I’m beyond blown away by The Human Condition. It’s not that the third installment outstripped, the two earlier films, it’s that as a whole this film moved me like no other. It’s a masterpiece and probably the best anti-war film made.
In the third film, routed by the Russians, Kaji and his comrades are the only survivors of their unit. They must stealthily get back to southern Manchuria from this northern wilderness where the Russians are hunting down stragglers and the Chinese, now free, are out for revenge. Along the way, Kaji and his two or three companions encounter a group of Japanese refugees, half-starved, this motley group consisting of emaciated, exhausted women, children and elderly, fight for the meager food Kaji and his mates have found. While Kaji leads, it’s an uphill battle to get people to cooperate or ration their food.
Later, after most of the refugees die or run off, Kaji and his friends are captured by the Russians. If you thought that since the war is over by now, there’d be some decent treatment, guess again. The Japanese soldiers are sent to a hard labor camp. They’re underfed and aren’t given any clothes for the coming winter. Kaji’s reprimanded for using gunnysacks over his tattered uniform. This ingenuity is considered insubordination. On top of that the Japanese-Russian translator sides with the Russians and misinterprets his countrymen’s statements. Again, there’s no justice.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say it’s sure powerful and not what I expected.
Why would anyone want to watch such a long trilogy of films about such horrible times? According to the film’s star Tatsuya Nakadai, who’s earned a spot in my actors’ hall of fame, in Japan they have annual marathon viewings of Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition and they always sell out. I watched the film to broaden my insight into a significant historical era and to see a master filmmaker’s work.
The Criterion Collection DVD set includes interviews with the director Masaki Kobayashi and the lead actor Tastuya Nakadai, for whom this was is first lead role. Nakadai mentions how much he learned about the film business from his cast members. He hadn’t much experience prior to this film, just Black River, in which he played a gangster. He really didn’t know much about film and hadn’t played such a pure-hearted character before. You’d never know from his performance.