The Human Condition
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 574 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0, 4.0 Japanese
MSRP: $ 79.95
Release Date: September 8, 2009
Review Date: August 30, 2009
Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition is an astonishing piece of filmmaking. Like Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Human Condition is both epic in scale and personal in viewpoint. We watch both the best and worst of mankind’s foibles, follies, and feats in detailed, heart-rending close-up never forgetting for a moment man’s infinite capacity for love and hate, kindness and cruelty. The three films which make up this saga are unconscionably long; watching the entire endeavor requires a commitment not everyone will be willing to make. But the rewards for such dedication are manifold. The Human Condition merits such devotion. If there is a bit too much repetition of themes and numerous sequences which push the viewer past the point of endurance with points already having been made, The Human Condition isn’t perfect, but it is unquestionably intense and imminently watchable.
The focus of Kobayashi’s three films is the character of Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a gentle, kind man who expects the best of himself and those around him. He’s constantly frustrated, of course, as man’s greed, hatred, envy, and lust often drive those around him into acts which alternately sicken or infuriate him. In the first film, he avoids conscription into the Japanese army during World War II by agreeing to serve as the managing director of a P.O.W. camp housing hundreds of Chinese nationals from the Manchurian province. Though his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) seems blissfully unaware of the problems her husband faces in trying to keep his superiors in the Japanese government from making conditions in the camp even more brutal, Kaji endures a series of reprimands as groups of Chinese manage successful escapes, all of which make his superiors believe that the humanistic Kaji is a Communist sympathizer.
The second film finds Kaji tossed unceremoniously into the army as a raw recruit, and the vast majority of the second film concerns the brutal basic training he and his fellow recruits must endure before heading into battle against the invading Russians. Though Kaji again lets his gentility in approach toward dealing with others inform his every decision, he endures a series of beatings when his superiors feel his kinder, gentler approach to training isn’t producing the vicious killers the high command wants to send into the increasingly hopeless final days of the war, ironic since Kaji himself is the very model of a superb soldier: alert, an expert shot, a dedicated and relentless warrior when facing an enemy. The climactic battle which draws the second part of the trilogy to its conclusion is one of the cinema’s great battle sequences: horrific in its ferociousness and especially poignant in its utter futility.
Things get pretty desperate for Kaji in the third film of the trilogy. He and two other soldiers (among them Terada (Yusuke Kawazu) whom Kaji takes a fatherly interest in as a protector) are the sole survivors of their boundary line regiment after a vicious firefight with a Russian tank squad. Endeavoring to return south to sanctuary, the three men come upon Japanese refugees who sense the soldiers’ survival skills and latch on to them. After several near-fatal encounters with the enemy with these civilians in tow, their luck eventually runs out when the soldiers’ positions are revealed by an emotional woman (Tamao Nakamura) and are then sent to a Russian P.O.W. camp where conditions are horrific despite Kaji’s stubborn insistence on decent treatment under wartime regulations.
Director-co-writer Masaki Kobayashi’s masterful balance of the intimate and the epic (adapted from the epic novel by Junpei Gomikawa) impresses during all three installments of this riveting trilogy. His painter’s eye in sculpting compositions with hundreds of men dwarfed by the awe-inspiring landscapes they’re trudging through continually cause the viewer’s jaw to drop, but he does seem to lose faith a bit in his audience’s sophistication during the trilogy’s last half hour as events turn riotously melodramatic, and he slows his already glacial pace to an agonizing crawl to the inevitable. He errs occasionally in piling on his symbols and dramatic showpieces to the point of redundancy (do we really need to see Kaji beaten three separate times in lengthy scenes during the middle film in the trilogy?), but there is no denying that the work is powerful, attention-getting, and unforgettable.
Actors go an entire career hoping for a role as rich and dimensional as Kaji in The Human Condition, and Tatsuya Nakadai absolutely makes the most of this golden opportunity. His haunting, expressive eyes and an altogether gentle gruffness add nuances to every scene, and we watch the character’s slight but unmistakable compromising of his principles with such a hushed sense of hope for his salvation that the performance can’t be considered anything but a triumph for the actor. Though the role of Mishiko is much on the mind of the main character through all three films in the work, Michiyo Aratama’s actual presence as the character fades with each successive film. She’s an acceptable mate in the scenes where her presence is necessary, but one doesn’t quite sense the chemistry between the two that would sustain such devotion from Kaji in the latter half of the trilogy. More important are the several male characters Kaji bonds with during these three films. Akira Ishiama’s sweet-natured Chen in the first film, Kunie Tanaka’s hapless Obara in the second, and Yusuke Kawazu’s innocent Terada in the third all make strong impressions. As the more villainous members of the cast, Shinji Nambara’s angry Kao, Michio Minami’s sadistic Yoshida, and Nobuo Kaneko’s taunting Kirihara’s keep conflicts maxed out in each of the three films. Finally, Kaji’s conscience is represented by the stirring performance of Taketoshi Naito as Tange who wanders into and out of the films always allowing a calm, rational presence for Kaji to bounce ideas off of.
The films have been framed at 2.35:1 and are anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Contrast for the most part has been well executed delivering very dimensional and reasonably sharp pictures through all three items in the trilogy. While blacks are merely okay, and shadow detail can sometimes be lacking, the resultant image still frequently impresses. The first two films have some blooming whites, and there are one or two occasional stray hairs, but neither of these are major problems. The third film evinces some light print damage. The white subtitles in all the movies are very easy to read. The films have been divided into 34, 28, and 34 chapters respectively.
The first two films have a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track which contains light to moderate hiss (more surprisingly in the second film than the first) and fidelity that is sometimes shrill and distorted. There is also some light crackle and flutter to be heard in the first two audio tracks. The third film sports a Dolby Digital 4.0 audio track, but dialogue has been spread over the three front channels in an overly loud, distracting sound mix. There is also some light hiss on occasion and some flutter to be heard. Very little has been done with the rear surround channel in the mix.
A video interview with director Masaki Kobayashi from 1993 is conducted by Masahiro Shinoda, a fellow filmmaker and longtime Kobayashi enthusiast. They discuss the use of storyboards in the making of the film along with problems in location shooting and other topics of interest. This 4:3 television interview runs for 13 ¾ minutes.
Star Tatsuya Nakadai participates in a 2009 video interview in which he discusses his marathon role, his first leading part in a movie. Running for 17 ¾ minutes, the interview is in anamorphic widescreen.
On his own, filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda discusses his admiration for the movie, his knowledge of the director’s experiences during the war which shaped the characterizations in the movie, and his belief that The Human Condition is to World War II as Grand Illusion is to World War I as far as being the definitive movie based on a war experience. The anamorphic widescreen interview runs for 24 ¾ minutes.
Three trailers¸ one for each of the three films in the trilogy, are presented in anamorphic widescreen and run 4 ½, 2 ¾, and 3 minutes respectively.
An enclosed folded pamphlet contains a cast and crew listing, the chapter listings for all three films, and a celebratory essay on the movie by film critic Philip Kemp.
4/5 (not an average)
The Human Condition is an impressive accomplishment, an indictment of Japanese behavioral policy which the original author and the director seem to believe led to the country’s self image problems during the years during and immediately following the Second World War. The Criterion release of this epic features a pleasing picture and a nice slate of bonus features which I can heartily recommend for a rental.