There are few explicit battle scenes in Masaki Kobayashi’s monumental screen adaptation of Junpei Gomikawa’s six-volume novel, “The Human Condition,” yet the visage of war is present in every moment of its nearly 10-hour running time. War, that eternal excuse for sadism, brutality and inhumanity, defines the relationship of man to man and nation to nation, from the battlefield to the labor camps, and even the passing embrace of man and woman.
Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) begins as a conscientious objector who accepts a job as labor supervisor at an iron ore mine in Japanese-controlled Manchuria, where 600 of the 10,000 workers are Chinese civilian POWs. It’s 1943, and his socialist labor theories brand him a subversive. When his interference with the treatment of the workers leads to charges of insubordination, he is beaten, tortured and finally conscripted into the army. Following several harrowing scenes in a basic training camp, he is sent to fight on the Manchurian border, where the Japanese army is defeated and Kaji ends up as a prisoner of the Soviet Union’s Red Army, working in a labor camp under the tyrannical supervision of his own countrymen.
The six parts of “The Human Condition” are divided into three sections, each with an intermission. In the first, Kaji learns the difference between the monsters who wear the mask of humanity and the men of true conscience. In the second, he finds he is not himself immune to succumbing to the brutality of war. The last section finds Kaji in retreat through southern Manchuria, looking for a way home. Captured by the Red Army, this man who has seen himself as one whose nature was at odds with the national character, discovers that military sadism is not exclusive to the Japanese but inherent to all armies.
Kobayashi’s trilogy favors poetic realism over the costumed spectacle of conventional epics. Its dozens of inspired moments include a shocking cut from the flight of birds to a decaying corpse, the simple beauty of a woman dipping her face into the river after days of thirst and the twitching arm of a dying man accompanied by melodramatic music that stops abruptly at the moment of his death. Each of its three parts climaxes in sequences of nearly unendurable heartbreak: The unjustified executions of Chinese POWs accused of attempting escape, invincible tanks advancing over the foxholes where a few surviving infantrymen cower and Kaji’s death march across the icy plains, each step bringing him closer to an impossible reunion with his wife.
Although based on Gomikawa’s novel, “The Human Condition” is in part autobiographical, as Kobayashi served six years in the Japanese army, during which time he, like Kaji, refused promotion to officer on account of his opposition to the war. Kobayashi also fought in Manchuria and was detained in a Soviet detention camp after the fall of Okinawa.
Best known to Western audiences for his leading roles in Akira Kurasawa’s “Kagemusha” and “Ran,” Nakadai breaks the boundaries of character delineation in his portrayal of Kaji. As introspective and self-centered as Hamlet, as altruistic and idealistic as Jesus Christ and as universal as Everyman, the contradictions of his personality are united by his perpetual martyrdom to the evil of mankind. The supporting cast, which includes Michiyo Aratama as Kaji’s forceful yet compliant wife, functions more as a set of fixed character types through which Kaji’s alliances and adversarial relationships are defined.
Filmed from 1959-1961, during a period in Japanese cinema that expressed an increasingly pacifistic attitude toward not only war but all forms of authoritarian coercion, “The Human Condition” is a masterpiece on all fronts. Its many innovations include the use of interior monologue to convey the thoughts of its characters, which was developed even further in Sergei Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace.” Other films bearing its mark include “Full Metal Jacket” and “The Thin Red Line.” After seeing it, one cannot but agree with Kaji’s summation that “war is an insult to humanity.”