Sunday, July 18, 2010

And now for something completely different--"The Human Condition"

I was alerted to this movie by YTSL's excellent review here and suggest that it is an excellent starting place to understand The Human Condition, particularly since she has already done most of the heavy lifting of summary and explication much more clearly than I could.

The Human Condition, the masterful three part indictment of war by Masaki Kobayashi, is an extraordinary work of art. It centers on the Kaji, a young engineer with the idea that treating workers more humanely will make them more productive. He is sent to a mine in occupied Manchuria to test his theories and because his bosses will be more comfortable without his vaguely left-wing theories. The workers he encounters are little better than slaves--some are prisoners of war, others are Chinese citizens who have been rounded up by the Japanese army while the remainder seem to be mine employees who are simply stuck at the site, living in dormitories, eating at communal dining halls and being serviced by prostitutes coerced or employed by the mining company. Since men are plentiful and their labor cheap or free the company doesn't need machines or even many draft animals. This is extractive industrial production at its mid-20th century most basic. They dig ore out of the ground with hand tools and Kaji, who will work until he drops to ease the burden of the men under his control can do little to change things.

No Greater Love is the first movie in the trilogy. It centers around Kaji's attempts to ameliorate the conditions under which a group of Chinese citizens work, men who are kept behind barbed wire, isolated from the rest of the workers and the target of the most brutal guards. Kaji is unsuccessful in either convincing them to cooperate with him or to ease the conditions under which they are held. The Chinese aren't interested in a better deal while serving as captive labor for the army which has occupied their country; they are being held illegally and want their freedom. The Japanese are only interested in hitting production goals; they need a servile and desperate workforce to do so. With no common ground between them Kaji's task is hopeless although he never stops trying.

This is a major weakness in The Human Condition, perhaps its only real weakness. Kaji acts like a man with no understanding of evil or even how other men might think. In western terms (which is all I have) it is as if a Dostoyevskian hero wandered into a novel by Tolstoy, Prince Myshkin saddling up to fight Napoleon at Borodino. Not that Kaji moves in an epileptic fog or is unaware of what is happening around him but his combination of a "beautiful nature" with an obsession with saving people but without the means to do so is very Myshkin-like. Kaji refuses to see that he, the mine and the men working there are part of a war machine and that his only possible role is to serve that machine by making the mine work better. He winds up with no allies, no way of changing anything and is ultimately responsible for the deaths of scores of men and women in the camp.

Road to Eternity, the second part of the trilogy, opens with Kaji in basic infantry training. While an executive at the labor camp he was exempt from military service but now faces the brutality and hopelessness of a group of recruits drafted into the army during the last, losing days of a twelve year war. He is an outstanding soldier, excelling in the two competencies most important to an infantryman: marching and shooting. His efforts to help are now much more personal than at the mine, dragging a failing comrade to the end of a forced march, trying to show another the basics of firing a rifle on the range.

Word of his left-wing humanitarianism has preceded Kaji and his is feared by some of the men, despised by others and admired by those closest to him. Those men are the lucky ones. When the exhausted Japanese remnants of the army dig in to face the inexorable advance of a Soviet armored unit it is his courage, tenacity and leadership that keeps a few of them together, safe (for now) to either fight another day or get home to Japan. The battle itself from the point of view of the Japanese, is a light infantryman's worst nightmare: looking across an unobstructed plain at enemy tanks moving in a disciplined formation toward them. The remainder of their lives will be measured in minutes.

The carnage at the end of Road to Eternity brings to a close a movement from complexity to simplicity that started at the beginning of No Greater Love. Initially Kaji had to deal with the army, the mine owners, the military police and the representatives of the captive Chinese. He had to figure out how to placate those around him while trying to shield his men, particularly the Chinese, from the worst maltreatment. By its end he had been defeated and was on his way to the army. The beginning of the second film saw him once again with enemies but they were much closer at hand--in the same barracks--and their savagery is out front and easy to see. The veteran soldiers don't understand Kaji but they do know that he is different from them and from his fellow trainees. Their first and generally only response is to strike out at and destroy anything that they don't understand.

By the end of the Road to Eternity the conflict is as clear as can be: the men in the tanks are Russians who are want to kill you. You want to keep them from doing it.

If Tatsuya Nakadai never stood in front of a camera other than for The Human Condition he would still be considered a great actor. It seems as if he is always onscreen, almost in every frame. He is handsome, has very expressive eyes and the screen presence of a movie star while still able to inhabit Kaji and make us forget we are watching an actor depict a role. Kobayashi must have trusted him completely to build this entire film edifice around him.

The first two parts of the trilogy are one cinematic showpiece after another. While in debt to no one, Kobayashi has shots and scenes that are reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein--more Ivan the Terrible than Alexander Nevsky or Battleship Potemkim and German Expressionism, just to name a couple that were easy to recognize. His sense of timing and editing is impeccable. No Greater Love, at over three and one half hours, could not have been paced any better. Every scene and it seemed ever shot was exactly as long as it should have been. The camera didn't linger over the atrocities it recorded but didn't cut away from them a second too soon.

That wasn't the case in A Soldier's Prayer. It seemed a lot longer than either of the parts that came before it. It was very exciting at the beginning, real "edge of your seat" stuff as you wondered whether the ragtag band of soldiers and Japanese civilians they picked up along the way would make it out of the forest before they starved or killed each other. But then it became repetitive--marching, avoiding the Soviet army or the armed Chinese militia, finding a group of Japanese, marching some more. The turnabout toward the end of the third installment, when Kaji was a POW working at short rations for those who defeated him, much the same as the Chinese prisoners at the beginning, was a bit too perfect. There was some Grand Guignol grotesqueness in A Soldier's Prayer--the suffering (essentially torture) and agonizing death of young private Teduru was difficult to watch for example and the immediate punishment of his killer was gratuitous.

The Human Condition is a starkly effective anti-war statement. It also shows the folly and treachery built in to militarism, capitalism and, to some extent, socialism. It is a devastating film and is difficult (impossible in my case) to watch without weeping.

It is impossible to recommend The Human Condition too highly.


  1. Hi ewaffle --

    I'm so glad you got so much out of the film trilogy. Great review/blog entry! :)

  2. Thanks--and a particularly hearfelt "Thank You" for reviewing this movie on your blog which is what pointed me toward it in the first place. I have watched "No Greater Love" twice straight through combined plus a third time at extended parts of it so far.