Part 1 – ‘No Greater Love’ (1959)
Part 2 – ‘Road to Eternity’ (1959)
Part 3 – ‘A Soldier’s Prayer’ (1961)
When film maker Masaki Kobayashi set out to direct his deeply personal statement on war, authoritarianism and power he did not foresee that his nine hour epic titled ‘The Human Condition’ would eventually emerge as somewhat of a definitive post war Japanese film. Both a historical record and leftist interpretation of Japanese society before and after World War II, Kobayashi’s monumental trilogy reconstructs the contemporary notion of ambitious, epic cinema by approaching the relationship between man, society and nature through a radically oppositional Marxist perspective. Originally released in three parts between 1959 and 1961, the convoluted narrative charts the journey of Kaji, played by Tatsuya Nakadai in a career defining role, whose ideological shift from Marxist communist sympathiser to an embittered solider in the Imperial Army of Japan exposes an implicit hierarchical abuse of power.
Constantly represented in direct conflict with the state, Kaji’s journey begins in the labour camps of Manchuria in which he becomes both a witness and accomplice to the systematic brutalisation of Chinese prisoners of war. Ridiculed by what is a traditional Japanese orthodoxy, Kaji’s socialist values symbolise an earnest humanism that is in many ways an autobiographical manifestation of the director Masaki Kobayashi’s political militancy. The first part titled ‘No Greater Love’ sees Kaji struggling to improve the wretched working conditions for the labourers whilst coming up against a military controlled system enslaved to the Japanese war machine. His failure to humanise the labour camps brings a veil of scepticism concerning political thought and ideological theories, rendering him somewhat apathetic and indifferent to the idea of social change.
In part two of the trilogy, titled ‘Road to Eternity’, as punishment for his attempts at political agitation and breeding dissent amongst the labourers, Kaji is called up to join the Japanese Army. Encountering a similarly brutal form of authoritarianism, Kaji excels in the army as an outstanding solider and though he still harbours and espouses socialist ideals, his superiors point out that his skill and determination as a leader more than compensates for what they argue to be a dubious set of political values. However, as many around him predicted from the outset, defeat for the Japanese nation signals the aftermath and trauma of the war which is dealt in an equally impressive manner in the third and final part.
‘A Soldier’s Prayer’ is by far the bleakest and most exhausting of the three films, documenting the harrowing experience of Japan after its cataclysmic defeat. With a nation and culture that had self destructed, Kaji and his band of hopeless soldiers attempt at survival are met with episodic encounters representing a cross section of what remained of a defeated Japanese people. Hunger, disease, poverty, devastation, and alienation symbolise the aftermath yet the real trauma of Kaji begins when he is captured by the Soviet Army and made a prisoner. Like Odysseus from Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’, Kaji becomes the fearless homesick wanderer who is compelled to be reunited with his wife Michiko. An inherent socialist Kaji comes face to face with the appalling cruelty of communism and finally awakens to the stark and painful truth that all ideology is in some way corrupt and flawed. All that remains is a compromised faith in people, leading Kaji to the conclusion that only humanism can offer any kind of real practical response to the evils of society. Kaji’s agonising death unfolds melodramatically on the harsh, inhospitable wintry landscapes yet the memory of someone who resists and refuses to be assimilated into the conformist mass is an elegiac tribute to the triumph of leftist, Marxist film making of which Kobayashi was an ardent member and sophisticated propagator.
Freelance writer and film critic Philip Kemp who regularly contributes to the UK Sight and Sound Film publication provides a telling summation of the film and its director in his specially commissioned essay that was written to coincide with the superlative DVD release by Criterion:
Although The Human Condition aroused widespread controversy in Japan, it was critically acclaimed, won international awards, and established Kobayashi’s reputation among the leading Japanese directors of his generation—a status he maintained throughout the sixties with Kwaidan and his jidai-geki (period drama) films. But the crisis that hit the Japanese film industry at the end of the decade blighted his career. Along with Kurosawa, Kinoshita, and Ichikawa, he formed a group called Yonki-no-kai (the Club of the Four Knights) to produce quality films, but the venture foundered with the box-office disaster of Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970). In an industry increasingly geared to yakuza thrillers, disaster movies, and soft-core porn, Kobayashi’s seriousness of purpose seemed hopelessly out of fashion; and unlike the more flexible Ichikawa, he never took to working in television. Funding for his projects became increasingly hard to secure, and his career petered out in the mid eighties. His work of the fifties and sixties remains his lasting legacy, with The Human Condition a towering achievement that few directors—in Japan or anywhere else—have equaled.
The Human Condition: The Prisoner, Philip Kemp, The Criterion Collection Website
It was a real tragedy that Kobayashi struggled to secure financing in his twilight years. What is even truer today is that his contribution to Japanese cinema is somewhat obscured by the colossal auteur figures of Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi which continue to be immensely popular with international audiences and cine-philes alike. However I do agree with Philip Kemp's unequivocal conclusion that this is cinema that 'few directors—in Japan or anywhere else—have equaled'. In terms of its influence, one only need to watch either Terence Malick's World War II film 'The Thin Red Line' or Stanley Kubrick's 'Full Metal Jacket' to see the far reaching impact of Kobayashi's masterpiece on the American war genre.