The Human Condition

The mother of all war movies, Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition clocks in at almost ten hours and features an all-star Japanese cast. Filmed over four years and released as a trilogy from 1959-61, this epic tale follows one man as he experiences the totality of wartime life, from citizen to conscript to POW — all during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in World War II. The young and naive pacifist Kaji begins as a high-minded socialist in charge of a forced labor camp, where his liberal and humane notions clash with the Japanese military ideals of discipline and obedience. Drafted as punishment, the young husband — a skilled soldier, it turns out — begins his endless confrontation with the imperial mind-set: at boot camp, on the front line, in combat, in hospital, and finally as a POW himself. And his experience in a Russian camp disabuses him of his radical sympathies. Kobayashi’s sweeping drama amounts to a perfect statement of postwar Japanese liberalism; it’s a post-ideological defense of humanism, and a thoroughgoing repudiation of militarism. But it’s also much more than that, since it raises all the moral issues related to war, regardless of time or place. Kaji’s relentless self-examination, fully embodied in Tatsuya Nakadai’s intense performance, works brilliantly against the breathtaking landscapes and the stunning realism of battle. For a movie this long, you will be amazed at the attention to detail and the carefully composed shots, the accumulation of which adds up to a surprisingly artful film. Like those other antiwar masterpieces Grand Illusion and Paths of Glory, The Human Condition is a triumph of cinematic design and execution.