Friday, January 27, 2012


“True human beings always find kindred spirits.”

Director Masaki Kobayashi made two brilliant and unlikely Samurai cinema that pushed less on samurai sword action and more on dark chapters of Japanese social history and his humanitarian approach. In both ‘Hara Kiri’ and ‘Samurai Rebellion’, the protagonist is the helpless victim against the forces of corrupt power ending up facing the sacrifice of self and family. But much before he made these two films and brilliant supernatural ‘Kwaidan’ which won him many fame and laurels, he made one of the most ambitious epic of lifetime. With duration of more than nine and half hours consists of three films, each consists of two parts, Kobayashi ended up making one of the greatest monumental anti-war epic and a personal transformative journey of a soldier ever made from the land of rising sun.

The Human Condition is tale and journey of one man’s unflinching and unconditional humanity confronting the unquestionable oppressive authority parallel to his existential despair and personal conflict in the time of Second World War. Though three separate films, it narrates the autobiographical account of its protagonist Kaji guided by his moral conscience, showing us the different transformational phases of his life making and breaking him into the man. The condition of Kaji is humanity in general; he’s an idealist struggling for the better world beyond the man made border. Before noting my individual observations about the film I must mention two men who contributed something as extraordinary as its filmmaker. As one can’t imagine Toshiro Mifune without Master Akira Kurosawa, Tatsuya Nakadai without Masaki Kobayashi seems so incomplete. And like other two films aforementioned the director-actor combo works so brilliantly for this one. This is undoubtedly Nakadai at his best but for me his act in ‘The Sword of Doom’ remains just irreplaceable one for bringing on screen the meanest Samurai villain I’ve ever seen in Japanese cinema. Apart of Nakadai, the other strong reason to watch the epic is the camerawork by Yoshio Miyajima. There are ample scenes and frames which deserve standing applause from all B&W cinematography lovers. 


“It’s not my fault that I’m Japanese…yet it’s my worst crime that I am!”

‘The men should be treated as men’ believes Kaji in the time when humanity is the last word heard. Against his wish, he’s appointed as the labor supervisor in a colonial territory. The place is small Manchurian village with iron ore and labour camps full of Chinese POW. The man is dangling between two unlikely choices- following his duty governed by ruthless men at power and his inner voice. His confrontation with one of the labour group leader draws him into tussle with senior officers. To achieve higher production goal, the company enforced 20% increase in production. The condition are worst and  the 600 sick and half dead laborers are unfit to work and yet a brute officer Okazaki exploits harsher ways to achieve the goal. Kaji is a man who listens to his conscience and yet he’s helpless to keep his promise and trust for Chinese workers. On one hand he has to follow the enforcement of authority on power and on the other hand he has to maintain his humanitarian concern. And amid all this, one of the trusted Chinese laborer tried to escape drawing Kaji into a big mess. It’s walking on the razor’s edge and still he manages to keep his sanity and conscience clean at the cost of personal sacrifice.  

There are many moving scenes to witness here- the one where we see the train full stuffed and baked POW in the most inhuman and uncivilized way. POW getting out of train and rushing to the food is one of the moving scenes of the film. Another one is beheading scene and there are many more to follow. Usually in the epic, we see moments that stretch the melodrama unnecessarily but Kobayashi maintained absolutely gripping and tight narrative with flawless editing. The B&W camera work is striking one with some of the brilliant extreme long shots, low angles, and canted shots and close ups showing POW marching ahead or working in mine and pits on Steep Mountain.


“Our real enemy is army.”

The drama and humanitarian journey of Kaji in second part shifted from iron mines to Imperial army’s basic training camp for newly recruited privates. Kaji proves himself acute leaner in barracks with his sharp shooting ability and discipline and win favors of senior officers but at the same time also witness the military oppression that turns two of his fellow privates victimized. A weakling named Obara commits suicide. It’s not his inadequacy of infirmity or inflicted punishment that guides him to commit it but one of his senior’s intolerable personal humiliations. Kaji’s attempt to justice is denied by the senior officers. Though a junior private Kaji is promoted as trainer to his seniors and few other new recruits and he applied his own radical ways to maintain his humanity and pacifist approach intact but veterans tried their level best to disobey and insult Kaji on the face testing his patience to the limit. Towards brilliant climax we see the advancing Soviet army’s tank invasion destroying trenches and killing soldiers. Kaji survives but with a big guilt where he by mistake kills one of his fellow soldier. It’s big satire pointing us that even so upright and conscience driven man draws insane and out of control in the madness and horror of war. The film ends with Kaji’s contemplation of guilt- ‘I’m a monster but I’m going to stay alive!’

Compared to first part, this one is bit slow and dramatic one but it never falters for a moment to capture the worthlessness and absurdity of war where ruthless  military training psychologically and physically torment and break men to commit suicide or pushes them to be victims on front. The film also finely represents the ambiguity and disillusionment of an upright soldier. On one hand the protagonist Kaji detests army life while longing company of his beloved and on the other he wants to stay there accompanying his fellows keeping his humanitarian flame intact amid all odds.

The stunning camera work and brilliantly choreographed war action in the climax is the highlight of the film. The memorable scenes of this part are the one where Kaji’s wife came to meet him in forbidden training camp. They spare a night together and it’s one of the most intense love scene, one has to watch Nakadai’s expressions here.


‘When it’s kill or be killed, you change.’

Kaji’s journey continues with guilt and scars that never healed. The Japanese military unit was wiped out by Soviet troops but Kaji and two soldiers survived in enemy territory. Unwillingly Kaji has to kill a Russian man to survive. Along the journey he meets other refugees starving for food and we witness the struggle of existence for mouthful of rice. The miserable condition, death and dead bodies of soldiers scattered around indifferent forest. What is more inhuman to know for Kaji is that few of his own men raped the young Chinese refugee. ‘Nothing is more pitiful than the women of defeated nation,’ said an old lady to Kaji once and words keep ringing the hard reality. In order to save other refugees Kaji and troop finally surrender to Russians but his noble deed again puts him in a jeopardy hard to overcome. He’s declared war criminal for speaking the truth leading him to freezing Siberia with a wish which becomes a pipedream like O’Neill’s ‘The Iceman Cometh’.

Compared to gripping first part and bit melodramatic second, drama here is more stretching one but Kobayashi managed to bring some moving brilliant moments. The awesome canted shots, natural locations add something to the disillusionment of the war. And Kaji is a paragon of virtue; so rare to maintain for a soldier, his frequent monologues addressed to his beloved Michiko in dire conditions is something like prayer to the soul…his grace…his redemption. 

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