The Human Condition (3/3) – Escaping Death/Wandering in the Wilderness

the-human-condition-film-poster

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.

Kaji

-Alex

Advertisements
The Human Condition (3/3) – Escaping Death/Wandering in the Wilderness

The War of Knowledge/The Knowledge of War: Embrace of the Serpent

7415547_embrace-of-the-serpent-2015-movie-trailer_t6a51c179

“Embrace of the Serpent is a mesmerizing feat of cinema. Guerra had me at frame one.”

-kogonada, Sight and Sound Magazine

It has been two days since I watched Embrace of the Serpent. I read a review of it in today’s newspaper, The Times (UK) film section, where they used the word “preachy” and awarded the film 3/5 stars. Arbitrary numbers out of numbers aside, I am fixated on this description of the film. The term preachy carries some very negative connotations with it, patronizing, condescending, essentially having someone openly and authoritatively explain things to you, without treating you as an independent free-thinker, but rather as a blinded fool who hasn’t seen the light.

Or maybe it doesn’t, maybe preaching is the act of teaching convinced by belief. The nature of preaching is up for discussion. The aching soul of Embrace Of The Serpent is not.

In its original tongue, El Abrazo de la Serpente is a story about the Amazonian orphan/outcast/shaman Karamakate, as he encounters two explorers 40 years apart, whose separate journeys intertwine and weave together along the winding river and maddening jungle world they inhabit. It’s also a densely textured work which questions the morality and ethics which drove the interactions between the invading colonial ‘whites’ and the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon. I use its original name, due to the film’s highly placed importance on language as being one of the key frontiers on which battles of culture and knowledge can be fought on ( the list of languages found in the film can be noted as such; Cubeo, Huitoto, Ticuna ,Wanano, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin and English).

The phenomena of the jungle landscape has been a partial obsession throughout cinema history, both Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola saw something beyond comprehension and utterly compelling there,  and they conveyed that through their films, Herzog with Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), Coppola with his opus Apocalypse Now (1979). As has been reiterated many times in the promotional interviews for this film however, the difference lies in the central viewpoint being that of the native, rather than the ‘civilised’ explorer descending into an exoticised portrait of  savage jungle life. Possessing incredible nuance gives it the ability to shift in and out of multiple viewpoints however, and imagining the film as a one-sided defense against the evil invading white people is a view which is only briefly held onto, by Karamakate himself.

Honestly I’m scratching my head talking about this, because I feel woefully unprepared to do so. I’ve managed to coast by on some earlier films, simply just winging it and talking about whatever I could conjure up. Here however, I’m confronted with a profound lack of sharpened tools to deal with such a work of poignant human exploration.  Scattershot seems to be my current approach.

The title of this piece came to me mid-way through the film, so I’ll try to investigate this. The film on its spiritual journey comes into a series of isolated conflicts. One particular conflict lies in a brief stay at a tribe, as a young Karamakate is taking  Theodor Von Martius, a sickly German explorer, to find the sacred yakruna plant which supposedly can cure him. Theodor spends good time in their company, taking advantage of their hospitality. He then shows the chief his compass, a device not encountered since their system of navigation relies on the position of the stars. When they go to leave the next morning, Theodor realises he does not possess his compass, and believes some children have stolen it. He pleads for it back, then demands, them grabs one of them. The exchange escalates as the chief reveals he has kept it, and refuses to return it, offering items in exchange. Theodor, hopeless and wounded, returns to his boat to leave. Karamakate chastises him for being ‘nothing but a white’. Theodor explains (paraphrasing) ‘that if they possess knowledge of the compass, their system of navigation will be lost, it must be preserved’ and I found myself shamefully agreeing with this in knee-jerk reaction, without thinking twice about it, because Karamakate replies ‘you cannot forbid them to learn, knowledge belongs to all men’.

That line induced a partial devastating effect on me, because it possesses such a high truth value. Theodor is happy to take advantage of them, but from a position of privilege and looking downwards on them, because the moment they try to steal the fire of the gods, in a Promethean act, he rationalises how dangerous it would be to let them learn, at the expense of preserving them like figures in a glass bottle. And it does open up that sphere of thought, because where does the act of preservation end and repression begin? Arthur C. Clarke, the great science fiction writer wrote ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ so is it right to even expose people without the historical insight the West gained from building these advances step by step, to a tribe which has no historical context to justify it? The point is not whether or not I can find an exact answer to each question, but to lay bare the ideological forces at work, colliding with each other.

This all sounds very heady and mystical, and as a result can feel very isolating to those who haven’t experienced it or had the same connection. But that battle is fought in the film as well, the battle of how willing you must be to surrender yourself to unknown forces. Caapi, a hallucinogenic drink in the film, is used to cross the boundaries of those who want to speak to the jungle, to the gods, to the primal spirits supposedly outside of ourselves. And Karamakate fights this battle in two fronts, in two different histories, in two different explorers who are spiritually linked. Both cannot dream, cannot properly transcend or surrender themselves. To what? Karamakate thinks its to the jungle itself. Theodor does not dream at all, and Karamakate eventually condemns him for it, before realising that he has to teach ‘the white’, embodied in the 1940s as Evan, an ethnobotanist, how to properly transcend and become a Coihauno, a member of Karamakate’s dead tribe and a warrior. But by doing this, he addresses us as well, Karamakate calling us to be a part of this, to understand the language of the jungle beyond anything we can imagine.

Reading that back it’s almost incomprehensible.

Another portion exists in a spanish missionary, where the kids have been taken in after rubber barons destroyed their homes. The father is a callous zealot, who persecutes the kids if they even speak their language, and are forced to speak Spanish or Latin. The troupe in the 1900s come by, and Karamakate, knowing its a sinful transgression in the eyes of the christian faith shows a few of the children some of his ‘pagan’ knowledge of the old ways. This leads to the kids being whipped hideously, before Theodor’s travelling partner assaults the padre, possibly killing him and they are forced to leave, liberating the children while the rest stay, torches burning.

Fast forward 40 years, and Karamakate returns with Evan, only to find the harvest he tried to sow, a perverse cult where one of boys has become the Messiah in this madness ridden Eden. Our troupe from the 1940s are believed to be ‘The Wise Men From The East’, and are forced to help the incurable wife of Jesus, a young girl suffering from an ailment I cannot recall the name of, but looks hideous. Eventually the madness ends with Karamakate crushing a potent plant into the drink of celebration, and the insanity that ensues leaves our Messiah being consumed by his followers as they “Eat the body of Christ!”.

The Latin is delivered wrong, because no one knows how to pronounce it correctly. The signs and symbols of their mutated Christianity and mutated ‘jungle knowledge’ (for lack of a better term) are summed up as Karamakate, lying on his bed in a state of loss, mourns “They are the worst of both worlds.” Even when trying to win their battles, the ravaging of time and the human instinct to misinterpret is ever-present.

————————————————————————-

I’m reminded of a sect of Islam known as Sufism, known primarily for its strong mystical slant. Over at this website they explain the ideas behind Sufism, but also the ideas which are the backbone of any mysticism;

“Sufism is a school for the actualization of divine ethics. It involves an enlightened inner being, not intellectual proof; revelation and witnessing, not logic. By divine ethics, we are referring to ethics that transcend mere social convention, a way of being that is the actualization of the attributes of God.

To explain the Truth is indeed a difficult task. Words, being limited, can never really express the perfection of the Absolute, the Unbound. Thus, for those who are imperfect, words create doubt and misunderstanding. Yet:

If one cannot drink up the entire ocean,
     one can drink to one’s limit.

Philosophers have written volumes and spoken endlessly of the Truth, but somehow their efforts have always fallen short. For the sufi, philosophers are those who view the Perfection of the Absolute from a limited perspective; so all they see is part of the Absolute, not the Infinite in its entirety. It is indeed true that what philosophers see is correct; nevertheless, it is only a part of the whole.”

A large part of Sufism is devoted to discussing your experiences of transcendence. Since you can never truly be part of the One/the Truth, the best that can be done is discussing the transcendent glimpses you can grasp onto, the scraps, and sharing them with anyone else who might have encountered the same thing. Which really seems the best way to talk about this film, because a straight analysis of it just doesn’t give much out.

MPW-75498

I mean this is the thing, every time I try to write about what is going on in this film, I find my words to be like sand running through my fingers. It’s so hard to even convey just what exactly happens, and I think that marks a thumbprint of true experiential filmmaking. It literally needs to be seen to be understood, and even when its seen, one can only glimpse the truth its trying to express. It’s Plato’s “Metaphor of the Cave” at its highest form, because even when we stare at the sun, at the truth, we’re only glimpsing the highest truth, never being one with it.

One thing I can compare it to is Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Embrace of the Serpent even comes equipped with its own ‘Stargate’ sequence, though it’s expressed differently.But both films must be seen to be believed first, and then must be infinitely explored to even try to understand them. And whether we do fully understand them or not (which we won’t) is irrelevant, what’s relevant is the embrace of the powerful images, the symbolism imbued in them, and the thought they provoke in us.

I mean I haven’t even talked about embracing or serpents yet. Well if you’re followed me this far, there’s one more sequence I’d like to discuss in the film. Karamakate explains when he first drinks caapi, that a boa constrictor spoke to him, and told him to kill Theodor. A jaguar told him to protect Theodor. The anaconda, the snake descended from heaven and gave birth to the world. The jaguar is the symbol of the Coihauno. Later in the film, a jaguar watches a boa constrictor. It bares its teeth, and approaches slowly. The serpent hisses. The jaguar strikes, killing the snake and holding it in its jaws. By the end of the film, the white man finally has encountered the spirit of the jungle, even though he came to exploit it, through Karamakate.

My question is this (the same one I asked at the end of 2001);

“What does this all mean?”

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here.

The War of Knowledge/The Knowledge of War: Embrace of the Serpent