Reviewer Ed Farolan



Ningen No Joken (The Human Condition)

Dates and Venue 2, 5-7, 11, 16 November | Pacific Cinematheque, Vancouver

Masaki Kobayashi’s 1959 monumental anti-war masterpiece, a 9¾- hour trilogy in three epic parts, is known for its great humanism, and its fiercely anti-militarist stance. It is a searing indictment of Japan’s wartime occupation of Manchuria (and of the dehumanizing effects of war), as seen through the eyes of a young pacifist. It is based on an epic novel by Jumpei Gomikawa, and on Kobayashi’s own wartime experiences.

Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a young idealist embittered and disillusioned by Japan's expansionist policy. He avoids the draft by taking a supervisory job at a Japanese-run mine in Manchuria. Meantime, he marries his sweetheart Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), and together, they leave for the site. When they arrive, they are appalled by the gross mistreatment of Chinese labourers and POWs there. As the labour coordinator, e tries to better the conditions of the labourers, but his humanitarian stance, becomes a target of the military, especially the Kempetai (equivalent to the Nazi Gestapo and SS). He is blamed when prisoners escape, and as puishment, he is forcibly conscripted into military service.

In the second part of the film, we see Kaji transformed into a battle-hardened soldier, and promoted to Private First Class.As a non-commissioned officer, despite the harsh treatment he suffered as a recruit, he refuses to use the same cruel methods of training on his recruits, and again, goes against the military grain by attempting to better the training of his recruits by being more human. This earns him the disdain of his fellow officers. As World War II comes to an end, the Japanese are being defeated and flee from the advancing Soviets. Kaji is captured and mistreated by the Red Army, and loses his hopes that Communism is the answer to the human condition.

This is an extraordinarily brilliant film. The dialogue borders into politics and philosophy, and I saw this film as a cross between De Mille's spectacular productions, such as Ten Commandments and Tolstoy's epic saga, War and Peace. What struck me most in this film was a scene in the POW camp. Because of his humanitarian stance, he is consoled by Wang, an elderly POW who tells him that he will come across kindred spirits who share his beliefs while journeying through life. He does in fact cross paths with a few kindred souls, but they come for a while, and vanish.

Towards the end of his journey, as he crosses the plains of Manchuria, in the dead of winter, with snow and wind and temperatures similar to the Canadian prairies in mid-winter, he reminisces his experiences, as flashbacks of scenes from the past are projected on screen. But most of all, he is determined to go home, back to his wife, hoping she's still alive and waiting for him.

Kobayashi is noted for his samurai films Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, and the Oscar-nominated ghost tales, Kwaidan. He was a major figure, together with Kurosawa, Kinoshita and Ichikawa, the new generation of Japanese filmmakers that emerged in the postwar period.

© 2009 Ed Farolan