#3 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
This is one of the big reasons why I decided to do a Masaki Kobayashi survey. I’d seen the film many moons ago and bought it a couple of years ago, but it’s hard to find time for a ten-hour film. Getting knee deep in director filmographies became the perfect excuse to find the time to revisit it, and so here we are with the first third of a film about the Japanese character during World War II, the degradation of a man, a prominent Japanese pacificist exorcising some demons all at the same time.
Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a deskbound worker in a Japanese mining firm in Manchuria where he presents some ideas to his superior about what could be done to help increase production through the treatment of labor. Told that his ideas should be tried out in the field, he’s offered the position of head of labor at an iron mining camp deep in the countryside and, in exchange, he’ll be allowed a military deferment. Though he’s been lucky enough to avoid conscription up to this point, he’s been unwilling to marry his sweetheart Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), but with his deferment and new post, they marry and are off. Kaji quickly finds both friends and enemies at the mining camp, most particularly Okishima (So Yamamura), his assistant who has been at the mining camp for some time, and Furuya (Koji Mitsui), a foreman in one of the pits that is happy to use brutality against the workers.
Kaji’s ideas amount to, essentially, treat the workers well and they’ll more likely return to work, and with an increased workforce, they’ll be able to meet their quotas and any increases possible as well. Before he gets a chance to fully implement any ideas, though, the Japanese police in Manchuria present them with six-hundred prisoners of war that they will take on as special laborers. They must build a prison camp for them, separate them from the regular workers, and get them to work. When they arrive, they have been literally baking in train cars from the front for days to the point where twelve of them die. Kaji uses what little influence he has to let the prisoners rest for a month before they get to work, and so sets up the main conflict of the film: Kaji standing between the Japanese authorities and the humanity of the Chinese prisoners of war.
Humanism is the word of the film, and the whole journey is a test of it within Kaji. He started the film behind a desk with theories, and he’s given the chance to implement them in practice. Practice is extraordinarily messy, though, with competing interests like that of the Japanese empire on the tail end of the Battle of Midway and steadily losing the war (dates aren’t mentioned specifically, but there’s talk early of the surrender of Italy which puts the action in the latter half of 1943), the director of the mining camp needing to maintain his status, the Japanese police needing to maintain face, and the need of bad men to let out their anger on weaker men. Can the humanist ideal thrive in such a place and time? Can it even exist? The progress of the film is one of a downward trend, where Kaji must compromise himself in event after event just to maintain his place in order to continue his efforts to extend the hand of humanism towards the prisoners under his charge.
It is helped none at all by the fact that the Chinese prisoners do not wish to be there and keep escaping. Using the split sympathies of a Chinese by birth, but Japanese by sentiment, young man on the outside named Chen (Akira Ishihama), they organize several breakouts that the company cannot keep admitting to the police. It looks bad on them, and it could lead to removal of positions, including Kaji’s. A house of ill repute is also nearby, and under Kaji’s supervision, and he has to send some women into the camp to help with the prisoners’ morale. It is here that a sweet little romance develops between Kao (Kōji Nanbara), a Chinese prisoner who speaks little Japanese, and Chun Lan (Ineko Arima), a prostitute. They grow to love each other with promises from each side to marry as soon as they can, perhaps when the war is over. Of course, in this world, happiness cannot last.
Punishments reign down for escapes. Furuya is working under cover of darkness to help the escapes because of his animosity to Kaji as well as his desire to make some money from the endeavor. Kaji is stifled at every turn, and even his efforts to treat everyone like a man comes up against Okishima leading to the two butting heads. When an a group of workers suddenly flee in the face of a foreman with a whip in the middle of the day, including Kao, all are accused of attempting to escape, and they are all sentenced to death. This is Kaji’s breaking point, and he finally finds a way to claim that title he so desire of a human, but it costs him everything.
Behind all of this is Michiko, the ever-loving and understanding (though she doesn’t always succeed because Kaji doesn’t communicate that much with her) wife who must bear the brunt of Kaji’s failings, feeling isolated in her prim little Japanese-style house with nothing to do and no one to connect with. Still, she remains by his side, trying to find ways to keep him happy, even if that includes accepting stolen flour to make him a treat. When Kaji’s ultimate punishment comes through, his military deferral is revoked and he’s sent to the army, she can do nothing but try to make his final 24-hours of liberty comfortable while Chun Lan screams at him that he’s a Japanese devil, no different from anyone else.
As the first stage of Kaji’s journey, this still feels oddly complete. If there were no more to the story, the ending would feel appropriate and final, if still slightly open to what could happen. As a film in two parts, the two parts couldn’t be separated from each other, but this entire third could be seen on its own as just one story. It feeds directly into Parts II and III where Kaji’s journeys take him into the military and, eventually, a Soviet prisoner of war camp as the first part of the degradation of a man of ideals. He’s not idealogue, but an idealist, confronted by a world and system that grinds him down. No, this isn’t fun stuff, but I see it as essential.
Masaki Kobayashi, in adapting the novel by Junpei Gomikawa in ten hours (for the same studio that forced Kurosawa to cut The Idiot in half, mind you), finally made his first great film after flirting with it several times over the previous decade, and it’s a doozy of a great film. This is Kobayashi working through his own personal demons while telling an epic story and damning his own country for its crimes over the previous twenty years.