Criterion // 1959 // 574 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // September 10th, 2009
No greater love.
In 1959, Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri) adapted writer Junpei Gomikawa's mammoth novel The Human Condition, which is about a man's journey through WWII, into an equally epic film. To do so, he made a sprawling nine-and-a-half hour multi-part film that encompasses war, romance, drama, and tragedy. The Human Condition is suitably epic in spurts-it's like a Japanese equivalent of, say, a Herman Wouk novel-but the storytelling meanders too much and becomes so repetitive that the end result is deeply disappointing.
The Human Condition is split into three parts. All three are centered on Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), an inexperienced business manager who espouses vaguely humanist, left-wing views in Japan in 1943, and his loving wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama). In the first part, Kaji accepts a job as manager of a Japanese company stationed in Manchuria as a way of being deferred from the draft even though he knows that the company uses slave Chinese labor. In the second, Kaji is nonetheless drafted and sent to the Chinese-Soviet border, where he struggles to maintain his humanist ideals while enduring the Japanese military's rigid code of conduct and warrior ideology. In the third, Kaji escapes being killed during a border battle with the Soviets, but must struggle to find a way to get back home as the Japanese occupation of China deteriorates during the end of 1945.
The constant thread running through all nine hours of The Human Condition is the conflict between Kaji's well-intentioned but hopelessly naïve humanist ideals and the real world during wartime. When the first film begins, Kaji has written an earnest paper for his boss in which he asserts that the best way for Japanese colonialist corporations, like the one he works for, to extract the most from labor is by treating laborers with respect. He is then sent to test his theories in practice by working at a subsidiary that uses cheap and even slave labor to mine ores. When he is drafted, he vows that he will treat his fellow soldiers and underlings with respect and only kill when absolutely necessary. Those beliefs are very hard to cling to, however, when confronted with the need to whip a platoon of raw recruits into fighting men and when confronted with hard realities of actual combat. When he struggles to return home after a battle, he decides that for him the war is over and he wants nothing more than to get back home and help civilians however he can. What he realizes, of course, is that the chaos and anarchy that accompany the last days of war are so corrosive that any attempt to live by rules becomes increasingly useless.
This is an intriguing idea for a story. It includes the added complexity that in all instances, Kaji already compromises his beliefs even before he attempts to implement them. When he accepts the promotion to be boss of the Manchurian subsidiary of his company, he knows that he will be involved in using slave labor, but accepts because he doesn't want to get drafted. In the army, though he insists that he will treat his trainees as individuals, he isn't above demanding special treatment to be left alone with his wife for one night for a conjugal visit. As he attempts to return home, he is given various chances to join refugees to save them, but abandons them to get home to his wife. What this does is demonstrate that Kaji, like far too many idealistic young men, doesn't so much hold firm convictions, but pliable guidelines. He pays lip service to vaguely left-wing humanist ideals, but when push comes to shove, he chooses his own self-interest above all else.
If The Human Condition explored this contradiction in Kaji's personality, it would be a fascinating character study that may contain even greater resonance today-after all, how many 19-year-old college students who buy Che Guevara T-shirts at Hot Topic later go on to become crooked hedge fund managers? Sure, the film is joyless, even gloomy, but if it tells a coherent story, the unrelenting downbeat tone would be acceptable. Unfortunately, as could be expected from a nine-hour-long film, The Human Condition spends far too much time on incidentals. There are long stretches of the film where Kaji is nowhere on screen and we're watching minor characters interact extensively. In theory, we're supposed to be getting an overall picture of the world that Kaji lives in, but these scenes just stop the film cold. Who really cares to learn the complex backstory on a character that Kaji barely talks to in one scene? If the film is meant to spend so much time exploring one character's emotional journey, then show us that character, not a bunch of other less important ones. It's these endless diversions that make The Human Condition much more of a chore than it could have been. Long films in and of themselves are not objectionable, but long films that lack discipline and focus are much less interesting.
That's not the only flaw with The Human Condition. The third part, in particular, is a huge disappointment when compared to the first two. For one thing, while it's understandable that Kaji would endure so much disappointment and heartbreak during wartime, especially as he compromises his ideals, the trials and tribulations he faces in the third part are downright implausible when compared to the first two. In the first two parts, while the storytelling is loose and even sloppy, at least the troubles that Kaji is given seem like logical outcomes of his compromises and failures. In the third film, however, they just seem like endless piling on. Kaji faces the exact same situations over and over again, and this repetition becomes downright tiresome. Sure, one could argue that the reiterations are meant to capture the grinding terror of chaos during wartime, but by the umpteenth time Kaji gets nearly captured by Soviet soldiers or is forced to betray refugees, the effect is more stupefying than evocative. Even worse, the ending is especially unsatisfying. If, as Kobayashi claims, the film is really meant to demonstrate the emotional journey that Kaji takes, and how he finally becomes a different person, then it might have been a better idea to make an ending-any ending-that doesn't boil down to the whole nine hours being a complete waste of time.
Technically, the film looks and sounds quite good. Criterion has remastered the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer to clean up any flaws, and the picture is sharp and clear. There are times when the black-and-white looks a bit murky, but that's presumably how Kobayashi wanted it to look. The audio mixes-mono on the first two parts, 3.1 surround on the third-are the best feature. These are surprisingly crisp and loud; companies who can't make a mono mix that's easy to hear (see Mill Creek Entertainment's release of Wiseguy: The Complete First Season, for instance) should check this DVD out.
The extras are all collected on disc four. In addition to theatrical trailers for each part, there are interviews with Kobayashi (13:43), Nakadai (17:41), and filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda (24:40). Kobayashi doesn't discuss the themes and story of the film and only talks about his collaboration with his cinematographer, making his interview of limited interest. Nakadai, by contrast, does talk a bit about the story and also tells some intriguing stories about the film's production. The interview with Shinoda (Samurai Spy) is the best, as it's the only one that really discusses the film's themes and how they relate to Kobayashi's real-life experiences during the war. Finally, the set comes with a foldout insert with an essay by film historian Phillip Kent.
The Human Condition does have two redeeming qualities. First, as a portrait of what Japanese life during the war was like, it is of some interest to WWII buffs. The portrait of how rank-and-file Japanese civilians and soldiers actually viewed the war is fascinating, since this is a perspective that's rarely been explored before. Also, the performances are generally superior. Nakadai, of course, is given the heavy lifting of the film and delivers in spades-it's impossible to imagine anyone else in his role. Several supporting performances, particularly those of Kaji's boss in the first part, a doomed soldier in the second, and Aratama throughout all three, are also impressive as well.
Japanese film buffs will likely be pleased to have this film as a single Criterion release, but anyone else should be wary. It's ultimately hard to recommend The Human Condition, not necessarily because it's too long but because it's too long without reason. Even if it had been released as a multi-part miniseries, it still would be needlessly padded and unsatisfying. Preview this before deciding to buy it, because while it does have moments of genuine brilliance, there are way too many times when the combination of a relentlessly bleak tone and meandering storytelling make it pointlessly grueling.
Guilty of being as arduous an ordeal as WWII.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 3.1 Surround (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 574 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated