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.

Human Condition

HUMAN CONDITION

Tatsuya Nakadai as Kaji

Human Condition, Part 1 is probably the most movie film I’ve ever seen. Directed by Masaki Koyabashi, Human Condition, Part 1 shows places idealistic hero Kaji-san in a Manchurian mine that’s managed with an iron fist. Young Kaji-san believes if the workers are treated humanly, they’ll produce more. Even if they didn’t, he believes it’s the right thing to do. Who wouldn’t agree?

The answer is plenty of the other managers and administrators. The head honcho will indulge Kaji-san, but only so far. That man’s main preoccupation seems to be living the easy life. Okishima-san is a veteran at the mine, who thinks Kaji-san’s ideas are too humanistic, but he’s open to giving them a try. He’s one of the few friends Kaji has.

Soon the mine is given 600 Chinese war prisoners. At the same time the higher ups have increased the quota by 20%. Kaji-san wants to see them treated well. He’s certainly alone on that.

When the train comes with the Chinese, the workers are emaciated. Fifteen died en route. Kaji-san campaigns for humane treatment for the Chinese. By  giving them more food, by no means a lot, they are able to work. Trouble comes when some of these prisoners start to escape. Kaji-san’s Chinese assistant Chen gets talked into convincing his pal who mans the electricity to shut it off after 1 am. When the third group tries to escape, Kaji-san’s nemesis accuses Kaji-san, who was totally in the dark, of allowing the prisoners to escape.

One of the most amazing things about this film, which is quite an indictment of Japan during the war, is that it got made and released, that the books it was based on were published. The film depicts a corrupt and brutal leadership. Japan heavily censored speech and punished dissenters in WWII. I admire Japan for allowing writers and filmmakers to criticize it’s atrocities in what at The time was it’s recent past. The Chinese characters are depicted fairly. Some are heroic, others rash or venial. I am sure there aren’t any Chinese films that show Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the 100 Flowers campaign, or Tiananmen Square in a similar fashion, which is a shame. It takes a great society to let it’s artists critique its wrongs.

The acting, particularly Nakadai’s, is outstanding. I’ve never been so moved. While the camera is used masterfully, the film manages to blend naturalism and art.

Three and a half hours is a long time for a film, but the time speeds by. That’s quite a feat.

Fires on the Plain

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Years ago I read an absorbing, horrifyingly moving novel called Fires on the Plain by Shohei Ooka. It was a look at WWII in the Pacific showing aspects of war that left me stunned. When I saw the DVD in my library, I had to check it out.

Directed by Kon Ichikawa, who switched careers from graphic arts to film, Fires on the Plain was a powerful, timeless look at war, particularly World War II in the the Philippines. The main character is Tamura, who’s got TB, and returns to his unit after the hospital sent him away. They’re only taking patients with food and curable diseases at the hospital. Back with his comrades, who don’t want another mouth to feed, his superior shouts at him, gives him a few yams and a grenade. His orders are to return to the hospital and convince them to take him. If that doesn’t work, and it’s unlikely that it will, Tamura is to use the grenade to kill himself.

Like the other soldiers, his clothes are beyond tatters, his shoes are falling apart and he has little to eat. He knows his orders are impossible. So he leaves and wanders. He’s not sure where to go, and he doesn’t have any valor or philosophy or loved one’s to live for, but he’ll evade the fires the Americans (or is it the locals) set off before they attack. His desire to live is as thin as a razor’s edge, but he’ll trudge on. Along the way he meets a Filipino brother and sister in a deserted village. He winds up shooting the girl. Her brother runs off and in the distance black smoke rises from fires. It’s best for Tamura to make a run for it.

Tamura continues to flee. Along the way he meets fellow soldiers, all soldiers for an army that’s all but lost. There’s no food, no plans, no leadership, and no trust of each other. The only person Tamura can trust, sort of, is Yasuda who said he was going to surrender, but towards the end of the film is still psychologically tethered to a mean, unpredictable older soldier who’s probably lying when he says he can’t walk and he has no weapons. This trio stays together, but not only does Yasuda sleep with one eye open, he sleeps in a hiding place far from the old man.

The film is filled with beautiful and poignant scenes. One I’ll never forget is when it’s pouring rain and Tamura is with a group of soldiers planning to go to a city where the Americans are to surrender. When they come to a soldier lying dead in a puddle, another soldier whose shoes are full of holes, removes his shoes and takes the dead man’s. Then Tamura reaches the corpse with the shoes beside it. He picks up the discarded shoes and looks through them. Eighty percent of the soles are gone. They’re useless. So are the shoes Tamura’s own pair, which he removes and proceeds barefoot. Later when Tamura encounters another corpse. As soon as he establishes the man is dead, the takes his shoes.

The film has no ideology or message. It simply shows the affects of a particular war, which is unique in some ways and not in others. The soldiers know they’re losing and yet they trudge along. They keep going without having the least idea why. The lack of morale or trite reason to live, makes the characters all the more heroic in a very modern sense.

The hardship the characters experience was hard to watch and I had to take several breaks. I think I saw the film over three days. Still I’m glad I did. I’ll definitely look for more Ichikawa films.

If you’re interested, I found the film with English subtitles on YouTube.

Poem of the Week

The Flaming Terrapin

By Roy Campbell

How often have I lost this fervent mood,

And gone down dingy thoroughfares to brood

On evils like my own from day to day:

“Life is a dusty corridor,” I say,

“Shut at both ends.” But far across the plain,

Old Ocean growls and tosses his grey mane,

Pawing the rocks in all his old unrest

Or lifting lazily on some white crest

His pale foam-feathers for the moon to burn –

Then to my veins I feel new sap return,

Strength tightens up my sinews long grown dull,

And in the old charred crater of the skull

Light strikes the slow somnambulistic mind

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.

Sepia Saturday

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This week’s prompt sent me searching for nostalgic photos with mechanics. I was surprised that my Flickr Commons search yielded so many women fixing cars and planes.

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National Library of Scotland 1918

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University of British Columbia, 1914-18?

Landscape

U.S. National Archives, 1942

If you’d like to see more Sepia Saturday photos, click here.