Masaki Kobayashi’s epic trilogy, made between 1959 and 1961, is one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all-time, but it has been rarely screened in the UK. This dual disc box set release by Arrow Films enables Western viewers an opportunity to measure the film — all nine hours of it — against its legendary status.
Adapted from Junpei Gomikawa’s six-volume novel, The Human Condition traces the life of Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a principled man with socialist leanings attempting to live under the restrictions imposed by Japanese militarism during the final years of the Second World War.
In the first film (“No Greater Love”), Kaji is a government worker in occupied Manchuria. Afraid of being called up and separated from his girlfriend Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), he avoids the front line by taking a job at a remote mine supervising Chinese forced labourers.
This decision leads him on a downward path of confrontation with every aspect of totalitarianism. Daring to stand up to brutality and corruption leads to his own moral degradation despite the integrity of his actions.
This only intensifies in the second film (“Road to Eternity”), which shows Kaji fighting to preserve his humanity as a conscript in the Imperial Japanese Army. Enduring torture and humiliation, he nevertheless becomes an inspiration to his fellow soldiers but remains a “filthy Red” to the military hierarchy. The concluding battle sequence, in which Kaji and his raw recruits defend a hillside against the tanks of the Red Army is truly horrifying.
The third film (“A Soldier’s Prayer”) is the darkest and most visually daring of the trilogy, with Kaji and fellow survivors attempting to evade capture by the Soviets, enduring starvation, hunted by vengeful Chinese militias, and coming face to face with absolute defeat.
It is a shattering conclusion to a powerful trilogy which has so much to say about humanity itself, from the ties of love that bind people together, to the camaraderie that can thrive even in the most adverse circumstances.
Tatsuya Nakadai’s portrayal of the idealistic yet utterly compromised Kaji is one of the most complex and layered performances ever captured on film. On screen for most of the running time, he gives his utmost in every scene.
The trilogy took four years to complete, yet the control Kobayashi exerts over what could seem like overwhelming material is nothing short of incredible, abetted by Yoshio Miyajima’s magnificent cinematography.
The film’s fierce critique of Japan’s conduct of the war and a nation’s complicity marks it out as an excoriating film politically as well as a devastating indictment of war itself.
The moral force of “The Human Condition” has only been enhanced by the passage of time.