The Human Condition (1961) is an anti-war masterpiece by seminal Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi. It is a sweeping epic that was adapted from a novel by Junpei Gomikawa. It was made into six parts that amount to 9 hours and 47 minutes of film and was released in three stages over five years of production all told. Tatsya Nakadai got his first starring role in this trilogy and would go on to become a favorite of Kobayashi (i.e. Harikiri and Kawaidan) and later Kurosawa (i.e. Kagemusha and Ran). It is the story of Kaijji a left leaning humanist. In the first installment, No Greater Love (1959). He agrees to work at a remote mine in Manchuria to boost production through his theory that if the workers are treated humanely the production will increase in exchange for a military exemption. This allows him to marry his girlfriend-knowing that he won't be conscripted and leave her a widow. Kaiji is at odds with the corrupt and inhuman treatment of the Chinese labor by his mining company. It was shocking to me that this film could have been made without protests by right wing fanatics or fear of studio heads worrying about Japan's image. It clearly shows that Japanese companies used forced labor in China as well as "comfort" women and that many were war profiteers. At the end of this film, he has failed and has his military exemption revoked so that he is conscripted into the army.
The second film, Road To Eternity (1959), picks up with Kaiji in basic training where he excels but is berated by the veteran soldiers and given the most difficult duties by the brass, because he is under suspicion for leftist sympathies. In spite of this, Kaiji is an excellent soldier and expert marksman. He considers deserting with another soldier under suspicion of leftist sympathies, but doesn't think it will ultimately lead to a return to his previous life with his wife Michiko. When a weak soldier commits suicide after intense bulling from the corporal in charge of training Kaiji demands disciplinary action and it is refused. Later during the attempted escape of his comrade, he refuses to save the drown corporal who has gone after him. Later, he wakes up in a hospital and is soon transferred to his company on the front. The new commanding officer is an old friend and asks Kaiji to train the new recruits--Kaiji agrees on one condition: that they are separated from the artillery veterans who dole out arbitrary and brutal beatings regularly. Kaiji is often at the end of such beatings for his men. In order to avoid conflicts between the two groups, the new recruit group is sent on a month long trench digging detail. A new war breaks out and they are over run by Russians and their tanks. At one point Kaiji has to kill a Japanese soldier with his hands to prevent being detected by the Russians--he will live to see another day as this film ends.
The final part of the film, A Soldier's Prayer (1961), opens with Kaiji and a few stragglers on the run. Along the way they pick civilians and several die from hunger, poisonous mushrooms, and suicide. Once they emerge from the forest they are besieged by peasant forces and must continue on as a few of the group are killed by the peasant forces. From there they encounter a group of fifty Japanese army holdouts who are attempting to resume combat in alliance with Chiang Kai-shek, whom they believe will be supported by American forces, in a civil war against Russian-backed Communist Chinese. Kaji, a believer in pacifism and socialism, rejects this strategy as misguided and doomed to failure. Eventually, Kaji and a group of Japanese soldiers, whose number has grown to fifteen, fight through Russian patrols and find a encampment of women and old men who seek their protection. It is here that they surrender rather than put the group in danger of death or retribution if they fight. And here the series comes back to a forced labor camp for POWs and many of the themes from the first film are revisited. Kaji and his protégé Terada resist the Japanese officers who run their work camp in cooperation with Soviet forces. While such resistance amounts to no more than picking through the Russian's' garbage for scraps of food and wearing gunnysacks to protect them from increasingly colder weather, Kaji is branded a saboteur and judged by a Soviet tribunal to harsh labor. With a corrupt translator and no other means of talking to the Russian officers with whom he feels ideological sympathies, Kaji becomes increasingly disillusioned by conditions in the camp and with Communist orthodoxy. When Terada is driven to exhaustion and death by harsh treatment from the collaborating officer Kirihara, Kaji decides to kill the man and then escape the camp alone. He ends up collapsed in a snow storm speaking his wife's name.
This trilogy is a masterpiece, but exhausting in the amount of human suffering and injustice depicted. It still astounds me in that there seems to have been little protest at the way most Japanese were depicted in the film, perhaps the pacifist feelings were still strong or perhaps those who committed atrocities or exploitative actions were not cynical enough to deny that they had happened. It seems many of those doubters today are people born after the war and seek selective proof--recently the mayor of the second largest city, Osaka, claimed publicly that there was no proof that the Japanese forced women to be "comfort women" during the war. It is also fascinating to me in a historical sense, since I haven't read much about the Chinese occupation or clashes with the Russians--that being said Max Hastings' book Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 is on my virtual shelf. The Criterion edition contains a fourth disc with informative interviews with director Masaki Kobayashi, actor Tatsuya Nakadai, and admirer, director, Masahiro Shinoda--who also interviewed Kobayashi in the first interview on the disc.