When I first heard about The Human Condition (1959–61), I was already familiar with director Masaki Kobayashi’s irreverent Harakiri (1962), a favorite film of mine where samurai are scum of the earth and honor is equivalent to dirt. I immediately started wondering what a director like him could do with the “modern war” concept for nine hours.
Hating war and despising any image of glory around it, I admit I’m not a huge fan of the genre. So even though I can foster some affection for classics like 1977’s Cross of Iron, I prefer skewed visions like Hell in the Pacific (1968) or Joyeux Noël (2005), where the human scale is emphasized.
And that’s the core of The Human Condition: our nature and responsibility to each other. The main character, Kaji, a solitary hero set against the system, is a regular person and a rational coward, just stubborn enough to draw breath every day and stand by his principles. He confronts misfortune and abuse with his idealism, the blood in his veins, and a most terrible inner struggle: an uneasy conscience about being worthy of his own idea of humanism. From his initial innocence to his hard-won survival, through acts of retribution and finally to running away from the beast inside himself, he discovers that the pursuit of acceptance as an individual is one’s purpose in life.
That journey inspired my illustration. The beautiful cinematography and meaningful dialogue etched a number of key moments into my memory. The crushing disenchantment conveyed by Parts 1 and 2, after Kaji mistakenly thinks he can change the world, not realizing it was ruined from the start, is summed up when he receives this lesson from an elder Chinese prisoner of war: “You’ll either be revealed as a murderer wearing the mask of humanism or as one worthy of the beautiful name . . . man.” Parts 3 and 4 are all about endurance, within an uncaring military and a despicable war, and that theme is especially resonant through Michiko, Kaji’s true love, a beautiful character who is tough and tormented despite her silence.
But the most shattering and painful segments to watch are Parts 5 and 6, and that pain is often brought about by misunderstandings, across cultures and ideologies. One of my favorite scenes in the whole series is when Kaji, now a prisoner of war himself, is questioned by a Russian officer about his wartime actions, with a portrait of Stalin looming in the background. He tries to explain himself, but a Japanese interpreter, who’s the worst scum of all, has purposefully undermined Kaji throughout the film by giving incorrect translations so the Russians never learn his true thoughts, and vice versa. It’s his sole chance at redemption, and it becomes an unbearable loss of hope. Kaji’s dialogue here sums up the drama perfectly: “The fact that socialism is better than fascism is not enough to keep us alive!”
Thoughts and words won’t save us. Nothing can save us from ourselves anymore.
For me, there are too many reasons for drawing a love letter to this movie, but probably the most important one is because I believe watching it can lead us to make better people of ourselves.
At least it will make you feel like a better person for nine hours.