Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kobayashi’s The Human Condition

The Human Condition
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Criterion Collection 4-DVD set

The history of the Twentieth Century was marked by the horrors of National Socialism and Fascism, followed by bitter disillusionment with the Soviet system. In a few short but epic years, one Japanese idealist experiences both firsthand as the anguished protagonist of Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (trailer here), a closely linked cinematic trilogy now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Kaji, a humanist intellectual of vaguely leftwing convictions, seems determined to martyr himself. As No Greater Love (part I) opens, he tries in vain to reject his beautiful girlfriend Michiko, but their love is too strong. However, Kaji’s fear that marrying him will only bring her painful tribulations proves all too prescient over the course of the roughly nine and a half hours that follow.

Given his pacifist inclinations, Kaji wants to avoid military service, but he is not one to do things the easy way. He accepts a promotion to manage an important provincial mine (and the military deferment that goes with it) in order to implement his enlightened theories of labor management. However, he soon finds himself undermined by openly insubordinate overseers and a thoroughly corrupt boss. He is also surprised to discover the camp’s contingent of “comfort women” also come under his management purview. Despite his co-workers’ obstructions, Kaji makes some initial progress, only to see it collapse with the arrival of six-hundred Chinese POWs delivered by the Japanese military, precipitating the first of Kaji’s many crises of conscience.

In Road to Eternity (part II), Kaji has lost his military deferment and must endure the brutal basic training regimen "under suspicion." Yet his hard-headed nature and physical strength make him decent soldier material. Unfortunately, the cruelty meted out on weaker conscripts only confirms his antipathy for the military. Kaji still does his duty as a soldier, but it comes as a futile display of honor as the Soviets quickly overwhelm his company.

Kaji had been preoccupied with the question of how to be humane in an inhuman system, but throughout A Soldier’s Prayer (part III) his only concern is simple survival. As Japanese soldiers become lowly bandits (and worse), Kaji watches in horror. Still, his greatest disillusionment will come in a Soviet POW camp, where “good intentions are suppressed and evil is tolerated.” To some extent a former fellow traveler, enduring the same brutality from the Soviets that he had witnessed from the Imperial Japanese may well be the death knell of Kaji’s idealism. As he bitterly complains to a leftist comrade-in-arms: “They can send us to Siberia and work us to death. But take down the ‘peace’ and ‘liberation’ signs.”

Condition is a true cinematic masterpiece—and that word is not used lightly. It is not merely an indictment of the Imperial Japanese war machine, though it most assuredly acts as such. Condition in its totality, is a complete rejection of the ideologies (of all stripes), which ravaged the last century. Yet for all its clashing historical dialectics, Condition is fundamentally a Zhivago-esque love story of a man and a woman cruelly separated by fate.

Tatsuya Nakadai gives a fully realized performance as Kaji, brilliantly evolving from an inflexible moralizer to a literal shell of a man. The luminous Michiyo Aratama is also quite remarkable, expressing the naiveté and surprising strength of the loyal Michiko. Condition also boasts a host of accomplished actors in supporting roles, including Hideko Takamine (who appeared with Nakadai in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) as a desperate refugee seeking Kaji’s protection.

Though Condition played in its entirety on the big screen at New York’s Film Forum (even making a brief return engagement), Kobayashi’s monumental film cycle requires a time commitment most viewers can only muster for home viewing. Fortunately, Criterion beautifully renders Yoshio Miyajima’s glorious black-and-white cinematography and Kobayashi’s long tracking shots of sweeping vistas (that often reduces Kaji and his companions to tiny dehumanized figures along the expansive horizon) in their deluxe letterbox edition, making it a very cinematic DVD experience.

Condition is a truly great film (or film trilogy if you prefer). It is an angry but compassionate examination of what it was like to be human during some of the darkest hours of the past century. Viewers should not be intimated by the running time or the subtitles. It is a film about big picture themes everyone can relate to—love war, and basic human decency—brilliantly crafted by a master filmmaker, finally available in a worthy DVD package.