Monday, July 29, 2013

The Human Condition (Ningen no Jōken) (Film series/Trilogy) (1959 - 1961)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***


Finally stumbling upon a film that can't be done justice in mere words in a small blog spot such as this, even though your humble reviewer finds himself at a loss of words, an attempt shall definitely be made. For the hope to put this miracle of cinema across to his readers still prevails. A hope inspired by the central character of this soul-crushing film. Masaki Kobayashi's earnest story of Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) must be told. For it is not just his story. It is the story of essentially every human being. Notice the deliberately highlighted usage of that word. It is difficult to find a real human being in this universe. There are but a handful like him, like Kaji, the unsung hero of this fateful saga.

Part I: No Greater Love

A young Kaji is sent to supervise some mining operations in a far off location, as part of a deal that would exempt him from a much dreaded conscription to the military service in turbulent World War II times. This is more so, because he writes a thesis that contradicts the current Japanese policies regarding exploitation of Chinese labour to help with the war effort. His supervisor thinks it is only fair that he puts his theories into practice. Kaji seizes the opportunity as it would also give him a chance to marry his sweetheart Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) and spend the rest of their lives together.

Alas, Kaji's excitement is short-lived, as upon arrival he finds himself thrown in a vast sea of exploitation and depravity. He comes face to face with the brutal truth of the horrid living conditions, blatant exploitation of labourers, akin to slavery, and rampant corruption amongst almost all hierarchical levels in the brass. Needless to say, they prove to be trying times for Kaji. He realizes that he may be the only morally sound person around, excepting maybe his kindly older partner, Okishima (So Yamamura) who comes to respect Kaji's ways.

Things take a turn for the worse when the Kempeitai unleashes around 600 Chinese POWs on their labour camp in order to assist with their work!

This heart-rending first chapter in Kaji's harrowing journey chronicles the trials and tribulations of his stint as the labour supervisor. It establishes that there is no greater love for Kaji than the love for humanity itself. In a world where humans seem to have ceased to be humans, Kaji struggles to keep his own moral fabric and humanistic ideals. He finds that the mining company could be a much worse battlefield than the actual battle grounds, for here, the enemy are his own people. Deemed an enemy sympathizer merely because he demands humane treatment for the special labourers that are the POWs, he ultimately finds himself sandwiched from all sides, for the system rots from within and there is no way he can salvage anything by himself. 

With rich characterization and an absorbing script Masaki Kobayashi tells a powerful tale that makes the viewers mute witnesses to Kaji's hapless situation. One circumstance is explored from different perspectives, that of Kaji, of his peers, of the brass who are only following orders and helping out their country, and finally of the Chinese prisoners! A deadly game of greed and sexual politics puts Kaji's methods to the test as he sinks in deeper and loses all hope of handling the matter his way. It is impossible not to be emotionally stirred by Kaji's predicament, even as he ends up losing his sleep over his workers and their plight that is just completely wrong and out of control, and in the process ends up neglecting her. So much for a happy married life!

Part II: Road to Eternity

In the second part of his journey Kaji ends up being conscripted into the Japanese Kwantung army anyway! He is a recruit in a company, leading a life that is far tougher than what he previously endured. Away from his wife, he now struggles to keep up with the strict military regime, but rotten apples exist everywhere. It is now the veterans and their immoral and unethical acts that Kaji has to battle with. Obara (Kunei Tanaka) a meek recruit ends up being the bashing boy for all these seniors. Kaji keeps his head, and earns the support of perhaps the only real friend he has, Shinjo (Kei Satô), a three year senior private. 

Rigorous boot camp training ensues, and the veterans and superiors continue to be slap-happy with their subordinates, perhaps just venting out their frustration in the name of being men out to do away with the cowards and preparing themselves for battle! Those who cry or express fatigue/pain aren't men anymore! The character of Obara has very clearly inspired that of Pvt. Pyle in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" (1987). A lot of notable similarities can be found here. A certain incident with Obara fuels Kaji's anger and he takes matters in his own hands and attempts to show the middle finger to the military code and ethics, despite the book of the penal code being thrown at him as a reminder! A chance occurrence brings him back with his old buddy Lt. Kageyama (Keiji Sada).

This great second chapter showcases Kaji's desire to be one with his wife again; to live a life that was once his. Nakadai's performance is different in this film, for Kaji has now toughened up. He doesn't cry in helplessness as much. He keeps his straight face, but continues to keep his humanity alive. The meeting with his old friend has convinced him. Everyone finds kindred spirits. Everyone meets their loved ones again; if they survive. 
The road to eternity is followed, and hope lives on as he keeps reminding him of the promise to his wife. He will stay alive and will return to her. He will make every effort even to survive the worst storm that eventually shows up when the Russian army advances. A gritty battle, one of the best battle sequences ever filmed takes us to the finale of this chapter. 


Part III: A Soldier's Prayer

Kaji survives the deadly combat along with two other soldiers. His commander is killed in combat. But Kaji decides not to fight on. He doesn't want to die a dog's death, as he puts it! He wants to reunite with Michiko and live his former life again. He doesn't care about the army ethics; never much cared for them anyway. He always believed that it is important to live. It is human to live and want to live. His fellow soldier reminds him of the "Soldier's code" that Kaji seemed to be forgetting in his decision to go back home. Kaji points out to him that what they needed really was the defeated man's code! What is the point of battling on, when there is certain death and no victory? What honor are they protecting? And how does it help anyway? 

He decides to walk on, possibly to the nearby railroad station from where he can go back. The soldiers follow. It would prove to be a long and strenuous march to freedom. They lose their way in the woods, encounter passersby and refugees fleeing from areas attacked by the enemy. They choose to walk with the soldiers for they feel safe! Hunger, thirst, exhaustion follow; Kaji's followers give up or die, some add, some subtract, and the march continues, across thick, dense forests, marshlands, corn fields, and friendly camps of the Japanese army where they only face rejection for being deserters and are denied food and supplies!

Thus, Kaji gets more than he bargains for. The enemy has tripled with the Chinese farmers Militia and the Russian forces both close on their heels and of course, his own people who are still loyal to the army! What's worse is, even the Japanese women refugees they come across seem to think the Russian soldiers treat them better. It is a bitter truth nonetheless that Kaji himself witnesses but feels helpless about. He is clearly in the minority when it comes to being a "paragon of virtue" as one woman calls him.

This final chapter tends to get a tad repetitive and could have done with some editing. Kobayashi makes extensive use of dutch angles to portray the exasperation of the travelers and the impossibility of the herculean task of walking across vast lands in search of an oasis or a rescue or a good life that supposedly lies on the other side! In a tragic turn of events, life comes full circle and Kaji and his men land up as POWs of the Russian victors, and are subjected to rigorous labour work! Despite it all, Kaji, who is a pessimist as well as an optimist, never gives up and remembers his longing for Michiko. He talks to his wife in his head, imagines her waiting for him to return...!


And so it continues. The eternal human condition. The endless struggle of man. Kaji's tribulations serve as a metaphor for everything that is purely human! A will to survive, to face the storm, to challenge the odds, but move on anyway. In the end it is all about living life and standing your ground. One of the main themes of "The Human Condition" reflects in some of Kobayashi's later films. In the same vein as he attacked on the Samurai code of honor in his films "Harakiri" (1962) and "Samurai Rebellion" (1967) and upheld the human code, through Kaji's story, he highlights the futility of war and the importance of a single human being. 

It is a known fact that war brings more losses than gains. It deprives people of their loved ones and their abodes. Destruction gives way to starvation and exploitation of the weak at the hands of the powerful. Men are killed or enslaved, women are raped, innocence is lost, humanity is destroyed. What good is the dignity of being a soldier, a loyal countryman? Should it be at the cost of foregoing humanism? Kaji reminds his fellow soldier who goes on a shooting rampage in the battlefield towards the end of Chapter II. While it is calm, run for it! There is no point dying like this in no man's land. No real dignity in it! No one left to recognize that dignity either! Whatever happened to preserving human dignity?

Throughout this 9-hour epic journey we see men and women walking on, on a road that seems endless. In the first chapter, myriad labourers walk in a single line across the vast open lands to fulfill their duties. In the second chapter the basic training ends with a long march that tests the soldiers' spirit and resilience. And the final chapter is essentially one long three-hour walk through the jungles of torment and grave danger of being killed. But Kaji is resolute enough. Kill or be killed, is his mantra. 

This final walk would be the march to freedom. This constant ambition to reach a goal, to touch the finish line is inherently a part of every human being's life. Man is essentially, perpetually seeking happiness. He is marching on endlessly towards that utopia, which seems non-existent at least in this universe. But Kaji's paradise exists. At least in his mind. A happy family life with his wife Michiko. Hope and perseverance are cardinal elements that a man must live by. And that is the lesson to be learnt from this extremely devastating film.

Masaki Kobayashi's "The Human Condition" is bleak and affecting and rips your soul apart. It is mighty effective storytelling that is capable of crushing and affecting the viewer psychologically under its heavy emotional weight. Nakadai makes it all the more believable with a flawless performance full of conviction. Those brooding eyes, the angst, the sheer helplessness and frustration of losing the trust of the people he really cares for, thanks to his own people who won't stand by him, all build up to one of the finest lead performances in the history of cinema. 

It is astonishing how a film of an epic scope such as this was made in a span of less than two years. It is a towering achievement in cinema that deserves its place amongst the World Cinema greats. Do not miss this journey. It is a miraculous film experience that will bring out the human being in you.

Final overall score: 10/10 


  1. It is astonishing indeed, that it was made within a span of 2 years. Good review. I don't think it had anything new to say though. The film. It was very well-made and ambitious, but I don't think it's particularly refreshing. I enjoyed the third act most though. I find both Rebellion and Harakiri superior.

    1. Nice..thanks for the comment. Yes, Rebellion and Harakiri are both superior. I am with you on that.

  2. For the last week I have been watching with my wife this epic movie. All I can say that this movie is to cinema is what Micheal Angelo's "The Creation of Adam " to painting. One of the greatest pieces of human art - but this time in motion pictures. I loved the fact that the character Kaji made a full circle from being the manager of a concentration camp with Chinese laborers to being himself a laborer in a camp run by Russians. Also the last two scenes where he is being stepped on by Chinese for just stealing a dumpling and then walking alone and calling his wife to forgive him for only bringing that dumpling to her as a gift at the end of his long journey.