Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai Michiyo Aratama Keiji Sada Koji Nambara So Yamamura
Running time: 208 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
When Japanese film fans think of maverick filmmakers certain names immediately jump to mind: Seijun Suzuki, Teruo Ishii, Takashi Miike. There's no doubt that the work of these men bucked trends and pushed the envelope as to what is stylistically possible on screen, but in the age old push and pull between style and substance there's probably no Japanese filmmaker who better deserves the title "maverick" than Masaki Kobabayshi. Over his 33-year career Kobabyashi challenged the status quo by questioning the hierarchy and entrenched feudal loyalty in Japanese society. The films that Kobabayshi is best known for here in North America, 1962's "Harakiri" and 1967's "Samurai Rebellion" addressed those issues by taking their ethical arguments and pushing them back several centuries to the height of the samurai's power in Japan. The Criterion Collection has had both of these films as part of their catalogue for a number of years now, but finally fans of Japanese film can experience Kobayashi's true maverick nature by being able to see the director's greatest work, the 9 1/2 hour WW2 epic "The Human Condition".
Set in the latter days of the war in Japanese-occupied Manchuria the film centers around Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a 28-year-old civil servant who's constantly under threat of being drafted and sent to the front lines. He's so fearful of this fate that refuses to marry his fiance Michiko (Michiyo Aratama). In an effort to avoid military service and to have Michiko as his wife Kaji agrees to go and supervise a mine operated by the Japanese in Northern Manchuria. Idealistic in the extreme Kaji hopes that his humanist paradigms can be practically applied to the Chinese work force at the mine, but his methods are at best humoured and at worst openly rebuked by the mine's foremen. If the situation wasn't bad enough as is the Imperial Army shows up and forces the mine to take on 600 Chinese POW's and suddenly what was originally a work camp becomes a prison camp and Kaji finds his role going from one of supervisor to warden. Constantly navigating the difficulties of having a workforce that's bent on escape Kaji must negotiate his own morals beliefs, bringing in "comfort women" to help motivate the prisoners, as well as other tactics that slowly grind away at his resolve.
Tatsuya Nakadai, a protege of Kobayashi at that point in his career, gives one of his most brilliant performances in this first installment of "The Human Condition". You can almost feel Kaji's morality slowly tearing inside of him. By the end of the film, and his grueling ordeal supervising the workers, he's somehow held onto his ideals but only by a thread. To say that Nakadai was creating a cinematic alter-ego for Kobabayashi with this performance might be too broad a statement, but the situation that Kaji finds himself in mirrors much of Kobabayashi's own experiences or at least anti-authoritarian sentiments, during the war. Kobayashi was drafted into the Imperial Army in 1942 and served in Manchuria, but refused to be advanced in rank and remained a private as a way to quietly protest Japan's war effot.
Kobayashi obviously took the emotional core of his own war experience and fused it with Junpei Gomikawa’s six-volume novel that chronicles Kaji's inner moral crisis, but that crisis bleeds into everything in Kobayashi's adaptation. The task of supervising these prisoners traps Kaji in the very same way that the electric barbwire fence that surrounds the work camp keeps the Chinese trapped. Every single person employed at or imprisoned in the camp are there because they've tried to do the right thing, either staying loyal to Japan's occupation of Manchuria (like fellow camp supervisor Okishima) or fighting to keep China for the Chinese (like the defacto prisoner leaders Wang Heng Li and Kao). Despite their intentions though Kaji and everyone around him is caught in a world of brutality and exploitation.
It's a given to say that the first installment of "The Human Condition" is a stellar example of epic filmmaking, from the sprawling vistas and dusty deserts captured by cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima to the lush, evocative score composed by Chuji Kinoshita, but one thing I couldn't stop thinking of while watching it was just how timely the Criterion Collection's release of Kobayashi's magnum opus is for our current political climate. In the six years since the Bush administration tricked the United States into invading Iraq we in Canada have seen a number of AWOL American soldiers seeking asylum froma war that their consciences won't let them participate in. It's a situation that Masaki Kobayashi would have instantly felt a kinship. Having "The Human Condition" come out now gives North American cinephiles a chance to exorcise whatever moral fury they've been harbouring through this tumultuous decade.