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  •  REVIEW: THE HUMAN CONDITION

    The Human Condition

    No Greater Love

    War's a bitch and it beats you every which way — whether you win or lose!

    By LESLIE (HOBAN) BLAKE
    Offoffoff.com

    What can you say about an almost 60 year old 9-hour Japanese film trilogy about the horrors of war and its impact on the human soul?

      
    THE HUMAN CONDITION
    Original title: Ningen No Joken I, II, & III.
    Directed by: Masaki Kobayashi.
    Produced by: Shigeru Wakatsuki.
    Written by: Masaki Kobayashi, Jumpei Gomikawa, Zenzo Matsuyama.
    Adapted from Ningen No Joken by: Jumpei Gomikawa.
    Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Ineko Arima, Chikage Awashima, Keiji Sada, S Yamamura.
    Cinematography: Yoshio Miyajima.
    Edited by: Keiichi Uraoka.
    Music by: Chuji Kinoshita.
    This amazing accomplishment has been deemed "revolutionary" and a "masterpiece" in several books on Japanese cinema and dismissed as "turgid and tedious" in the original "New York Times" review (Dec. '59).

    And yes, it is old fashioned and long and slow, but it's also hypnotic, bruising the viewer in ways both expected and unexpected, given the subject and its continued relevance. Yeah, war's a bitch and it beats you every which way — whether you win or lose. Director Masaki Kobayashi (1916-1986) based much of his hero Kaji's story on his own war experiences in Manchuria during the final days of WW II.

    Kobayashi wants his audience to feel the soul crushing persistence of evil that war represents and no one who does make it through all three parts of "The Human Condition" can remain untouched. Each part has its own title ("No Greater Love" — Part I; "Road to Eternity" — Part II; and "A Soldier's Prayer" — Part III) ) and the first and last parts even have their own intermissions.

    The Human Condition  
    The whole project took four years (1959-61) and while Kobayashi was working on "Road to Eternity" he received word that "No Greater Love" had already won a prize at the 1960 Venice Film Festival. But the film has rarely been seen in its entirety outside of Japan and then only in a badly mangled cut-down version.

    In brief (if that's even possible), Part I introduces our hero, the young student Kaji, played by the matinee idol handsome Tatsuya Nakadai (think Alain Delon's cheekbones and Tyrone Powers limpid eyes). A pacifist, Kaji wants to marry his girl Michiko but is afraid he'll be drafted. A civilian job in the Manchurian mines comes with a deferment and he and his bride move to the Japanese held Chinese territory.

      
      Director Masaki Kobayashi wants his audience to feel the soul crushing persistence of evil that war represents and no one who does make it through all three parts of "The Human Condition" can remain untouched.
      
    An idealist and philosophical socialist, Kaji hopes to bring better conditions to the workers and, as long as productivity increases, the bosses give him a chance until some Chinese POWs are delivered to the mines. Both the bosses and the army are shown as equally corrupt.

    By the end of Part I, Kaji has been accused of being a "Red" for his Socialist leanings and sent away to the Army as punishment for allowing some of his POWs to escape. Part II takes us through Kaji's basic training, a grueling three hours of dehumanization (recall any American war film and then rachet it up to eleven). By Part III, Kaji is a grizzled PFC in the actual war, wielding rifles against Russian tanks and trying to save a rag tag band of starving refugees.

    The Human Condition  
    Kindness and food are the two things in shortest supply during a war according to Kobayshi and almost everyone dies. Yeah, that about sums it up. And yet, somehow through all this, Kaji maintains at least some of his earlier humanistic feelings and when he occasionally succumbs to moments of self-interest he's always guilt ridden later on.

    "The Human Condition" can be seen as three separate films or taken as a whole. Japanese audiences used to watch the whole 9 hours in an evening and then leave the theater to go to work in the morning.

    Didactic to a fault — Kobayashi doesn't seem acquainted with the word subtle — the film is best taken as a piece of extraordinary filmmaking. Filled with jagged tilts, long shots of tiny actors against mountains (both natural and man-made), and full face close-ups (mostly of Nakadai), it's almost a textbook of '30's, '40's and '50's black-and-white film techniques, plus a good bit of Eisenstein and German expressionism to boot.

      
      Japanese audiences used to watch the whole 9 hours in an evening and then leave the theater to go to work in the morning.
      
    Kobayashi's best known in this country for "Kwaidan," a much shorter trilogy of ghost stories which also star his discovery Nakadai, a Japanese leading man for over 50 years (the actor would also play King Lear in Kurosawa's "Ran" some 25 years later. In fact, Nakadai was just the subject of a two month long retrospective at New York's Film Forum.

    AUGUST 6, 2008
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK


    Reader comments on The Human Condition:

  • Very touching movie,   from Daniel Bui, Dec 21, 2013

  • Post a comment on "The Human Condition"