A Mammoth HUMANIST Drama That is One of the Staggering Achie
Woopak | Where Dark Asian Knights Dwell | 09/18/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Masaki Kobayashi, the acclaimed director of Japanese classics such as "HARA-KIRI" and "Samurai Rebellion" has always made a powerful stance against established authority. He made a scathing indictment of the "Code of Bushido" and criticized the way samurai clans have treated its retainers and their families. Kobayashi's "THE HUMAN CONDITION" is his fearless indictment of the war itself that criticizes established authority. Based on the novel by Jumpei Gomikawa, this film trilogy is arguably Kobayashi's finest films, its strong existential themes, the manner of which it exposes the aspects of good and evil, and the thin line between morality and immorality is truly masterful. The trilogy focuses on the exploits of Kaji during World War II. Kaji's development as a man, as a husband, as a soldier, and later as a prisoner of war is brought to exposition by Masaki Kobayashi.
Disc One: "No Greater Love" (1959)
Kaji (Tatasuya Nakadai) is a young man who is a pacifist and a socialist. He marries his sweetheart Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) despite the uncertainties in the future. Kaji agrees to work as a mining supervisor in an iron and ore mining site in Japanese-occupied Manchuria to avoid getting drafted to fight a war he doesn't believe in. Kaji becomes partly successful in reforming the working conditions in the mining site, although his ideas are often contested by his superiors. Things become more complicated when Chinese prisoners of war are forced upon the site by the Kempeitai (military police) to use as laborers. Kaji tries but fails to reconcile his humanistic theories with the realities of forced slave labor under Japan's Imperial system.
Disc Two: "Road To Eternity" (1959)
After the climactic confrontation with the Chinese prisoners caused Kaji to lose his exemption from being drafted in the military and the fact that Japan is losing the war which makes the country more desperate for military servicemen, Kaji is now a hardened idealist. Despite being trained to fight a war he doesn't believe in, Kaji proves himself a capable soldier and tries to implement his humanistic idealism to the treatment of other enlisted men who are being brutalized by the veterans. The film reaches its unforgettable climax as Kaji is sent to the front line to fight off the advancing Soviet army.
Disc Three: "A Soldier's Prayer" (1961)
The Japanese Kwantung army is shattered as Kaji, along with several survivors embark on an epic journey on foot through miles of forest, desert, and fields southward in the hopes of reuniting with his wife. After Kaji survives perils including starvation and untrustworthy allies, he gets captured by Soviet forces that echoes the treatment of the Chinese prisoners meted out by the Japanese in the first film. Kaji eventually becomes disappointed that communism which he hoped would be the catalyst for human liberation, seemed no different from the oppressive systems he had struggled against. Kaji escapes into the winter wasteland in the hopes of reuniting with his wife Michiko.
Hailed as "One of the Greatest Films Ever Made", "The Human Condition" is one film whose experience may seem inspirational but it also proves utterly depressing. This trilogy embodies both the flaws and strengths of humanity as it unrelentingly brings the faces of morality and decency into opposing sides against the natural instincts of men. The film may also prove to be inspirational as love and decency seemingly tries to find a way to survive amid the bleakness of whatever situation fate may deal one into.
The First film is the longest film of the three as Kaji takes his theories to improve the working conditions of the mining site. This is Kaji at his purest form as he tries to bring his theories into procedure. This is also where the main protagonists are faced with moral dilemmas as they try to weigh the rights and the wrongs. I loved the scenes when Kaji begins to question himself for his own decisions and the more he gets deeper into the situation with the Chinese prisoners, the more difficult it gets for him to face his wife. Kaji manages the rations and rewards the prisoners with prostitutes. The film makes a powerful statement in pointing out the potential successes of working together as embodied by the Chinese, but mistrust and suspicion becomes the main opposition for two races to work together. It also bleakly portrays the two sides of human nature as there are those who would stand to profit or take advantage of any situation at the cost of others; as kindness and understanding may sometimes prove to produce mixed results.
The second part of the film series portrays Kaji in the military, under suspicion because of his revolutionary ideas. The film exposes the politics in the military and the way, soldiers tend to mimic their superiors in the way they treat new recruits. In my opinion, this part is the most damaging critical indictment of the army. Kaji represents the reasonable side of the picture as he tries to protect the new recruits whose ages range from 40 years and above. At times, the majority of the Japanese authority are too willing to turn a blind eye to the problems faced by the new recruits as the veterans appear adamant in abusing them. The adage; "Survival of the Fittest" comes to mind, as Kaji is brought to the breaking point. Kobayashi also brings some visceral scenes of brutality and violence in this film. The Soviet advance into China brings both veterans and new recruits on the same side as they try to work out their differences.
"Road To Eternity" also defines the word courage. Kaji's main goal is to survive that may make him seem a coward in the eyes of some but inside, he is courageous enough to admit that this fight is meaningless. For Kaji and his allies, it becomes disgraceful to die in a war like a dog. Kobayashi may also be making a commentary against blind obedience and that the Japanese army were more occupied in believing in their `honorable' war, than facing reality that their goals may indeed prove to be unjust. For Kaji, fighting this battle is more for a fight for survival than fighting for his own country.
"A Soldier's Prayer" may well be the darkest and the most depressing installment of the three. While it does have its inspirational side, as it also exposes the strengths of humanity. Kaji finds reasons to hope, and to dream of freedom; in the hopes of reuniting with Michiko. This chapter also brings Kaji face to face with his morals as he is oftentimes forced to make decisions for the good of the many rather than the needs of the few. Children and old people have no place in this world, as the group is faced with starvation. This chapter also brings the consequences of being on the losing side of the war, as Japanese refugees are left aimless, hungry as the women are raped and abused, not just by Soviets but also by the Japanese themselves. There is a very disquieting sequence as a young girl retains of hope of reuniting with her parents despite being raped by the soldiers of the Red Army. She finds those hopes dashed when she becomes victimized by the very soldiers who were supposed to protect her. I found it hard to see some Japanese women offer themselves up as sex slaves to survive, at least until they can find male protection.
I suppose Kobayashi wanted to make a commentary on the manner that people tend to look out for themselves. It was real disturbing to see the Japanese prey on their own countrymen, most specifically in the POW camp. It was quite sad to see the Japanese prisoners become more abused by their fellow countrymen than by their own captors. Kaji and Terada would take food scraps to add to their rations, reported as sabotage by their Japanese superiors. Kaji tries to stay true to his own unwavering beliefs, but it is the evil done by his own countrymen that pushes him over his limits. Anger, envy, greed and pride are the film's main themes as the prisoners of war become faced with a situation worst than those experienced by the Chinese in the mining camps. Worst not because of the hardships, but made worst because of the fact that it is the Japanese abusing the Japanese.
Kaji is superbly portrayed by Tatsuya Nakadai. The man embodies the pride that one takes from himself, that pride slowly fades when forced into situations that makes him question his own soul. Education and principle are indeed virtues but one would never know just how one can react to a dilemma until faced with one. Other characters such as Okishima and Kageyama are also at the mercy of military policies and politics; even though they disagree with such policies, they still give in. It is difficult to stay true to oneself when faced with a truly testing situation. Michiko embodies the soul of the Japanese wife; true and faithful. However, the film brings a certain question as to her true whereabouts. Did Michiko manage to escape or did she fall prey to the tests of the flesh?
"The Human Condition" is Japanese cinema at its best. It is very difficult to sit through the film due to its very depressing themes but one has to also see that sometimes from such desperation, courage and honor may still be born. Masaki Kobayashi bravely brings the questions of humanity into exposition; in the face of such trials and hardships, can courage, decency and hope still prevail?
A raw indictment of its nation's wartime mentality as well as a personal existential tragedy, Kobayashi's riveting, gorgeously filmed epic is novelistic cinema at its best.
Highest Possible Recommendation! [5 Stars]
The Criterion release sports a nice anamorphic transfer and has a mono track in discs one and two, disc 3 has a 2.0 Dolby Digital track.
Be Prepared to be Shattered
Gerard D. Launay | Berkeley, California | 05/18/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"How should an individual respond to deep-set social injustices - ones that are built into the structure of the country's national morality. This is the core of Kaji's story (performed by the brilliant Tatsuya Nakadai). This epic trilogy is a biography of a man, a dissenter, a nation. During the critical years 1930's to 1940's, Japanese aggression was founded on radical nationalism, a policy which expected everything in its path to bend or break. The director films the cruelty of Japanese and Russian authority with unflinching honesty. As is always true of this director...he is an absolute master of cinematography in the brilliant way we think Akira Kurusowa is a master of the same art. As an example, after one of the Chinese slave laborers is brutally beaten to death, the group of laborers complain to Kaji - accusing him of being just like the other insensitive Japanese. The crowd of prisoners and Kaji are separated by an electric barbed wire. Then suddenly - through the barbed wire - the prisoners view 30 comfort women approaching to service them sexually...almost as a mirage...and the complaint against Kaji drips away. It is a deeply powerful image - a form of cinema poetry and a form of cinema realism.
In the first installment of this extraordinary trilogy, Kaji is sent to be an overseer of a Japanese slave labor camp in Manchuria. At this time, the Japanese are using Chinese men or unlucky POW's for mining operations under inhuman, horrific conditions. Appalled by the viciousness, Kaji proposes reforms and basic human rights for the prisoners...but in doing so he is considered an obstacle to the Japanese War effort and so the idealist is next sent into the military. In the second installment, Kaji challenges the military officers' cruel approach and humiliation of Japanese recruits. Again, he is unsuccessful. This leads him to the third part where the Japanese army is routed by the Soviets. But the Russians are not the liberators the liberals believe them to be. Now for the third time, Kaji refuses to accept the Russian injustices.
What seems "all important" to the director Kobayashi is not the success of his quiet hero, but the very attempt - however futile - to challenge injustice, even alone. Here we have a conscientious objector, sometimes portrayed by others as weak, who is actually more ready to put his life on the line than the soldiers.
As a final point, the film trilogy is part autobiographical. Even though a soldier in the Japanese army, the film director Kobayashi refused to accept any position in the Japanese military system other than a private as a personal protest to its aggressive fascism.
Deserves All the Accolades
Ted Byrd | 12/24/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"In thinking how to sum up the character of this series of films, I can only regret that descriptions such as: monumental, epic, staggering, etc., etc. have been overused to the point of triteness. This is truly a story which could take those terms out of the realm of hyperbole and give them an appropriate application.
What makes this film series "monumental", though, is not spectacles of battle scenes nor glorious panoramas of natural landscapes, although such things are artistically depicted. The thing that really imparts such stature to the film, for me, is that the director took the time and effort to tell the story in a way that gives it both authenticity and a sense of completeness.
To help understand the painstaking effort that went into this production, it is well worthwhile to watch the fourth disc in this four-disc set, which contains the supplementary material. There we learn that actual shooting of the films took three years, with two six-month breaks in between segments. Tatsuya Nakadai, who portrayed Kaji, the hero of the series, tells us that he, along with all the cast who portrayed soldiers, underwent a month-long course of military training so they could present authentic portrayals of soldiers. Nakadai relates that many of the scenes which look so grueling on the screen were in fact grueling to the actors. He lay in a shallow hole while a tank roared over him, was actually beaten in some of the barracks scenes, jumped into freezing rivers, and lay in snow until covered, so that he feared dying of hypothermia.
Director Masaki Kobayashi demanded such strenuous participation from his cast to give the story a corroborating visual appearance of authenticity. Kobayashi had credentials of great credibility to confirm his perspective on the events of the films, as he himself had experienced many of the same issues as Kaji, the fictional hero. He had felt strong doubts about the rightness of Japan's militarism, had refused promotion to officer rank after being inducted, and had been a POW.
This striving for authentic detail succeeded admirably in the finished product. It was the strong continuity, consistency, and attention to detail which caused me to identify more and more with Kaji in his arduous struggles to maintain his integrity, self-respect, and ideals. Within this continuity of theme, we see the character of Kaji evolve with his accumulated first-hand experience of the brutality and depravity of which humanity is capable under conditions of war. With his loss of innocence, he confronts the dark side of his own nature, feeling the temptation to forsake his ideals in the struggle for mere survival.
If it were not for this element of ambiguity or relativity about the nature of good and evil, Kaji might have simply been an unbelievable paragon of virtue. But because of his confrontation with the evil existing within his own depths, waiting the opportunity to seize control of his actions, he retains his credibility and holds out to us the possibility that a man may retain his basic humanity even under the most monstrous and inhuman conditions. This integrity of principled self-respect is shown to be a fragile and delicate flame, constantly in danger of being extinguished by the brutalizing force of war and its aftermath.
As I progressed through the more than nine hours of this series, my imagination was engaged more and more; I can truthfully say that it became better and exerted a more profound influence with each succeeding episode. From starting out as a certain individual's experiences during a war which took place in a certain location at a certain time, the story acquired a universal character, showing the stupidity of war, and revealing the private war that goes on in the conscience of the individual, when the restraints of civilization are subordinated to the impulses of nationalism, militarism, and greed."
A devastating and harrowing statement about the insights of
Hiram Gomez Pardo | Valencia, Venezuela | 06/27/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
""The human condition" is an emblematic film, that rescues and captures the dignity of the human being , as well as a variegated set of different human features through the war.
As an extended symphony, Masaki Kobayashi displays three great movements. Manchuria, 1943. The disappointed humanism of our protagonist when he is assigned to a concentration prisoners camp(uncapable to make his expectations come true), leads him to experience the hellish ambiance when he is imprisoned and so, to suffer in own flesh the horrors of a close death until unbearable limits.
This is without any shadow of doubt, one of the most towering,absorbing antibelic films ever made, that requires all your whole attention.
A sumptuous masterwork, and one of the two masterpieces of Kobayashi (The other is Harakiri).