Friday 19 December 2003

The Human Condition

In his Salon review of The Return of the King, the final film in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Andrew O’Hehir writes:

Although I’ll always have a soft spot for “The Fellowship of the Ring,” which made us all believe that this implausible endeavor might actually work, this one is Jackson’s crowning achievement. It marks “The Lord of the Rings,” without any serious question, as the greatest long-form work in the history of mainstream cinema. (Do I hear any other nominees?)

As a matter of fact, yes.

Poster for Kobayashi's The Human Condition Kobayashi Masaki’s Ningen no Jōken (The Human Condition).

Between 1959 and 1961 Kobayashi compressed Gomikawa Junpei’s six-volume novel into three feature films, each over three hours long. The trilogy left an indelible impression when I saw it years ago, on television, before I had a VCR. I’ve always regretted not being able to tape Kobayashi’s trilogy but, happily, it’s now available on DVD. Based partly on the director’s own war experiences, The Human Condition tells the story of a pacifist, Kaji (played by Nakadai Tatsuya), who is drafted into the Imperial Army.

In the first film, No Greater Love, Kaji is punished by being sent to a mine in Manchuria. After unsuccessfully trying to improve the conditions of the native slave laborers, he is charged with treason, tortured, and forced to join a combat unit.

The second film, Road to Eternity, depicts in unflinching detail the brutality of the Imperial Army—not just to the tyrannized Chinese but also to the Japanese enlisted men. Despite Kaji’s reluctance he is promoted and, in trying to alleviate the hardships of his subordinates, incurs the hostility of his fellow officers. After a series of pointless attacks, he is one of only three members of his unit to survive the final battle.

In the last installment, A Soldier’s Prayer, the Japanese forces surrender but Kaji—who imagines he will soon return to Japan—is captured by Soviet troops and sent to a POW camp where he is accused of murder and sentenced to be executed. He escapes into a Siberian blizzard and dies dreaming of being reunited with his wife.

I would much prefer to have seen The Human Condition at the cinema in a single sitting: starting around nine in the morning with ninety minute breaks for lunch and dinner. But even watching it on a tiny TV screen over three consecutive nights was an amazing experience. That Kobayashi was able to finance a nine hour trilogy based on such an uncompromising script is a tribute to the vitality of the postwar Japanese film industry. I can’t help but feel that my interest in—and sympathy for—the Japanese experience of the Pacific War is a direct consequence of seeing this film.

Nakadai Tatsuya is perfectly cast in the role of Kaji. As Satō Tadao writes in Currents in Japanese Cinema:

In adverse situations this strong, samurai-like man remembers his beautiful wife and, by calling out her name, is able to endure his suffering. Nakadai’s performance was a revolutionary transformation of the traditional Confucian dictum that a noble man does not love a woman.

Kobayashi based much of The Human Condition on his own experiences: eight months after entering Shochiku’s Ōfuna studio as an assistant director, he was drafted in January 1942 and by April had arrived in Harbin, Manchuria. As Audie Bock explains in her book Japanese Film Directors, Kobayashi expressed “his opposition to the cruelty of the Imperial Japanese Army system by refusing to rise above the rank of private, which he remained for the duration of his military service.”

About his pacifist hero, Kobayashi said: “I am Kaji in the film.”

Is Kobayashi’s epic “greater” than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy? I think so (from what I’ve seen of LoTR so far) though I can’t think of a single person who might agree with me. I quite enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring, was bored to stupefaction by The Two Towers, and will see The Return of the King only because I’m anal-retentive and hate to leave things unfinished. I guess I prefer bleak realism to vulgar spectacle.

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I'll have to agree with you, even though I haven't seen one of the series to which you allude.

I have to agree if only because I won't be watching the last of the 'Rings' movies. I can't stand the way Jackson hacked the storyline of his films, nor the fact that for the most part, the only characters who get to use Tolkien's dialogue consistently (rather than Jackson's insipid, sentimental, and thoroughly nauseating rendering) are the ones with lengthy and established careers.

Sure, it's been said elsewhere that Tolkien's dialogue is difficult at times. But it beats Jackson's without question. And the solution to difficult dialogue surely isn't to crush the script into Disneyesque form, but to hire good actors.

If I wince more than 5 times in a movie, it won't get my vote for any awards.

Posted by tonio on 19 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I saw the Human Condition over a weekend (Friday night and Saturday, Sunday afternoons) on the "big screen" back in about 1975 at Newcastle University (Australia). I have never forgotten the impact it had on me, and on others in the audience - many didn't make it to the end. The impact was both emotional (I ran out of tears early on but the sorrow and despair kept going, and kept demanding a response from me ...) and physical (the punches in the stomach from the "bleak" dilemma of Kaji and resultant nausea). I know of nothing greater.

One bleakly real scene totally unforgettable: the starving prisoners falling out of the train into the blinding light and as their sight returns beseiging the horse and cart drawn up nearby with food. The enraged and frightened driver begins to whip them to try and regain some order and finally is forced to drive off leaving them unfed. And all the time in this long slow scene a storm approaches from the horizon behind and finally the rain, thunder, lightning and darkness completes the scene of desolation. Bleak realism at its very best.

Posted by colin on 19 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I shall have to watch both sets of films, complete.

I just got a phone review by a viewer, arguably even less tolerant of departures from sacred text than I, who remarked that the finale of LOTR was, in fact, ohdearme, "good, actually... good." *gulp*

I eat my words.

Posted by tonio on 19 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Colin, I'm somewhat surprised to find someone (close to home, no less) who has seen Kobayashi's trilogy. The impact you describe, on you and the audience, mirror my own experience of watching the films. You were fortunate to see it on the big screen -- I'm wondering what it might be like to watch it on DVD.

Tonio, I hope you'll come back and leave another comment, once you have seen both sets of films.

Posted by Jonathon on 19 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This just came out on DVD in Japan, presumably in gloriously restored form:

Alas, no subtitles. I am ashamed to admit that I have not yet seen this -- in any form yet.

I could not bring myself to see Part 2 of LOTR (having been so irritated by Part 1), but may break down and see Pt. 3, based on the glowing reviews.

Posted by Michael Kerpan on 20 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Thanks for this; I wasn't even aware of the Human Condition trilogy, and based on your recommendation I'm quite sure I'll love it. As for Andrew O’Hehir... well, I'll hold back on the unkind things that spring to mind and just say his taste in movies is not mine. I enjoyed Fellowship more than Two Towers, I intend to see the third partly for completeness and partly because of the raves, but I can't imagine putting them up against what I consider real movies, let alone making insane claims about "the greatest long-form work in the history of mainstream cinema." Obvious contenders in that category are the Godfather movies, Kieszlowski's Red/Blue/White and Dekalog, Pagnol's Marseille trilogy (Marius/Fanny/César) and Jean de Florette/Manon des sources, Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Truffaut's Doinel trilogy (though I've soured on Truffaut in recent years), just off the top of my head; I'm sure I'm forgetting about equally obvious choices. The Jackson movies, no matter how entertaining and at times moving, simply are not playing in the same league; it's too bad movie culture, dominated by the know-nothing commercialism of Hollywood, is incapable of recognizing the fact, but that's another matter. I expect Return of the King to get many Oscars; I even expect to enjoy it. But the Godfather has nothing to worry about.

Posted by language hat on 20 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Like Tonio I'm already persuaded, but I don't compare and rank things like that, just persuaded that I'd greatly enjoy 'The Human Condition'.
The fact that Kobayashi's 'Seppuku (Hara-Kiri)' is the one movie I'd put over all others if forced to that near-pointless gesture may have something to do with it.
Kurosawa's 'Dodes Ka-den' was pretty epiphanic for me, on the post-war, post-innocence, human-kindness-tempered-in-the-fire-of-total-desolation, tip. I have a hard time getting in prose the emotional ride of those films.
'Ulysses' and 'Gravity's Rainbow' are both popular and similarly weighted volumes, with cults and clusters of devoted advocacy. There's room on the shelf, yes?
As a hook trilogy-comparison works, I'm just trying to do a narrative where the protagonist is forced to choose between Kobayashi and Coppola and an uncut D.W. Griffith, or the collected Sanyajit Ray.
My hero grabs the entire armload and bolts.

Posted by msg on 20 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Michael, I have good news for you -- "The Human Condition" is available with subtitles (the links on each of the film titles in my post point to the respective subtitled version at Amazon).

LH, thanks for listing all those "nominees". I realized as I was reading your comment that I'd failed to mention what is unquestionably the "greatest long-form work in the history of mainstream cinema" -- the Tora-san movies (48 films made between 1969 and 1996). I must have been hung up on suggesting an alternative trilogy.

Speaking of which, isn't the Doinel trilogy actually a tetralogy? The 400 Blows / Stolen Kisses / Bed & Board / Love on the Run. Or a pentalogy (is that a word?) if you count the Antoine & Collette episode from Love at Twenty.

msg, my hero would forsake the collected Satyajit Ray for the collected Jean-Luc Godard.

Posted by Jonathon on 20 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I have heard that the Image DVD release is pretty mediocre (incorrect aspect ratio, burnt-in subtitles, beaten-up print source, etc.). Maybe, some day I will rent this, but I suspect I wouldn't want to actually buy it. I keep hoping for either a better subtitled release or a proper screening. ;~}

Or break down and get the deluxe Japanese set -- after I finish paying for Ozu-mania.


Posted by Michael Kerpan on 21 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

These films sound interesting. I haven't seen them, but reading about them reminds me of one of my favorite all-time movies: Kon Ichikawa's "The Burmese Harp".

Posted by Kerim Friedman on 22 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I rented "The Human Condition" DVDs from Netflix (here in the US), subtitled in English. The trilogy is one of the most intensely moving and brutal looks at war ever made--I'm tempted to write the "dehumanizing" effects of war, but the very point is that this is what human beings are, what human beings do to each other.

In addition, it's extremely interesting to see war from the viewpoint of a Japanese pacifist, and the treatment of the Japanese soldiers themselves. This adds a dimension usually lacking in the portrayal of the Japanese army.

Perhaps "The Burmese Harp" is the closest film to it, but it is almost sentimentally bittersweet by comparison.

Posted by M Sinclair Stevens on 23 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Couldn't agree with you more although have seen only parts of LOTR, the travesty of A novel written by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien inspired us in the '60's, we ignorant Americans, a breed to which he wasn't attracted. We bored him. We made him famous. I'm not certain he liked it. He wrote well. Filming LOTR was application of the wrong art to the right one. He hated Walt Disney. I suspect he would have hated all those New Zealand soldiers dressed up as Orcs. He wouldn't have liked the three movies made from his novel. No doubt about it. The DVD of "The Human Condition" with its English captions forever in the way wasn't bad as movies go. I also didn't like Walt Disney. I saw several Russian epics in the 1960's. Didn't know if they were made in the 30's or the 50's. No sound and no captions. Just moving pictures. All told "Human Condition" gets my vote. Who really cares. With the exception of a few pieces of luck the movies wouldn't be an art anyway.

Posted by Steve on 27 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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