The Human Condition

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Cinema Scope
by Michael Joshua Rowin

The Human Condition
Dir. Masaki Kobayashi, Japan, Janus Films

In L magazine Mark Asch already beat me to the punch, but it’s still worth noting right off the bat critic David Shipman’s claim that Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (1959-1961), his three-film, ten-hour epic chronicling of a young idealist’s disintegration at the hands of Japan’s fascist regime during World War II, is “the finest achievement yet made by cinema” and “unquestionably the greatest film ever made.” That’s an interesting statement if for no other reason than that among Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, Bicycle Thieves, The Searchers, Rashomon and the other usual suspects voted or ranked as the “greatest film ever,” The Human Condition is ordinarily never in the running—heck, it fails to even receive a mention in The Oxford History of World Cinema. Judging the “greatest film ever” is always a pretty silly exercise, yet Shipman’s hyperbolic pronouncement would nevertheless be best used as an occasion to point the spotlight at this relatively obscure “greatest” in order to determine its true value and importance. Ambitious cinema of The Human Condition’s scope and magnitude is rare, and the mere dimensions of its canvas invite our undivided attention.

And once one gets through Kobayashi’s film, its value and importance become clear: The Human Condition, based on the novel by Jumpei Gornikawa, might be the last great humanistic films in the tradition of Jean Renoir, as well as a haunting swan song for the humanistic project in its own right. A triptych of separate but related films, each film further separated into two parts, The Human Condition begins with No Greater Love (1959), in which protagonist Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai, in an incredible, subtly modulating performance) avoids military service as a conscientious objector during Japan’s involvement in the Second World War by taking an assignment as assistant overseer of Chinese prisoners of war in a forced labor camp. Torn between obedience to his superiors and his pacifistic, socialistic, and humanistic principles, Kaji tries to influence the operation by standing up for the prisoners against brutal conditions and cruel treatment, but is struck down by bureaucratic disdain and the camp politics at nearly every turn. By the end, his marriage to wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) strained and his courage to fight injustice only half-proven (during a mass execution of falsely accused prisoners he puts to a halt after three have already died), Kaji is betrayed by his government and sent off to war.

Kaji’s resolve is further tested in part two, The Road to Eternity (1959). The military possesses the same codes of dehumanization and silence as forced labor (and in Kaji’s case might very well be deemed forced labor anyway), as our embattled humanist struggles to see that squad runt Obara (Kunie Tanaka) is treated with a modicum of dignity. But the constant beatings and taunts from fellow officers become too much to bear, and Obara, in what might be one of the prototypes for Full Metal Jacket, kills himself—a tragedy Kaji demands be addressed to no avail except the justice he takes into his own hands. Meanwhile, Shinjo (Kei Sato), a soldier sympathetic to Kaji, plans defection to the Soviet enemy, whom both men revere for their progressive ideology. Kaji considers doing the same but decides instead to stay on and change the system from within. But when given the opportunity to do so with the job of leading new recruits, he is physically assaulted and humiliated for his efforts. The Road to Eternity ends with Kaji surviving his unit’s nearly complete obliteration during a battle with the Soviets, killing—despite his hatred of violence—several of his enemies and even one of his fellow soldiers. He emerges from the scorched battlefield shell-shocked and traumatized: “Is anyone still alive!?”

Finally, A Soldier’s Prayer (1961) picks up with Kaji and other survivors wandering the Manchurian countryside, trying to find some way back home. Kaji has changed dramatically. Barely hanging onto his principles, he has become disillusioned and surly. His comrades join up with a group of starving civilians. The now intimidating Kaji becomes their leader and helplessly presides over dying babies, suicides, and dissension in the ranks. Wandering further while fighting off and eluding enemy soldiers, witnessing the killing and raping of Japanese women by Soviets and Japanese soldiers alike, Kaji keeps his sanity by addressing Michiko in his mind, wondering of his spiritual state and the future of their life together, the first time voice-overs are used in the series. His ragtag platoon is eventually captured as prisoners of war by the Soviets. In the camp, Kaji once again tries to help a sick fellow prisoner, Terada (Yusuke Kawazu), but his efforts are met with hostility by Japanese superiors anointed by the Soviets, as well as the Soviets themselves, the latter of whom disappoint Kaji with their stubborn insistence on punishing “reactionary” behavior while completely ignoring humanitarianism.

If I’ve spent a good portion of this review recounting the plot of The Human Condition it’s because the film is positively exhausting in the abuse and horrors it piles on its protagonist in the effort to tempt him into cynicism and defeat against his initially solid faith in man. Kobayashi saves the trilogy from lugubrious self-pity, however, by refusing to deify Kaji, using an extended duration to survey each and every pressure exerted on him in the hellish microcosms where he fights for the cause of humankind and the ways in which they confuse his moral compass. The only film, and film experience, to which I can compare The Human Condition is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-and-a-half-hour TV movie adaptation of Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. At first the correspondences between the two films, except for those of epic length, seem to be wanting—Kobayashi’s Renoiresque humanism, realism, and earnestness runs completely counter to Fassbinder’s Brechtian irony, detachment, and artificiality, and the dead-set provocation coveted (and obtained) by the New German Cinema bad boy in confronting his country with the sins of its past has no place in the harsh yet compassionate involvement that Kobayashi instills by making Kaji heroic but fallible, a model of dignity subject to self-doubt and folly.

And yet strangely, surprisingly, both projects share a haunted fascination with national and historical trauma that is almost entirely unique and unparalleled in cinema, the obsessive nature of their pursuits for answers about their nations’ shameful descent into self-destruction fueling not only marathon runtimes but also torturous passion play narratives featuring stubborn protagonists whose education in the horrors and hypocrisies of the world unfold in relentless, punishing accretions of indignities. There’s an instructional quality to Kobayashi’s humanism as well as Fassbinder’s theatricality: Kaji’s encounters with bureaucratic fascism, militaristic brutality, sexual exploitation, and animalistic selfishness play out as stations on the road to personal and universal annihilation in the same manner in which Franz Biberkopf’s run-ins with Nazis, gangsters, communists, and prostitutes gradually acquire profound significance and stand for a greater level of collective shame and guilt.

Of course, Fassbinder’s project surveys the mores and values of a nation leading up to the disaster of World War II, whereas Kobayashi’s film begins at the start of war and goes on from there. The difference in the films’ respective eras is significant—where Fassbinder’s film is an investigation into personal/political confusion whose complex discoveries challenge the viewer to reassess their assumptions about the roots of totalitarianism, Kobayashi’s film takes totalitarianism (and all other forms of antidemocratic nastiness) as a given and uses it to put humanism—Kaji’s and the viewer’s both—to the test. Kobayashi’s WWII is an abstract and universal moral landscape, and for all of The Human Condition’s sober accounts of fascist bureaucracy, it still backs away from depicting state-sponsored genocide or even imperialist ambition. This speaks, perhaps, to Germany and Japan’s widely disparate approaches to culpability after the war (Japanese schoolbooks to this day fail to acknowledge the atrocities committed on the Chinese), but it also puts The Human Condition in dialogue with the literature and cinema of the great humanistic project. War and Peace is the obvious humanist monument that The Human Condition echoes, with its ground-level view of history (“Minor facts ignored by history can be important to the individual. He who has seen such failings can never wipe out the memory,” Kaji postulates when confronted with the Soviets’ ideological tunnel vision), but Renoir, as stated before, is all over the film’s musings on man’s potential. Kobayashi shoots the film’s action—most of which unfolds in intense disagreements on humane and practical strategy in dealing with prisoners, soldiers, or war—in long, unbroken takes, harsh and cramped environs emphasized by deep focus shots that frame characters against the surroundings that trap and warp them.

In this respect Kaji’s tour through the disastrous culmination of modern industrial civilization simultaneously exalts Renoir’s visual and philosophical humanism in Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game as a solution to nihilism, while at the same time taking it to task, holding it up to the merciless conditions Renoir often ignored—Grand Illusion’s portrayal of POW life, for instance, seems downright naïve, especially when compared to Kobayashi’s film. Near its end, the trilogy’s previously unwavering linearity breaks down, with flashbacks, freeze frames, and jarring flashes of montage—most effective in a scene where Kaji encounters an enemy soldier, both of whom are mirrored in gesture and in perfectly matched compositions—paralleling the dissolution of a once stable belief system. Perched on the cusp of the Japanese New Wave and the explosion of international art cinema, Kobayashi’s bold undertaking acts simultaneously, a gargantuan purging of once unshakeable optimism before the political, existential despair of Godard and Antonioni, a resolute desire to carry the flame of hope inspired by the noble example of Renoir.