#3 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
All filmed at once and released over a period of three years, The Human Condition is the Japanese, arthouse version of The Lord of the Rings or Manon of the Source, a single film production broken up into multiple parts for release reasons (who’s gonna sit through nine-and-a-half hours at once?). The second part continues the main character’s journey downward from a suited up bureaucrat in a corporate office to almost an animal by the end of this, his time in the Japanese army in Manchuria as Japan is steadily losing the overall conflict on both sides, from America at the Pacific and from the Soviet Union on the land.
Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is in basic training at a remote military installation near the front against the Soviet army. He is under suspicion, meaning that he receives informal harsher treatment and won’t be on the promotions list, just like Shinjo (Kei Sato), a three-year recruit that has accusations over his head that he is a communist because his brother wrote in a communist paper. The two have become friends, isolated from the rest of the unit, but Shinjo is kept busy by their commanding officer Warrant Officer Hino (Jun Tatara) to the point where they simply don’t have enough time for any kind of plotting. Otherwise, Kaji is a good soldier. He’s a quality marksman, and he does what he can for the struggling members of the unit, in particular Obara (Kunie Tanaka), a bespectacled young man whose wife and mother-in-law are always fighting back home.
The trials and tribulations of a Japanese soldier at the tail end of World War II are not exactly the stuff of American cinema depictions of American military basic trainings. There’s a whole lot more corporal punishment meted out all of the time for the slightest of infractions. The opening scene of the film is actually the unit being awoken in the middle of the night, forced to line up, and the officer in charge slapping every single one of them because a cigarette butt was found in the drinking water. Obara was in charge before lights out, so he is blamed. Kaji comes to his defense with his own witness testimony that everything was in order when Obara was relieved, evidence that heavily implies that it was an officer patrolling around the barracks that flicked the cigarette into the water, but the officer will have none of it. Punishment will be meted out to the junior recruits with the veterans looking on from their bunks up above.
This period in basic training really is a transitional period for Kaji, between the remnants of the civilized world and the harsh wilderness and savagery of life on the battlefield, so it seems appropriate that he gets one final moment with Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), his wife, who comes to the remote training ground and is granted one night with her husband in the storehouse. Their night is his last grasp of love before he must go to the front, and it’s painful. They love each other deeply, and there seems to be little hope that they’ll ever meet each other again.
The recruits’ graduation is a long march, and Kaji does everything he can to help the exhausted Obara to finish it. He takes half of his pack on his own back and carries Obara’s rifle, but Obara still cannot finish, eventually picked up by the cart picking up the stragglers (there are three total). The veterans in the training corps, led by Yoshida (Michiro Minami) then humiliate those who couldn’t finish, most particularly Obara, which sends Obara into a spiral that ends with him committing suicide. His suicide scene ends up being incredibly sad, not just because he loses hope and decides to end it all with a rifle in the latrine (echoes of this definitely end up in Full Metal Jacket), but because he fails several times and then decides that it’s a sign that he should continue on before the gun suddenly goes off. It’s tragic in a way, and emblematic of how hard it is to find one’s humanity in a system like this.
That extends to Kaji’s reaction to Obara’s suicide. He wants the offending veteran punished, but the command structure will not allow it. They use a variety of excuses, from Kaji having a personal vendetta to everything being hearsay, but they will not allow the punishment of the perpetrators. Kaji can only stew in his own anger at the injustice as the Japanese military refuses to do anything about it. When the unit is moved towards the border, things gain a different character. It almost becomes wistful as a gap forms between basic training and actual combat, with the border (presumably the border with the Soviet Union) just on the horizon, with promises of freedom for the individual (said by Shinjo, communist, so…eh, it’s about the promise not the reality). During an emergency, Shinjo runs towards the border, deserting, and both Kaji and Yoshida run after him with Kaji knocking Yoshida into quicksand, unable to save him. He accidentally kills someone. The humanist who threw his whole life away to save some prisoners of war accidentally kills a man.
That’s the end of Part 3. A lot of events in these films, and yet because they’re all so tightly focused on Kaji himself and his emotional journey, it never feels like a jumble. There are a handful of small scenes without him (between a couple of superior officers, for instance, who talk about how his guts show that Kaji should remain on the promotions list), but even those scenes outside of his view are all in service of him. Even poor Obara’s suicide feeds into Kaji’s overall journey (sorry, Obara, this ain’t your movie).
Part 4 moves the action to near the border where the unit goes in for artillery training, led by a friend of Kaji’s from the civilian world (whom we saw briefly at the start of Part 1), Kageyama (Keiji Sada). Kaji gets the ranking of Private First Class and is put in charge of the barracks, giving him a chance to implement his humanist labor policies one more time, focusing on his fellow rookies. It all falls apart again in relatively the same fashion with human nature from outside the small group putting pressure on the inside until they crack. His ideals meet the real world and survive for a little while until they begin to fall apart as human nature intervenes over time. To relieve some of the tensions in the camp, Kageyama sends Kaji and most of the rookie soldiers out to build fortifications, during which the Russian campaign into Manchuria begins. Kaji’s little unit is folded into a new one, and they are the second line of defense after the first line further up dies gloriously for the Japanese Empire.
And here, about six hours into this war epic, do we get our first battle. From a technical point of view, the battle is competent and small in scale. It’s remarkably tense, though, and that has almost everything to do with the extraordinary amount of work that went into building Kaji as a character. There are about a dozen tanks, but the extras seem a bit thin. Still, it’s easy to see what’s going on and watch as the action moves around, and the action does no move in Japan’s favor. In the end, Kaji must pick up his gun and fire into the coming soldiers. Did his bullets hit and kill the men we see? Can we be sure in the hail of millions of bullets? We can be sure of the post-battle moment when Kaji has to strangle a fellow Japanese soldier to keep him quiet that he killed him, though. The humanist has become an outright murderer. Surely there’s no more for him to fall. We may find out in Parts 5 and 6.
Much like the first part, The Human Condition: Part II really could stand on its own. Kaji has his ideals and his journey (it’s downward, if you hadn’t surmised), and his time in the regular army has a clear beginning, middle, and end. And that journey is involving and surprisingly crushing. Watching an idealist in the middle of his ideals crashing around him to the point that he has to violate them all is really sad, and the subtext of both Kobayashi and Junpei Gomikawa’s own views in relation to the trajectory of Japan through the 30s and 40s (they were against the militarism and colonization of Manchuria) gives it an extra flavor.
This may be the middle third of a three-part tale, but it’s a great one.