Kobayashi’s Magnum Opus: “The Human Condition” trilogy


Perhaps there are many Japanese movies that have not been exported about the perilous situation of Japanese soldiers at the time of the empire’s surrender concluding World War II. Counting Kobayashi Masaki’s “Ningen no joken” (released as the trilogy “The Human Condition” in the West, as a tetraolgy in Japan) as one, there are three stunningly photographed and emotionally devastating late-1950s Japanese movies about the end of the war for soldiers at the edges that did make it to international audiences: Ichikawa’s “Harp of Burma” (obviously set in Burma, though mostly filmed in Japan), Ichikawa’s “Fire on the Plains” (set in the Philippines), and Kobayashi’s ten-hour portrayal of the sufferings of Kaji (Nakadai Tatsuya) in Manchuria.

The full impact (wallop!) of the movie requires not knowing what difficulties are going to befall Kaji next, so I recommend skipping my plot discussion (even though I am not going to reveal the ending), blocking out the ten hours (the first DVD runs 208 minutes, the second 181 minutes, the third 190 minutes) and watching the whole thing. Beginning in 1961, there was a theater in Tokyo that showed the whole thing every night for two years. I don’t know if any suicides resulted, though it would be easy to understand them. One DVD at a time seems harsh enough a regimen to me, though the finale is heartbreaking even with a week between each part, the way I saw it.


Although a war movie, one of the greatest ones ever made, indeed, it takes roughly seven hours to get to a battle. The first part (“No Greater Love“) shows Kaji in 1943 as a fresh-faced idealist advocating more humane treatment of slave labor and in love. He is exempted from the draft and sent into northern Manchuria to try out his ideas in a slave labor (mining) camp. Productivity rises with (Japanese) prostitutes servicing the (Chinese) laborers. Arrangements are complicated considerably when prisoners are consigned to hard labor. The military commanders don’t care how many prisoners die, so long as none escape. Kaji attempts to protect all the workers and the conflict with the military culminates in his being tortured by the military at the end of the first part.


The second part (“The Road to Eternity“) shows Kaji survived the torture, but was thrown into the army. He again gets in trouble with the brutal veterans trying to protect a sad-sack fellow draftee (Tanaka Kumie) in whatever Japanese boot camp is called. The physically and emotionally strong Kaji is then put in charge of a new group of recruits. In the second part, he is beaten up by Japanese soldiers denied taking out their aggressions on the new draftees. Kaji and half the new soldiers, including one transfixed with the full samurai honor code, Terada (Kawazu Yusuke) are out on a ditch-digging assignment when the Soviet Union declares war on Japan and its troops swarm into Manchuria.

Soviet tanks roll over the Japanese position, but do not notice Kaji and Terada. The third part (“A Soldier’s Prayer“) shows their difficult journey south. Various other refugees (including some “comfort women”) join them, as Kaji again takes responsibility for trying to save others. He expels a trio of marauding Japanese soldiers from the group, and an old friend of his who is a True Believer in communism goes off to surrender. Kaji and Terada become Soviet prisoners, and find the Japanese soldiers they expelled have positions as trustees in the Soviet prison/slave labor camp in which the other Japanese are being starved. Before they are all shipped off to Siberia (where survivors were held eight years), after failing to save Terada, Kaji escapes with the aid of his friend (whose faith has only slightly been shaken by the egregious mistreatment of the Japanese POWs) and sets off across a frozen hell. Even with all the suffering Kaji has seen and endured, indeed, in that he has survived so much and is resolute in his determination to get back to his wife Machiko (Aratama Michiyo, last seen on a visit to the army camp in the middle of the second part), Hollywood-raised audiences anticipate the final triumph of the great-souled Kaji… But this is not a Hollywood movie.

a soldiers prayer.jpg

The incidents shown are searing. Nakadai Tatsuya—who was discovered by Kobayashi and starred in most of his movies and was also in more Kurosawa movies than Mifune was, played the main characters in the towering late Kurosawa masterpieces “Kagemusha” and “Ran”—is more than charismatic as he attempts to hold onto humane ideals and a sense of social responsibility in very extreme conditions. His interruption of beheadings in the first part, the visit of his wife when they are allowed a night in a warehouse with no blankets, his conduct on the battleground and in trying to save as many people as he can in the trek south and inside the Soviet prison camp are heroic in a very stoical way. Both his patrons and those outraged by Kaji’s treatment of enemies (and Japanese subordinates) as human are strikingly portrayed, with Kawazu Yusuke’s changes in the part of Terada especially compelling. Aratama Michiyo does not have a whole lot to do, but her own bravery in visiting her suspect husband is unmistakable.

The final part provides the most stunning vistas and grimmest images (though the botched beheading in part one is not easily forgotten). The cinematography by Miyajima Yoshio is superb throughout, flashiest in “A Soldier’s Prayer.” The musical score by Kinoshita Chuji is markedly restrained in contrast to the bombast of Hollywood war movies (recent ones as well as those made during World War II) and the sentimentality of other soundtracks for his brother Keisuke’s films or for Kobayashi’s earlier ones.

The set of movies is based on a novel by Jumpei Gomikawa, but also upon Kobayashi’s experiences while stationed in Manchuria at the end of the Second World War. Although running ten hours with intermissions, “The Human Condition” does not drag (as Kobayashi’s movie best-known in the West, “Kwaidan,” seems to be to do, though its visual composition in color are remarkable). The middle part is a bit baffling, and perhaps suffered some cuts, though the basic situation and trajectory are clear.

The print and soundtrack used were somewhat compromised by age (and 2.2:1 is not quite the original aspect ratio), but they are more than adequate to show what a stupendous masterpiece Kobayashi wrought. (There are Japanese side-titles for Chinese speech and English subtitles under the picture.) “The Human Condition” makes “The Bridge on the River Kwai” look quite silly in comparison, with an indictment of Japanese militarism (and licensed mayhem) that is both more credible and stronger than that much-honored movie.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray



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