The Human Condition, III

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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.

HUMAN CONDITION

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.

Human Condition, II

HUMAN CONDITION

Tatsuya Nakadai as Kaji

Part two of Kobayashi’s trilogy Human Condition maintains the excellence of the first film. Here the hero Kaji is a private in the military. It seems no one on the face of the earth faces more degradation than a WWII Japanese private. Kaji’s particularly targeted because he’s suspect of being a “Red” since he tried to get humane treatment for the Chinese P.O.W.’s stationed at the mine he managed.

The “vets” or soldiers with more experience are merciless in their brutality against the newer recruits. In fact, the sensitive Obara, who’s physically weak and plagued by domestic problems, is beaten and humiliated in a way I’ve never witnessed. While Kaji tries to help, that makes matters worse for Obara who commits suicide rather early on in this three hour film.

Although Kaji is strong and performs his duties without failure, because of his principles, he’s berated and targeted. In no uncertain terms, the film indicts the Japanese military, where a few good men are outnumbered by corrupt brutes. Even when he was in the hospital, he was beaten. The head nurse thought nothing of striking patients!

As in Human Condition, part 1, Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays Kaji, is stellar. I just learned that he was a shop clerk and Koyabashi, the director of Human Condition, discovered him and put him in a film.

Wings

bulgakova_wings_movieReleased in 1966 Wings, a story of a Russian female heroic fighter pilot long after she’s been able to fly sounded like an intriguing film. As a Criterion Collection film I had not sky-high, but high hopes. It’s the story of an unmarried woman who’s isolated from those around her. Though she’s a mother (of a daughter who doesn’t know she’s adopted), a high school principal who’s dedicated to her school and students, and the lover of a museum director, the main character is emotionally distant from everyone around her.

Her life isn’t bad, but she’s very isolated. She talks with her lover about her estrangement with her daughter and she talks in passing with people at work about a boy who got in trouble and has now run away, but the conversation is superficial.

While I gave the movie a chance and wouldn’t call it bad, because the heroine was so removed from everyone else and we never saw the main problems like the boy’s flight from his dormitory, I never got caught up in the story. So the artistry escaped me.

I can’t recommend Wings, but perhaps I’ve missed something.

Crazed Fruit

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When I picked Crazed Fruit (1956) out at the library, I had no idea what it was about our who the director, Ko Nakahira was. Until recently, the only directors I knew were Ozu and Kurosawa. I’ve learned Japan has produced many masterful filmmakers.

Crazed Fruit takes place in the late 1950s when Japan is getting prosperous, at least the elite are. The main characters are two brothers from a wealthy family. The brothers, Natsuhisha and Haruji, spend their summer with their fellow rich kids gambling, smoking, drinking, fighting and going after girls. Another occupation is complaining about how their college professors know nothing and how their futures are meaningless. While it’s becoming an economic wonder, Japan doesn’t offer any outlet for their passions.

When the brothers arrive at the train station en route to their pal’s summer house, they see Eri, a beautiful, alluring young woman. Haruji, who’s the young, innocent brother, is smitten, but his brother, who’s quite the lover boy, pulls him away so they can hurry over to their friends.

The next day while out on a boat, they notice a girl in the water. It turns out to be Eri. Soon both boys are smitten and don’t really care or, in the case of Haruji, know, that Eri’s married to a much older, prosperous Western man.

Haruji innocently courts Eri, who always has an excuse why she can’t be picked up at home. The scenes with Haruji and Eri are tastefully sensual. The camera captures their desire as they lie next to each other sunbathing on the rocks by the sea in a way that’s exquisite. It’s a much more compelling than any sex scene I’ve seen in 10 years or more. Nakahira is a master, who deserves to be studies by every filmmaker and film lover.

Soon Natsuhisha becomes obsessed with Eri. He finds her house and sees her husband. He promises to keep her Western husband a secret from Haruji if Eri will have sex with him. She agrees. Eri’s character is hinted at rather than well defined. She’s a mystery and unlike other characters. She’s insulted and angry, but also willing. Natsuhisha exudes animal chemistry and she finds him more than satisfying in the bedroom. Eri seems to want to keep her three men, to keep those relationships separate, but to keep them. Of course, this is impossible

The film, which is based on a novel by Ishihara, broke new ground in depicting sensuality and the abandonment of traditional morality among rich youth. At the time, though people’s own mores had changed, film had not. Japanese films tended to uphold traditional morals. While the tragic ending in Crazed Fruit certainly doesn’t promote the lifestyle or choices of the idle rich, it did shock the elders at the cinema.

Crazed Fruit was conceived and produced to be a low budget, teen flick that would cash in at the box office. The story, in Nakahira’s hands, is a beautiful classic.

The Criterion Collection offers two thoughtful essays on Crazed Fruit. The commentary by Japan film expert Donald Richie greatly enhances the film as he explains the social context and context of this film within Japanese filmmaking.

 

Army of Shadows

An amazingly powerful film, Army of Shadows shows the ordinary people joined the French Resistance and courageously opposed the Germans during WWII.

From the solemn beginning with German soldiers goose-stepping in front of the Arc de Triomphe to the bitter end, when . . . oh, I won’t say, Army of Shadows grabbed me.

After the opening sequence, we meet Gerbier, who’s sitting in the back of a German truck getting transported to a prison camp. Scenes of ordinariness follow. The truck driver makes a stop to pick up provisions from a farmer. Gerbier’s guard makes small talk to let Gerbier know he’s going to a “good” prison camp. At the camp, Gerbier is housed with two groups of prisoners, the first three amuse themselves with dominos and chit chat and seem to be and to have been men who just go with the flow. The other two prisoners are a young communist and a dying Catholic teacher. The division reflects French society, two groups, one that’s earnest and sickly and the other that’s lively, but superficial. Neither one gets much accomplished. Thus Gerbier sets his own course and doesn’t join either “side.” He’s the lone, strong, sensible man.

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Gerbier is transported to the Nazi headquarters and manages to escape. Then as he meets the other members of the Resistance, we watch as Gerbier leads a plot to abduct and kill the young man, who betrayed the Resistance. ordinary people plan and organize what would be criminal acts they’d never undertake in ordinary circumstances.

All the actors deliver compelling performances. The story presents a fascinating look at history and was quite controversial when it was released in France in 1969. Critics were divided on the film because of its controversial portrayal of the Resistance fighters, who sometimes act like very intelligent gangsters.

What’s amazing about the film is how little action it contains. In certain instances there are chases and attacks, but that’s subordinate to the characters’ thinking, sacrifice and courage.

This film was so compelling that after I finished watching I started watching again, this time with the commentary running.

Badlands

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I’d never envisioned Martin Sheen playing a morally bankrupt adolescent so watching Badlands (1973) was something of a shock. In Badlands Sheen plays Kit an outsider with just enough smarts to be dangerous. I can’t quite make out his percentage of psychosis, but Kit sure has plenty. Evidently the film was based on an actual couple, Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.

As the film begins, Kit’s bored with his garbage collecting job, which he soon loses by telling off the boss. He finds an odd kind of love when he meets Holly, played by Sissy Spacek. Holly’s an even keel (or flat line?) teen whose mother died a while back. She’s never had a boyfriend or lots of friends at school so hey, Kit’s interested in her so why not stick with him. Her father’s rather taciturn and aloof so she’s morally empty and will go along with anything since nothing in life seems like a big deal to her. She attaches herself to Kit since he’s there and he’s good looking and she doesn’t seem to have the depth to make moral judgments of any sort. Life’s rather boring in her South Dakota town and she’s got no social circle, no village is raising this girl so she goes with whatever comes along.

So we see this ho hum relationship, and both Holly and Kit are more inclined to the ho hum than to passion, flow along until Holly’s father gets wind of it. He forbids Holly to see Kit. Now Kit’s wild with love and can’t live without Holly. He breaks into Holly’s home and confronts the father, who wants him out. Dad won’t listen to Kit. He certainly doesn’t want his only child to settle for an uneducated loser who can’t keep a job. When the father turns his back to Kit to go call the police to get the trespasser out, Kit shoots him in the back. Kit and Holly burn the house down to thwart the authorities who’ll soon want evidence and they take to the road. It is odd, yet compelling to see Holly blithely go off with Kit after he’s murdered her father in cold blood.

Just like Kit, Badlands goes in directions viewers won’t expect. There’s never a police officer who’s determined to catch the pair. This isn’t Bonnie and Clyde, though the bodies start piling up as the story progresses. It’s more of a look at a lost, bored adolescent couple who make some odd and wrong choices, shrug them off and keep going in their way. Because the plot employs few Hollywood conventions and because the leads are compellingly low key and lost, the film works.

Who’d thunk that Jeb Bartlett could play a low key, psychopathic James Dean?

 

 

 

Ordet

If you’re looking for something to watch as penance, perhaps Ordet will satisfy. I saw this listed in the bulletin at the Northwestern University Catholic center and thought for sure they’d have chosen a good film to discuss.

While I’m joking, Ordet is a a heck of a serious film. As Roger Ebert wrote it’s hard to get into, but once you’re in, you’re in. Perhaps.

Set in Denmark in 1925, Ordet’s the story of a family headed by Morten Borgen, a dour pastor in a stark rural town where religious denominations carry serious weight. If you’re not in the “right” one, you’re considered beyond the pale. Borgen’s got three sons, the oldest is married with two daughters. He’s an unbeliever, while his wife is sincere and devout. She’s also pregnant. The middle son is looney and thinks he’s Jesus, which gets on most people’s nerves. The youngest son wants to marry the tailor’s daughter, but her family goes to another church, one known for particularly dour worship services. Her father rejects marriage to a man from another denomination.

I doubt any character cracked a smile in the whole film. Yet after awhile the film does pull you in. It’s rather eerie. The daughter-in-law experiences complications when she goes into labor and this brings the story to a climax. I’m still not sure what to think of the film. I’m curious how the Northwestern discussion went. It’s a well crafted film, but certainly not for everyone. You have to be patient and interested in puzzling out meaning.

If you find the meaning, let me know.