#3 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
And so comes to a conclusion the epic tale of one idealist forced to confront the harsh realities of war and his degradation from purity through barbarity and into some kind of end. In some ways, it is a tale of the innocence of Japan itself being trampled under foot of the militaristic regime that held sway over Japanese politics preceding and during the war. This was never going to be a happy ending for our main character under the guidance of Masaki Kobayashi.
I haven’t talked enough about how great this movie is to look at. One thing in particular that sticks out to me is how Kobayashi and his cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima shot night scenes. There was no day for night photography going on here. They did actually shoot film at night, but they lit their big outside scenes in wonderfully intelligent and aesthetically pleasing ways to help highlight the environments around our main characters. Some of this sort of stuff might not actually work in a color film, but in black and white, when there’s fog rolling over and behind a background building, all of it backlit, and the building itself hit with a key light all while the main character in the foreground is lit as well, as long as that sky is pitch, inky black, it still sells at night. And it looks great while it does it. This was also Kobayashi’s first widescreen film, and not unlike Kurosawa’s first example in the format (The Hidden Fortress), Kobayashi does not waste the larger frame, filling in the whole image with information. It helps that he has a professional understanding of the closeup and doesn’t overdo it, pulling back to film most of the action in medium to wide shots, giving us a good sense of geography.
Anyway, much like the other two films in the trilogy, Part III is broken up into two separate parts that feed into each other. The first is Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) heading south from the Russian border towards South Manchuria on foot. The Japanese army has been defeated, word is leaking out about how Japan’s inevitable surrender will be on equal terms to Germany’s, and Kaji has no more interest in fighting for the Empire anymore. He’s going home to Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), even though he has no idea if she’s even still there at their home in South Manchuria. He takes a few soldiers and some civilian refugees through a large forest where his tyrannical rule over the last remnants of rice prove difficult to bear, leading to several deaths. There are also events around local Manchu farmers who now all have guns and are targeting the straggling Japanese army personnel that wander through, creating situations where Kaji must kill or be killed, and kill he does. He no longer has the moral pause around it (created in a new event at the beginning of this film where he must murder a Russian solider to cross a road safely, ignoring his suffocating of a Japanese soldier at the end of the previous part), and he just does it, even with some gusto. He has a mission, and he’s getting home.
After encountering a battalion hidden in another set of woods, determined to fight to the last man, they stop off at a remote Japanese village near what seems to be the new border between Soviet occupied territory and Japanese territory (the fog of war is thick). After a promise of perhaps finding a new life (that some of the soldiers wish to take), Soviet soldiers show up, and before Kaji can fire the first shot in an ambush flurry of gunfire, one of the women of the town runs out, begging for the civilians’ lives, that would surely be cut short violently if the fight were to break out. Kaji relents, the sight of a woman who resembles Michiko to some degree bringing him back to his humanity that he had all but considered lost.
The final part of the film is in the Soviet prisoner of war camp where Kaji must find a way to survive until he can reach Michiko. It’s also where the socialist ideals of the character (and director) come into conflict with the realities of the Soviet Union, in a blunted way, to be honest. The Soviet officers running the camp seem to have little concern for the wellbeing of the people at large, and they honor the class system within the military, offering lighter workloads to officers than enlisted men, going against the classless ideals of communism. Kaji spends a fair amount of time in voiceover trying to protect the Soviet Army’s reputation (considering what was known of what the Red Army did in World War II, especially across Eastern Europe, by the late 50s and early 60s, this does end up feeling really weird, maybe it’s only in contrast to the Japanese army that they look good), but in the end, his disillusionment with his own ideology is the final nail in the coffin. He’s lost everything by this point. All he can hope for is his wife, and she could be anywhere. However, she is not in that prison camp. So, after a series of punishments because he’s considered a saboteur for making thicker clothes out of sacks and sending a sick prisoner to find vegetable scraps, he decides that he will escape and keep on his journey towards Michiko.
The line from the first film, about how being born Japanese was his greatest sin and there’s nothing he can do about it, comes back here as the Chinese and Manchu natives treat him with disdain and violence at his presence, with the added irony that Kaji did end up participating in post-war violence against Manchu villagers. He ends sadly, but beautifully in a field of snow.
So, first of all, the entire ten hours of the film is filled with events. There are moments of quiet introspection, but it’s an army of characters, episodes, and movement from South Manchuria to the Russian border and back. That ends up making the ten hours pass surprisingly quickly, for those concerned about the length. What saves it from feeling like a staccato series of jumps from one scene to the next is twofold. The first is the incredible handle on all of the characters that Kobayashi has. That’s not just a writing thing (attributed to Zenzo Matsuyama and Koichi Inagaki), but also a filming thing. Kobayashi’s command of the camera might not have been as painterly as Kurosawa’s or Wyler’s, but he had a clear professional eye that reminded me a bit of Howard Hawks.
The other thing that helps maintain that clarity is the extreme focus on Kaji himself. Every scene is about him, even if he’s not in it. Every scene is designed to further his journey in some way. Every scene is about providing more information and context around his change of character. It’s this tight focus that gives this hugely sweeping story (that often felt like Doctor Zhivago, especially in the winter scenes) that kind of intimate emotional core to carry the audience through. And yet, this is a rather grim picture. A portrait of the idealist losing everything because of forces outside of his control.
It may not be something to put in on a Friday night to relax from a long week, but it is an essential chapter in cinema. Very few productions have this kind of ambition or succeed as completely (Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is another such example).