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.
A final reckoning with death is everyone’s last stop. The infinite paths of life can take you in almost every direction, in any combination, with everything in between ready to distract and re-direct you. But no matter how complex or confusing your path may be, you and everyone and everything around you will inevitably weave your way towards the same point. Whether something comes beyond it, whether you run from it and try to circumvent it, whether you walk willing into its arms or if you’re taken there by a cruel twist of fate is all part of your games with life. But you will always arrive at that door. And it will always open. And you will always have to go through it.
A.O Scott said in his 2008 review that “Kobayashi’s monumental film [referring to the whole series] can clarify and enrich your understanding of what it is to be alive.” Kaji (like all of us) is fated to die. And as he reaches that point, as his soul is stripped bare for a 9 hour and 47 minute celluloid odyssey, I really did gain some clarity in what it means to be alive, or at the very least, I managed to see the flames which drive us onward in the dark of night.
A Soldier’s Prayer (1961, Dir. Masaki Kobayashi) is the final installment in The Human Condition/Ningen No Joken. In film history, often the last film in a series has usually faltered in quality in comparison with the first or second installment. Regardless of your opinion of The Godfather Part III (1990, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola), it is a laughable challenge to make a case for it being a better film than The Godfather (1972, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Spiderman 3 (2007, Dir. Sam Raimi) may be a dream or a nightmare in your eyes, but it is tough to argue its a better made film than the first one, Spiderman (2002, Dir. Sam Raimi). That is not the case with A Soldier’s Prayer, this in my eyes is easily the most intense and well crafted of the three, if only because it builds on the already well established expertise and foundations of the first two.
It does this in two ways. The style of the film evolves in this part, most prominently in Yoshio Miyajima’s cinematography, which morphs from its stark realism into these hallucinogenic dutch angles, as characters traverse the increasingly feral landscapes, with increasingly feral desperation. The first episode in the film is one of its most harrowing, as Kaji leads a group of refugees and defeated soldiers through a seemly endless forest, food dwindling, tensions fraying and people dying. As they wander the terrain, the camera’s impact increase tenfold as it becomes disoriented, falling off its axis and looking at its subjects in increasingly strange angles. They begin to brush with death from sheer exhaustion, and even the camera struggles to stand. The cinematography is still just as exquisitely precise, but after two films of realist looking, the switch is powerful.
The soundtrack slowly begins to segue into a more nebulous world as well. Not only does the work of the composer Chûji Kinoshita grow increasingly intense and overwhelming when it is used, but Kaji engages in a series of internal monologues and visions of his imagination, mainly to do with his primal goal driving him home of his devotion to his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama). Beyond the sound, the lighting of the film becomes far more impressionistic and influenced by techniques of chiaroscuro, as Kaji’s battle and his character become increasingly darker. This is a far cry from the fresh-faced Kaji who came to improve labour conditions in the prisoner’s work camp, in No Greater Love, and the technical choices of the film are incredibly well orchestrated to reflect that, right up until its final seconds.
Meanwhile, as I’ve been hinting at, Kaji’s trajectory continues on one of the cruelest downward spirals ever committed to celluloid. True there are many stories of suffering, of characters inhabiting worlds somehow even uglier than the one Kaji lives in, but watching every step of Kaji as he is laid low by the world around him, as the half dreams of the socialist republic are destroyed piece by piece when Kaji finds his role reversed, now a prisoner in a war camp rather than managing the prisoners. Every act of his rebellion, resistance to the ugly and vicious world surrounding him, is betrayed the moment he turns his back. His pain lies not just in that people can’t be as good as him, but that people are so indifferent to the concept of good at all. Kaji reckons with the realisation that only the strong survive, but the cost they pay is one he can hardly bear.
When I spoke on part two, Road to Eternity, I talked about Kaji reaching his breaking point to survive. Here however, Kaji breaks well and truly because his pacifism shatters into an act of furious vengeance, rehabilitation giving way to the bursting dams of retribution. Kaji furiously beats a man to death with his own prisoner’s chains, before leaving him to drown in the latrines, a man responsible for the purposeful death of Kaji’s friend and surrogate son, Terada. Kaji becomes unbearably human as the weight of the injustices he had to endure forces him to snap, he can no longer turn the other cheek to the violence he has suffered through. It’s both intensely cathartic and deeply sad.
The film expands even further beyond Kaji here, as he encounters figures beyond his immediate surroundings. Refugees fleeing the fighting are cut from all cloths, and their wounds bleed too. In this existential world, there are no heroes and villains, only humans who are capable of both. This reaches its crisis when Kaji and his soldiers enter a town made up almost exclusively by soldier’s wives. In what many would simplistically as a detour into a fantasy harem, Kaji understands the morbid revelations told to him by one of the more outspoken wives, as oaths of fidelity and marriage are broken against the terror of the abandonment the women suffer. The conflicting ideals and desires and fears are the stuff of humanity, and the film’s scope is enriched more so than the previous installments simply due to the range and variety of people encountered.
A Soldier’s Prayer really is a reckoning. A reckoning with death yes, but also with every theme and instance of suffering Kaji and the audience endured. Due to the novel’s and film’s immense popularity, it’s said that Kobayashi received letters reportedly begging him to give Kaji a happy ending. What really cuts through this, is not the fact the letter was written, but where the letter came from, a sense of profound empathy and a desperate hope to allow Kaji some grace, some respite from his sufferings. And Kobayashi’s unwillingness to compromise is reflected in Kaji’s unwillingness to give up, right up until his last breath. What it cleared up for me then (in being alive), was the reckoning that life contains many sufferings with only glimmering moments of relief snatched from its jaws, no matter who you are. You may never win, but resistance is not futile. For all of Kaji’s trials, what makes them worthy is his ability to inspire, not through physical violence or shrewd trickery, but by sheer force of will.
Even if Kaji is just a fictional construct, a character in a story that was put together in the head of another man, who’s played by an actor (with legendary eyes) it doesn’t matter. Kaji is an idea. And you can’t kill an idea. It will just wander in the wilderness until its rediscovered. Go rediscover it.