I've written before on how the lack of context can be frustrating when watching a film. In the case of Masaki Kobayashi's "The Human Condition" I had the opposite problem - I knew too much. The film trilogy takes place during the latter days and the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in WWII, and follows an idealistic young man, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), who is constantly challenged by the cruelty and corruption of war. In the first film, he tries to apply humanist ideals to managing a labor camp. In the second, conscripted into the army, he finds compassion toward his fellow soldiers has no place in a repressive hierarchy. Finally in the third, he becomes a POW in a Russian prison camp, which tests his Socialist philosophy. It is a monumental work of cinema by any measure. The three films together run nine-and-a-half hours in length, features haunting scenes of battle and human suffering on an epic scale, and can be seen as a sweeping condemnation of the Japanese wartime mentality. Upon their initial release in Japan, the films were viewed by some critics as anti-Japanese.
Watching the films as someone of Chinese descent, however, my views are inevitably colored by my own background. Throughout the first film, Kaji's naive attitude galled. Of course the Chinese laborers under his supervision would keep trying to undermine Kaji, no matter how much kinder than the other Japanese he was. Of course there would be resentment and bad feelings toward him for being associated with the hated enemy. The Chinese have never forgotten the war crimes and other atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII, and it's at the root of a lot of continuing acrimony between the two countries, that has only finally started to lift in recent years. It didn't help that there were some unfortunate caricatures among the Chinese characters, and not a single actor in the first film was a native Chinese speaker, despite a good chunk of the dialogue being in Mandarin. Listening to the actors mangle the lines of all the Chinese characters for three hours really wreaked havoc on some of the important subplots, and undercut many vital scenes. I'm not usually one to advocate for dubbing, but in this case I would have appreciated it.
So it was only late in the first film that I realized director Kobayashi was entirely on my side. "The Human Condition" doesn't shy away from showing the cruelty of the Japanese, and Kaji is soon forced to confront the hypocrisy of his position as he becomes involved in worse and worse injustices, and his high-mindedness brings about his downfall. This pattern repeats itself in all three films, with Kaji struggling not to compromise his ideals and humanity in the face of deeply corrupted systems of authority - the labor camps, the army, the burgeoning Communist movement - only to discover the limits of his own convictions. There are no happy resolutions, where Kaji effects any sort of lasting change in the behavior of the oppressors, no nationalist message that alleviates any of the guilt of the Japanese audience. And compared to the other Japanese media of the time, "The Human Condition" was very sympathetic toward the Chinese laborers and prisoners, who Kaji eventually finds himself agreeing with more often than his fellow countrymen. That the film was made a scant fifteen years after the end of the war is astonishing.
Nakadai is exceptional as Kaji, from his earliest scenes as a young husband with his beloved Michiko (Michiyo Aramata), to the final act of the last film where he is transformed into a grim specter of wartime horrors, struggling for survival far from home. Frequently he seems to be the only voice of opposition against tyranny and apathy, caught between conflicting loyalties to his nation and to his own morality. Nakadai manages to find ever deeper reserves of frustration, rage, and anguish as Kaji's fortunes decline. There's a lot of shouting and ranting in these films, especially in the second installment that takes place mostly in army barracks, where conversations can be carried out like screaming matches. It's hard on the ears, but the drama is thrilling. Many of the supporting players are also excellent, namely Kunie Tanaka as the weakling Obara, Kei Sato as one of Kaji's rare friends in the army, Shinjo, and Eitaro Ozawa as the sadistic labor boss Okazaki.
Much of the credit for the trilogy's effectiveness must also go to Yoshio Miyajima for his bleak, black-and-white cinematography, full of stunning wide-screen shots of barren wastelands and claustrophobic interiors. In the third film especially, where Kaji spends much of the film's running time trying to find his way back to his wife in Southern Manchuria, the unfriendly terrain becomes his greatest enemy, another oppressive force that cannot be reasoned with. The combat scenes are few, but excellently staged, especially the finale of the second film which ends with Kaji's unit facing the Russian army on the northern border.
Despite its flaws, the first of the "Human Condition" films is easily the most affecting due to its stark portrayals of human subjugation and moral dilemmas. One scene which can be seen a microcosm of Kaji's struggles occurs when the labor camp receives several boxcars of civilian prisoners who have been conscripted for labor. They arrive locked in the cars, starving and half dead. Kaji is aghast and frees them, unwittingly unleashing a tide of stumbling, desperate wretches who are driven by hunger to attack a wagon of food. Fearful that the prisoners will gorge themselves to death, Kaji tries to turn them back single-handed, even resorting to violence, only to be utterly overwhelmed by hundreds of starving men.
"The Human Condition" is a harrowing vision of human depravity that resonates far beyond its immediate context. There are few films that present such an intense look at the dehumanizing effects of war, and the madness through which it is waged. I still have many reservations about the trilogy, and there are some problematic elements that are difficult to overlook, but there's no denying the films' power and universal relevance. If you can bear to watch, they should be seen and remembered.