Japanese filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi shot The Human Condition in a widescreen process called Grandscope, and that's exactly what he achieves with this magnum opus, which clocks in at nearly 10 hours. This blunt and beautiful, black-and-white epic follows the metamorphosis of Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a Japanese pacifist living in occupied China during the final years of World War II.
With a heavy hand and even heavier heart, Kobayashi (Kwaidan) adapted Jumpei Gomikawa's six-volume novel into a trilogy of films made between 1959 and 1961. Coming a mere generation after Japan's defeat, this stunner pulls no punches, openly questioning the elemental nature of the society that waged war and occupied foreign countries to exploit their natural resources and labor. It also presents Kaji as a sacrificial lamb, an everyman who believes in human decency and dignity, but is faced with monolithic brutality wherever he turns.
Part 1, No Greater Love, finds Kaji making a life-altering decision to avoid conscription and marry his beloved Michiko (Michiyo Aratama). He leaves his desk job at a steel company to become the labor manager at an iron ore mine, planning to implement the egalitarian ideals he espoused in a report to Japanese upper management. But his posting seems like a cruel joke (the first of many), since no one wants to change the corrupt status quo. Despite his efforts to avoid it, the war soon comes to Kaji when the Kempeitai (military police) bring POWs to the mine as forced labor.
It doesn't take long for the reformer to become a martyr, and Kaji vacillates throughout The Human Condition between taking the hits for others and being a hot-headed, impulsive leader his contemporaries unquestioningly follow.
Part 2, The Road to Eternity, sees Kaji as an Army recruit who makes a surprisingly effective soldier, although he can't stomach the "personal punishment" techniques that pass for military discipline, which involve numerous beatings and violent hazing methods.
The soul-crushing conclusion, A Soldier's Prayer, details the disintegration of the Kwantung Army as starvation, guerrilla warfare and infighting between Japanese refugees are followed by oppression imposed by the Soviet Union's "people's army" (who call Kaji a "fascist samurai").
Watching Human Condition in one fell swoop, its creaky melodramatic conventions emerge. Kaji's travails soon feel repetitious; a series of encounters with self-satisfied petty tyrants so enraged by his humanism that they escalate their cruelty and make it their personal mission to annihilate him. In the last half, women come and go in waves, each a surrogate for the absent Michiko, and Kaji's long-lost comrades conveniently reappear, although they offer little more than fleeting moral support.
Kobayashi's view is fatalistic, not triumphant, with Kaji put in the position to personally atone for the war. There are times during this arduous journey when the audience will also feel that they're trapped on a long, bleak march to nowhere. A monumental anti-war statement, The Human Condition demands devotion and takes no prisoners.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at noon on Sunday, Nov. 9, presented with two intermissions, including a one-hour dinner break. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.