist POW whose story becomes a symbol of both manipulation by shrewd higher-ups and love blossoming in the unlikeliest of circumstances.
Not only that, but the subplots also produce enough variance while being able to continually hammer away at the same bitter theme; the suffering encountered in being human. Like the encroaching tide, each wave which approaches Kaji is both the same and completely different, and all of it washes over him. It’s a profoundly existential film, or maybe that’s just my reading of it, but I found it awash and brimming with that continual torment of being alive, the incessant negotiations of a landscape of people who are often indifferent or hostile to your concerns. Watching a particularly naive and fresh-faced Kaji endure biting pain is a testament to the resilience of any of those who have suffered under similar chains. The rule of those who are unkind, brutal, sadistic or perhaps just plain incompetent and inefficient. The conflict that rips Kaji apart (driving him to near death) is those that care more about the word of law and how to apply it/circumvent it and the spirit of the law.
Resilience seems to be the key theme, at least in No Greater Love. Each character is profoundly resilient, both the good and the wicked. They care greatly about survival, but like Kaji, not all of them care about themselves. Kaji’s survival is a spiritual one, of trying to retain his humanity in the face of increasingly difficult and inhumane conditions. Michiko tries to retain her husband’s survival along with her survival of her self, as forces Kaji to stop being blind to her. Kao (Shinji Nanbara) and Wang Hen Li (Seiji Miyaguchi) (names are akin to the ones presented in the Arrow version) represent the strain for survival under the net of imprisonment. The Kenpeitai (Japanese military police) enforce the survival of strict miltary discipline and imperial honour, at the expense of anything else. While other characters may be driven by more base motives, they are no caricature villains in this. Just the ugly, dark natures involved in existence.
Despite all this, the reason for its power lies in its ability to stay true to the world. The world is not unrelenting in its pain. Even if it’s only fragments, moments snatched away from the jaws of darkness, there are powerful moments of joy and of triumph. A river ebbs and flows, and even the darkest world needs a little bit of light to illuminate it. Kaji exists like a candle in the black and white frame, almost glowing at times with determination and resistance in the face of physically and spiritually overwhelming odds. Of course it is bleak, but the bleakness of the world motivates Kaji into being, drives him to near obliteration to stand up and do what is right. Perhaps its bleakness lies in the fact that we know it to be so true, but that should never be the end of the story.
For people like Kaji, it’s only the beginning. And even though he may be a fiction, an idea and an ideal, having a star to look up to is a refreshing change of pace from wallowing in the mud.
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