The Human Condition: The Prisoner

Essays — Sep 8, 2009

“It’s not my fault that I’m Japanese . . . yet it’s my worst crime that I am!” The words are those of Kaji, hero of The Human Condition, but in their anguish and existential despair, they also speak for the film’s director, Masaki Kobayashi, whose own experience closely paralleled that of his protagonist. Like Kaji, Kobayashi found himself caught up, and unwillingly implicated, in his country’s wartime aggression. The Human Condition—nine and a half hours long, four years in the making—can be seen as one of the most monumental acts of personal expiation in all cinematic history.

By Japanese standards, Kobayashi was unprolific, with less than twenty features to his name. (Compare that with his contemporary Kon Ichikawa, who had clocked up eighty-four films by the time of his death.) But Kobayashi made up for his relative lack of quantity with a rare integrity and seriousness of moral purpose—allied to a visual and dramatic acuity—that earn him a place among the great humanist filmmakers.

The dilemma of the principled dissident—how can someone who rejects the basic tenets of an unjust society remain within it and avoid being tainted, and ultimately even corrupted, by it?—informs almost all Kobayashi’s mature work from the late 1950s onward, including his two most widely acclaimed movies, the samurai films Harakiri (1962) and Samurai Rebellion (1967), whose protagonists revolt against the cruel rigidities of the feudal system. But Kobayashi had broached these subjects early in his filmmaking career as well.

His first two films—My Sons’ Youth (1952) and Sincerity (1953)—were light, sentimental dramas, fluent and well made but betraying the influence of his mentor at Shochiku, the veteran director Keisuke Kinoshita (Twenty-Four Eyes), and not giving much warning of what was to come. With his third film, however, The Thick-Walled Room (1953), Kobayashi not only tackled a taboo subject, the question of Japanese war criminals, but also dared suggest that those convicted and imprisoned were the small fry, often pressured into behaving as they did by their superiors, who had got off scot-free and retained high status in postwar Japan. Alarmed that the film would offend the U.S. occupation authorities, Shochiku suppressed it for three years. Kobayashi prudently retreated back into Kinoshita-style romances. But in 1956, he returned to his social concerns with I’ll Buy You, a study of corruption in the world of professional baseball, rapidly followed by Black River (1957), exposing the rings of prostitution, gambling, and organized crime that clustered around U.S. bases in Japan.

In all three of these social dramas, Kobayashi was at pains to stress that it was the system rather than the individual that was at fault. By contrast with analogous U.S. films of the 1950s, which generally favor the reassuring “few bad apples” story line (From Here to Eternity would make for an interesting comparison), Kobayashi’s films indict a system putrid from top to bottom, where even the most well-intentioned find themselves implicated and dragged down, and finally helpless to effect reform. The fullest and most powerful expression of this view came in his next film, the towering epic The Human Condition (1959–61).

The film was closely based on Junpei Gomikawa’s six-volume novel of the same name, published in the mid-1950s. Kobayashi, recognizing it as ideal material for him, immediately snapped up the rights, though it took some years to persuade Shochiku to approve the project. Only when he threatened to quit the studio did they relent. Even a decade after the war, there was still widespread opposition to any criticism of Japan’s wartime regime—as indeed, in some quarters, there still is today—and once the film was made, Kobayashi was attacked as anti-Japanese by some of his compatriots.

Gomikawa’s novel is strongly autobiographical, but to Kobayashi it brought back vivid memories of his own wartime experiences. In 1942, shortly after starting his apprenticeship at Shochiku, he was drafted into the army and sent to Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Like Kaji, Gomikawa’s protagonist, he found himself in constant conflict with the brutal ethos of the Imperial Army, refusing to rise above the rank of private. “I withheld myself from becoming an officer,” he later recalled. “I had a strong conviction that I must resist authoritarian pressure. I was wholly against the power that bore down on us, and I was against the war itself.” At the end of the war, again like Kaji, he was captured and interned in a POW camp—though in Kobayashi’s case, he was held in Okinawa by the Americans, rather than the Russians, a mercifully less traumatic experience.

Though The Human Condition was made and released as three separate films, it makes sense to treat it as a single work, since it forms a conceptual and narrative unity. Barring the occasional brief mental flashback, the treatment is linear, tracing the gradual moral degradation of Kaji, embodiment of the conflicted Japanese conscience. In the first film, he suffers lasting remorse over having slapped a man in the face; by the third, as a POW, he’s become capable of beating a fellow prisoner to death—albeit not without some justification.

Kaji, like Kobayashi, holds left-wing, humanist views. An idealist, he believes in the Soviet Union as “a better world beyond that border . . . where they treat people like human beings.” When we first meet him, he’s working for a Japanese-run steel company in Manchuria; he’s engaged to a fellow employee called Michiko but is reluctant to marry her—or even sleep with her—as he fears he may be called up at any moment. So when his boss offers him a job as head of personnel at the company’s mining camp, he accepts it—even though he knows it involves supervising forced Chinese labor—since it grants him exemption from military service.

This crucial moral compromise—accepting a role in the oppressive system to avoid a worse fate for himself—is the first step on Kaji’s downward path. Some critics have accused Kobayashi of loading the dice by making Kaji saintly, even Christlike. This is surely a misreading. Though he’s principled and well-meaning, right from the start we’re shown his disregard for the feelings of others in his treatment of Michiko. When he arrives at the mine, it’s evident that he’s culpably naive and arrogant, denouncing his colleagues and believing that he can single-handedly introduce more humane treatment of the Chinese workers. Inevitably, this earns him the hostility of the supervisors and foremen, and the contempt of the bland, cynical mine boss, who, when Kaji protests that the Chinese deserve to be treated “like men,” retorts, “What is a man? He’s a mass of lust and greed that absorbs and excretes.”

To his despair, Kaji finds himself inextricably implicated in the system he detests; his nationality is enough to condemn him. To the Chinese, he’s suspect as a member of the oppressor race, a “Japanese devil.” “This is your true form,” one of the Chinese laborers tells him, “the face of a man but the heart of a beast.” Even Wang, the most thoughtful of the prisoners, with whom Kaji tries to establish a rapport, says, “You have less faith in men than you try to believe.” To his compatriots, meanwhile, he’s an “enemy sympathizer” and a “filthy Red.”

Throughout the trilogy, this pattern is repeated. Kaji’s best intentions backfire on him. The vulnerable characters he takes pity on and tries to protect—Chen, his Chinese assistant in the first film; Obara, the humiliated recruit in the second; the women he meets on his trek southward in the third—are all the worse off for his attentions. His attempt to prevent the execution of seven Chinese prisoners incurs the enmity of the feared and loathed Kenpeitai, the military police. (Modeled on the French gendarmerie, they had jurisdiction over civilians as well as service personnel.) For having made them lose face, he’s savagely beaten and, when he’s released, finds his draft exemption has been revoked. Once in the army, his resistance to the brutal, bullying culture he finds there has little effect on the system; but his obstinacy and courage are noticed and, ironically, earn him promotion.

What’s more, Kaji’s military superiors are right—for all that he loathes the ethos of the Imperial Army, he is a good soldier, as we see during the Russian attack. Though The Human Condition is a war movie, it only includes 20 minutes (out of some 570) of combat footage—the massive Soviet tank invasion that crushes the underequipped, unsupported Japanese infantry. In this hopeless battle, Kaji proves brave, resourceful, and loyal to his comrades. (This sequence, incidentally, can be dated exactly. Throughout the war, the USSR maintained a neutrality pact with Japan. Not until August 8, 1945, two days after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, did the Soviets declare war and invade Manchuria.)

But The Human Condition’s bitterest irony hits home in the third film. Having maintained his starry-eyed belief in the integrity of the Soviet system (“The Red Army wouldn’t mistreat civilians,” he insists in the face of repeated evidence to the contrary), Kaji, the left-leaning “filthy Red,” winds up interned in a Soviet POW camp, where he expects to be treated with justice and humanity. Instead, trapped in a system as tyrannical as that of Japan, where (just as in the mining camp) the most corrupt and brutal inmates are given power over their fellow prisoners, he finds himself enslaved, degraded, and reviled as a “fascist samurai.” And when, managing to escape, he attempts to trek back to his beloved Michiko, the Chinese peasantry see in him only the hated and despised occupier and refuse him food. Weakened and starving, he dies in the snow.

While making The Human Condition, Kobayashi later recalled, “I received many letters from people requesting me not to let Kaji die in the end. I had considered that possibility, but to me his death was actually a resurrection. He had to die there. With his death, he lives in the minds of people for a long time . . .”

As Kaji, Tatsuya Nakadai—Kobayashi’s favorite actor, whom he discovered and gave his screen debut in The Thick-Walled Room—dominates the action with a performance of burning conviction, rarely offscreen throughout the film’s epic length. Repeatedly, Kobayashi emphasizes his psychological isolation and the hopelessness of his moral stance by situating him in expanses of bleak, sterile terrain—the ravaged mining landscape, the battlefield, the final pitiless snowstorm—which exploit Yoshio Miyajima’s monochrome widescreen photography to powerful effect. But he also finds room for moments of lyrical beauty—a young woman washing her face in running water—and for a scene of touching erotic tenderness, when Kaji, allowed a brief visit from Michiko, asks her to stand naked by the dawn-lit window to leave him with a memory of her beauty. On the film’s initial release, this scene was cut by the Japanese censor.

Ultimately, perhaps, the film suffers from its sheer magnitude, from the almost unrelieved somberness of its prevailing mood. Content, driven by the director’s uncompromising seriousness, bursts the bounds of form; eased of the burden of his personal memories, Kobayashi would attain a finer balance of the two in Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion. But The Human Condition stands as an achievement of extraordinary power and emotional resonance: at once a celebration of the resilience of the individual conscience and a purging of forced complicity in guilt (of a nation and, as the title implies, of the whole human race), which Kaji attains through his death, and Kobayashi through the making of this film.

Although The Human Condition aroused widespread controversy in Japan, it was critically acclaimed, won international awards, and established Kobayashi’s reputation among the leading Japanese directors of his generation—a status he maintained throughout the sixties with Kwaidan and his jidai-geki (period drama) films. But the crisis that hit the Japanese film industry at the end of the decade blighted his career. Along with Kurosawa, Kinoshita, and Ichikawa, he formed a group called Yonki-no-kai (the Club of the Four Knights) to produce quality films, but the venture foundered with the box-office disaster of Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970). In an industry increasingly geared to yakuza thrillers, disaster movies, and soft-core porn, Kobayashi’s seriousness of purpose seemed hopelessly out of fashion; and unlike the more flexible Ichikawa, he never took to working in television. Funding for his projects became increasingly hard to secure, and his career petered out in the mideighties. His work of the fifties and sixties remains his lasting legacy, with The Human Condition a towering achievement that few directors—in Japan or anywhere else—have equaled.

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