Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Human Condition (film review)

Publicity banner hanging outside
the Hong Kong Arts Centre

As many of my friends (including visitors to this blog) know, movie going is something that I do pretty regularly -- on weekends as well as week day evenings. However, it's been a while since I spent more than nine in forty-eight hours viewing movies -- and unprecedented outside of a film festival.

But that's exactly what I've done this past weekend: that is view Masaki Kobayashi's entire 579 minute-long The Human Condition in three parts (with the first screening taking place yesterday afternoon, the second yesterday evening and the third and final screening earlier today). And while I wouldn't go so far as to say that I'd do it again, I honestly have to say that so much of it was so enthralling that the time didn't feel wasted and it all didn't feel as much like a marathon as one might expect -- with the reason for this hopefully becoming apparent upon your reading the following reviews of all three sections of this masterful film trilogy:-

The Human Condition: Part I -- No Greater Love (Japan, 1959)
Masaki Kobayashi, director
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, So Yamamura, Akira Ishihama, etc.
Length: 208 minutes

When we first meet the protagonist of this film adaptation of Jumpei Gomikawa's novel that also draws from director Masaki Kobayaki's World War II experiences, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a 28-year-old white-collar worker in Japanese-controlled Manchuria (Manchukuo). After his supervisor reads a report the idealistic researcher wrote about how to get the best out of laborers, he decides to challenge the young man to see whether his principles can prevail out in the field (or, more accurately, a large mining operation located in a spartan backwater known as Loh Huh Liong).

Lured in part by the promise that becoming labor supervisor at Loh Huh Liong will exempt him from being drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army, Kaji heads there with his new wife (Michiko is essayed by Michiyo Aratama) in tow. But this being 1943, he finds that he's unable to completely escape the war -- with the work going on in the mines being seen as important to the war effort and his arrival there being followed not long afterwards by the Kempeitai offering up some 600 prisoners of war as slave labor for the company.

Kaji's efforts to improve conditions for the workers, including the prisoners of wars -- and often at his own expense and great detriment -- are the focus of a large part of No Greater Love; so much so that I think the message is that there's no greater love than the love a humanist has for his fellow men and women. At the same time, it also is made clear that the love between Kaji and Michiko is great indeed -- with the two showing each other much touching affection but also loving care of the kind that can seem jarringly at odds with the rest of the film in terms of tone yet, at the same time, act as a counter to the brutal inhumanity that so many other people have little exhibition exhibiting.

My rating for this film: 10 (Yes, really 10 out of 10!)


The Human Condition: Part II -- Road to Eternity (Japan, 1959)
Masaki Kobayashi, director
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Kei Sato, Kunie Tanaka, Michiyo Aratama, etc.
Length: 176 minutes

Because of his actions that could be described as being the opposite of crimes against humanity (but, among other things, have him painted as a "Red" (Communist) and even his Japanese-ness called into question) that were chronicled in Part I of the The Human Condition, Kaji's draft exception is withdrawn and Part II sees him as recruit being subject to harsh training by his seniors in the Imperial Japanese Army.

Physically separated from his beloved and loving wife (for all but a few hours when she battles against odds herself to visit the far away training camp and win permission to spend some precious time with him), our hero nonetheless hasn't lost his humanistic ideals. Predictably, the latter gets him into trouble in the military -- and it doesn't help that he already has a suspect reputation based on his past actions as labor supervisor. So much so that even his turning out to excel in many training activities -- including shooting and marching -- cannot completely redeem him in the eyes of many.

Even after he completes his training days and meets up with an old friend who now is an officer, Kaji can't help but get into trouble. As we saw in Part 1, this is a man who is willing to take much physical and other punishment in order to protect those of his fellow men less in a position to help themselves, never mind others. This time around, it first is weak fellow recruits and then a new group of recruits -- who provide evidence for Japan's increasing desperation by including older men not in the best of the health and increasingly raw youths -- placed under his care.

For all this, and while some people can't survive even past this stage, it would seem the real tests lie ahead. For it's only in the latter parts of Part II that Kaji and co see direct action against the enemy -- one that is much better armed than the increasingly retreating Japanese...

My rating for this film: also a 10 (Yes, really!!)


The Human Condition: Part III -- A Soldier's Prayer (Japan, 1961)
Masaki Kobayashi, director
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Yusuke Kawazu, Taketoshi Naito, Hideko Takamine, etc.
Length: 188 minutes

Released two years after the two other parts of The Human Condition, Part III is so stylistically different that it at times feel like it was helmed by a different director from the others. Among other things, there is an unsettling increase in the use of voice-over monologues and even while there continues to be a lot of "action", so much seems to be preached through words about rather than actually shown being done. Additionally, while I understand that the plot calls for it, there really are so many long walking scenes in the film as to make it sometimes recall my viewing of Bela Tarr's The Werckmeister Harmonies more than the previous day's viewings of the earlier parts of this Masaki Kobayashi saga.

Then there are the changes in tone and message: for inasmuch as Kaji's main battles in No Greater Love and Road to Eternity were to be human in the face of great inhumanity and brutality, in A Soldier's Prayer, his greatest battle appears here appears to involve trying to stay alive in the face of his unit having been wiped out in a Soviet attack so that only he and two others survived that veritable massacre of a front-line battle. Alternatively put, rather than try to live by his principles, Kaji has been reduced to just trying to survive.

Granted that he does do some soul-searching from time to time and, in one notable scene, makes a fateful decision against himself in favor of saving a settlement of one old man and many helpless women. But the protagonist in Part III is no longer the man he was in Part I or even Part II. Although still filled with grim resolve, he has seen too much to remain as much of an idealist as we -- and doubtless he -- would like. And even though there are opportunities for Kobayashi to go with more ultimately optimistic plot paths, the saga ends in a way that I can't help but consider disappointing as well as downbeat.

Still, through it all, one cannot help but be bowled over by the bravura film-making of Masaki Kobayashi, his daringly damning indictment of the values and mores of whole generations of his fellow countrymen (and women), and the powerful performance of lead actor Tatsuya Nakudai who truly convinces in his role of a Japanese man unfortunate enough to be an idealist with a strong sense of justice and love of humanity at a time and in places where those very attributes led him into harm's way with a vengeance.

My rating for the film: 6.5


ewaffle said...

10 out of 10 for each of the first two parts--I'm sold. "The Human Condition" sounds like a movie I simply must see--thanks for a great review.

Do you have an opinion on how it might work watching in one's living room on a DVD? I will know soon enough since the Criterion Collection set is on its way to me.

YTSL said...

Hi ewaffle --

"Do you have an opinion on how it might work watching in one's living room on a DVD?"

Something I didn't mention before is that each of the parts is itself divided into two parts. So... maybe you could pace yourself and watch the entire saga in roughly 1 1/2 hour "bits"?

In any event, would be interested to learn your thoughts about the entire work after you've viewed it! :)

hcpen said...

sounds good..i always wanted to watch this film, but the bleak ending really puts me off..haha..this was also one of the last films from Japan to have a distinctly anti-war pacifist message.

YTSL said...

Hi hcpen --

I've not been watching the old Japanese films chronologically, so can't say for sure if it was one of the last films from Japan to have a distinctly anti-war pacifist message. But can't quite believe that there haven't been (m)any other films from Japan since 1959-1961 with such messages. Though with this one, there really is extra resonance in that it's partially drawn from the director's experience.

Diana said...

I am glad to read that such a committment to watch a film was so well rewarded. I will be looking towards the dvd too.

YTSL said...

Hi Diana --

Hope you will consider the time spent viewing the trilogy to be worthwhile -- like I do. :)

Willow said...

Hi Y! Long time!
This collections sounds fascinating. The downer of an ending shouldn't be a surprise bc 1 & 2 seems to set this up.

YTSL said...

Hi Willow --

I don't think of myself as a natural optimist but I actually didn't expect that the endin of "The Human Condition" would be *that* downbeat. Having said that, I hope people won't be put off checking out this saga -- especially since its first seven hours or so are seriously amazing.

Anonymous said...

I just finished watching "the human condition", googled reviews and then found your post. I just wanted to second the idea and tell any serious movie watcher this is a must see. I ordered it through netflix which paced the viewing nicely. I have to say, I could have continued to watch more if there was more, but I think my heart would have died before Kaji. Kaji died a silent, invisible and therefore a perfect hero's death. A perfect ending to a perfect movie. My eyes were peeled the whole time.

YTSL said...

Hi Jen Soh --

I'm glad you found my post when Googling reviews for "The Human Condition". Thanks for commenting. Re what you wrote: It's interesting that you were more satisfied with how the saga ends than me. In any case, it does seem that the trilogy of films sure did make quite the impact on both of us -- not least in terms of wanting to share our feelings and thoughts about it. :)