The difficult art of being human.
After the second World War the anti-war sentiments in Japan where quite strong. This also reflected itself on the Japanese films that came out in that period, and the most obvious product of it is certainly Masaki Kobayashi’s “The Human Condition”. A 10-hour epic trilogy that follows a pacifist, caught in the middle of the Japanese WW2 war effort.
The first part takes place in Japan-occupied Manchuria and introduces us to our hero Kaji and his sweetheart Michiko. Kaji is reluctant to wed Michiko because he fears he will soon be drafted in to the army. But after delivering a report on maximizing labor efficiency in the steel mines, he is given an opportunity to avoid military service by taking over the management of workers at one of the mines.
He accepts and moves there with his new wife, only to find out that the conditions in the mine and the camp that houses the workers are very inhumane. Things get even more difficult for Kaji once the army makes him responsible for 600 prisoners of war, practically putting him in charge of a concentration camp. But Kaji has an extremely strong and incorruptible moral core, which will bring him in direct conflict with his superiors and even the obviously mistrustful Chinese prisoners.
It is very hard to portray a character like Kaji because more often than not his unachievable ideals, while commendable, make him as a character somewhat unrealistic and almost inhuman. But because this moral gauntlet is the main dramatic drive of the film and because Kaji finds himself in such an appalling surrounding it is very easy to find sympathy for him. And to be quite honest, I am not sure if Kaji as a character would work on screen if it was not for Tatsuya Nakadai, the actor portraying him.
Here I have to diverge a bit and say that Tatsuya Nakadai is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors of all time. He was a frequent collaborator of Kurosawa, Gosha and Kobayashi, which puts some of the greatest Japanese films in his portfolio. Furthermore he is an actor that rarely repeated himself. And as any great actor he knew how to use his greatest asset to perfection, his eyes. At turns they could have made him in to an almost alien-like sociopath (“The Sword of Doom”) or project defiance and empathy like in “Goyokin” or, indeed, “The Human Condition”.
So the film is obviously quite a somber piece that puts our saint-like protagonist through all kinds of moral, social and physical tribulations. But it is also a film that is extremely critical of the fascist Imperial-era Japan and its war-effort. This also fully represents Kobayashi’s anti-imperialist and anti-war views as well. When he was drafted in the army as a protest he famously rejected to be promoted above the rank of private.
This is felt very much in this first part of the trilogy, even to the point where you could describe the film as a mournful outburst of shared guilt for the crimes committed by the Japanese in China during World War II. And for me this is what makes the film so fascinating and gripping, not only despite its oppressive bleakness but in turn because of it.
Original title: Ningen no jôken
Tatsuya Nakadai - Kaji
Michiyo Aratama - Michiko
So Yamamura - Okishima
Akira Ishiama - Chen
Original language: Japanese, Mandarin