1950s, 4/4, Masaki Kobayashi, Review, War

The Human Condition Part I: No Greater Love

#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.

Rating: 4/4

5 thoughts on “The Human Condition Part I: No Greater Love”

  1. I hate that I’m lagging on these but I’m glad I re-watched this. 1991 was the last time I saw the Human Condition and I no longer have the ‘excuse’ of a film class to make time for it.

    Once again, we have Kobayashi developing characters that feel, and act, like real people. For the most part, nobody does anything ‘so the story can happen’ and God do I appreciate that. Speaking of God, there is one odd omission from Kobayashi and that’s theology. Odd especially considering the subtitle is a partial quote from The Bible. Kobayashi has strong feelings about right and wrong but with only Humanism as a philosophy, it fails to provide any answers. Or direction. And questionable comfort. But I’m getting ahead of myself, brace yourself for a lot of blather.

    I love the opening, the crumbled and damaged ‘arch of peace’ through which we see marching soldiers and our two young lovers entering. On the nose? Maybe, but I love it. Just like I love the sparing use of Dutch angles again at moments of emotional crisis.

    I love the actors. Everyone is giving a good to great performance. There’s no slack here. Tatsuya Nakadai completely flips from his portrayal of Jo from Black River, going from rapist and criminal (albeit one dripping with cool and style) to an earnest idealist. The man got to work with the biggest names in Japanese cinema and I can see why. But I have to say the man who ‘stole’ the movie for me was So Yamamura. He has charisma, physicality, a great voice…he’s not quite to Mifune levels (who is?) but…man I liked watching him. He’s a great foil, a practical and rough man, but not uneducated and frankly he’s wiser than Kaji.

    And that’s kind of the main drama here, Kaji has humanist ideas (very Western, in fact, and he has a library of ‘Western’ books that is used as a ding against him by Sgt Watai) about how men (workers) are to be treated and how more productive they are when happy. And his ideas are correct…and out of place both in war time and in Japanese militaristic war time. And make no mistake the Japanese Army are flaming dicks (the detail about water on the blade to make cutting easier is true and was well documented during the Rape of Nanking), and that ‘sin’ seems to be applied to all Japanese. Something that Kaji feels strongly, there’s a self-loathing here that seems baked into Koybayashi, due to the war crimes committed, almost casually, during the 30’s and 40’s. His ideas of how to treat workers are fine, but they pretty much fail completely when applied to POW workers.

    Now, POWs have a legal and moral obligation to escape. On the other hand, trying to escape is one of the few ‘legal’ reasons you can kill a POW. Quite a puzzle. And add on the Japanese militarists being dicks and you have a nasty situation. It is a situation that calls for a man to be Just, not for being Humanist. Keji’s problem is that he has no moral framework apart from his own idea of humanity and humanism. He has no armor, no calluses on his heart. So the unjust accusations of the Chinese (as they rag on the ONE guy who is on their side) create the degradation and damage to his soul. The prisoners, in particularly the raging, thorny shit prisoner probably are guilty of trying to escape and certainly the main prick DID attack a guard…hell, that’ll get you killed in America sometimes.

    But honestly, the POW final execution quibble is just that. This is a Great film, with a big G. Everything is played ‘fair’, even Furuya is less of a cartoon villain than he appears (when he shows up to ask Mhichiko if she needs anything….in lesser hands, he’d be a leering, threatening thug…but no, he really is feeling bad for how out of hand things got once the Army got involved. Even Sgt Watai, sadistic as he is, isn’t a cartoon – he’s harsh, strict, but he respects Kaji’s courage….even he is following a code. Even Kaji’s final punishment is ‘fair’…the guy pretty much sided with ‘the enemy’ (which doesn’t excuse the torture to compel a confession…like I said…flaming dicks), removal from a position of authority makes sense from the Japanese point of view.

    I feel like I could talk about this for pages but I’ll stop here. Good stuff, great stuff, glad you featured it. Now…to find time for part 2 and 3…

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    1. The opening reminded me of the huge set near the beginning of The Hidden Fortress, where the two main peasants were being taken into slavery and escaped. It was impressively evocative.

      Speaking of Kaji’s lack of calluses, it’s kind of weird in retrospect that Kobayashi would invest so much in his journey failing in the end. The bright-eyed optimistic idealist slowly and steadily degrading to his final point is almost a condemnation of humanism on its own. His effects on the world are small, if any, especially in the face of the machine he’s up against. I always say Kaji as a kindred spirit to Kobayashi in a way, much like many of his other protagonists in this period, and yet they all lose. I don’t know how someone can keep operating when, it seems, one thinks that they’re on the eternal quest towards failure.

      It puts his last handful of films, where he went from fighting systems to looking back on misdirected, maybe even wasted, lives, in an interesting context.

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