Friday, April 30, 2010

Idealism in a Time of Extremism: The Human Condition

Throughout film history, many of society's social problems have been tackled by filmmakers, whether it be through protest, propaganda or more nuanced approaches. Writing about the last decade in film, I have noted when certain films have directly commented on the important historical and political moments of the aughts. Unexpectedly, it was a 50-year old trilogy of Japanese films just under 10 hours in length that I believe effectively touched upon what has defined American society in our new century. What does a movie like this have to say about the way we live now? Perhaps, we have become a society where the shouting voices have overwhelmed the reasonable ones and strict ideological stances have failed us time and time again.

"The Human Condition", directed and co-written by Masaki Kobayashi and starring the great Tatsuya Nakadai, was a film I had only heard about when it was being resurrected for repertory theater runs about a year and a half ago. Since it was a long and challenging film, it was often difficult to find many filmgoers willing to make the commitment. For that reason, I could not see it myself until the Criterion Collection, after another one of their exhaustive restoration projects, released the entire film on DVD, allowing me to probably absorb it better at home than I would have sitting in a theater for an all-day marathon showing.

Between discovering the film and actually watching it, I also took the time to sample Kobayashi's work after having never seen any of his movies previously, watching both "Samurai Rebellion" and "Hara-Kiri" in the last year. Both of these films were made after "The Human Condition", but had clued me into what were some of Kobayashi's primary themes, particularly how it is important for one to defy authority if they are forced to stand up for their own family. Living in the United States, as opposed to being in Japan during the 1600's, may not make these films immediate to my world, but, yet, I could not help but notice some of the parallels. Sure, we live in a democracy, but we certainly were not short of moments in the last few decades where the government casually imposed its will for the "good of the people".

Adapted from a novel by Gomikawa Junpei, "The Human Condition" tells the story of Kaji (played by Nakadai), an idealist and socialist, during World War II, a war that has inspired many filmmakers for the last two decades. Though it is technically a war movie, it refreshingly does not traffic in the same war movie cliches of recent times. We are not lectured to about how war is a bad thing, while constantly reminding you of the sacrifices that soldiers made during WWII. What Kobayashi is interested in doing is dismantling the entire nature of war and exposing the mindsets that not only lead us to battle, but also the ugliness that emerges from taking other peoples' lives in the name of your country.

The film was released as three films with each film comprised of two parts. The first film titled "No Greater Love" centers around Kaji, who is a conscientious objector to the war, being placed in charge of a mining operation in Manchuria. The first scenes show Kaji and his girlfriend Michiko (played Michiyo Aratama), who is pressuring him to marry her. Though Michiko is clearly the love of his life, Kaji does not want to make a commitment during a time of great uncertainty, especially with the possibility of being shipped off to fight and not making it back. However, the opportunity to run the mine allows him to get an exemption from the war and be with Michiko. In this first part, Kaji is clearly shown as someone willing to stick to his principles, nearly to a fault, as his more humanistic approach to treating the laborers at the mine backfires often.

During this section of "Condition", Kaji comes across as a bit self-righteous, even though we certainly admire him for what attempting to do what few others are willing to try. He is not fighting the system, as much as he is battling the entire fascist mentality of his country through peaceful resistance. This comes more evident in the second half of the film, where he is forced to use Chinese POWs as laborers and finds himself trying to manage them along with the other workers, as well as the prostitutes brought in to sleep with the laborers. Kaji is always assured that what he is doing is the right thing, but often, the prisoners take advantage of the many allowances his policies give them. Particularly, the Chinese POWs look for every opportunity to escape, as Kaji can only do so much to make being imprisoned a tolerable experience.

The turning point is when some of the POWs are mistakenly perceived by the Japanese as escaping, leading to some of them being executed publicly in front of the camp with Kaji forced to bear witness. Though his protests save some of the lives, Kaji is then subjected to torture for several days, as his superiors suspect him of having allowed the prisoners to escape or are just simply suspicious of why he shows them so much sympathy. This is the first major instance when Kaji's ideological stance backfires on him, tragically. Demonstrating how the system is stacked against him, Japan takes away his exemption and drafts him into the army. This puts Kaji in the position he was afraid he would be in when first resisting marrying Michiko. He does not want someone to love him and then possibly face the possibility of losing him to the war forever.

In first part of the second film "Road to Eternity", we follow Kaji as he trains in a boot camp in conditions not much better than in the mines. This section of the film recalls the boot camp sequence that makes up the first third of Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" a great deal that it no doubt inspired it. Here, Kaji experiences the abusive behavior of the ranking officers. At one point, he even tries to protect another recruit, Obara (played by Kunie Tanaka), who is clearly cracking under the pressure which does not surprisingly end well for everyone, though not as horrific as the Sgt. Hartman/Pvt. Pyle standoff in "Jacket". Still, Kaji is seen by his superiors as being responsible for the situation. In fact, it always seems like his best intentions wind up with someone else suffering tragic circumstances and Kaji assuming the blame.

As we reach the midpoint of "The Human Condition", we begin to see what Kobayashi is exploring with his subject matter. While clearly his sympathies lie with Kaji, he certainly does not let the character's stubborn righteousness off the hook. The problem with some idealists is that they refuse to sometimes acknowledge how the world works and never adjust their principles to try to make their ideas work. It is a flaw that recurs throughout Kaji's journey. But, it is beyond this point when Kaji has to finally go into battle that his refusal to play the game, as you will, awakens him to the cruelties of the world.

The second half of "Road to Eternity" is actually the closest "The Human Condition" comes to a standard war movie. However, there is a key scene from the first half which resonates throughout the second. While training, his superiors allow Kaji one last conjugal visit with Michiko. It is one of the most powerful moments in the entire film, as Kaji almost finds it difficult to touch his wife during their final moments, asking her to stand nude looking out the window at the sunrise to provide one final memory of her before he goes away to battle. Throughout the more traditional war scenes in the second half of "Road to Eternity", every action of Kaji is influenced by his desire to return home to his wife and to have more than the memory of their last moment together.

Despite being a pacifist, Kaji oddly proves to be an effective soldier. His sharpshooting skills are exemplary, while he tends to step up into a leadership position when the circumstances call for it. The battle scenes in "The Human Condition" only amount to less than half an hour, but they are presented as stark and brutal. "Road to Eternity" climaxes at a moment of violence that is both intimate and harrowing. Kaji, who we see slowly giving over his soul to being a soldier just so that he can survive, commits an act that is unexpected of him and changes how we see him significantly for the rest of the film.

The third part of "The Human Condition", "A Soldier's Prayer", begins with Kaji making a decision to abandon the army when it looks like Japan has lost and returning home by foot to rejoin Michiko. The film does not let up testing Kaji's spirit, as he and his fellow soldiers are joined on the journey by Japanese refugees trying to make it home themselves. They face brutal conditions with no food or relief of any kind, as they attempt to avoid both the remaining Japanese soldiers who do not look kindly to those abandoning the cause, as well as the Russian army looking to take prisoners.

Ultimately, Kaji finds himself taken prisoner by the Russians, bringing his journey full circle to where it started at the mines. Though, at first, he believes the Russians would try to treat him and other prisoners with the same level of humanity he attempted for the Chinese POWs back in the first part, since they were supposed to subscribe to socialist ideals as opposed to fascist ones. Instead, the Russians prove themselves to be just as cold and violent in their tendencies. This proves that ideologies, whether well-intentioned or not, are ultimately overtaken by those who instincts are based on power rather than principles. Even someone like Kaji we witness turning into someone less compassionate and selfless, as his love for his wife supersedes his political beliefs and behavior.

"The Human Condition" is not the easiest film to sit through. I had actually watched it more like a 6-part miniseries over the course of two weeks, so that actually helped deal with the unrelenting despair of watching Kaji's story. However, I was still engrossed, very much anticipating the next part when I reached the end of the previous one. It also was not hard to find its themes relevant to the world we live in today. First of all, I cannot help but note again that the lead character is a socialist. These days, we have seen the word tossed around as accusatory rhetoric by those who have no basic understanding of what it means. Kobayashi's film is certainly not socialist propaganda, though we see some of its tenets practiced by the lead character. The movie does identify with Kaji's idealism, but does not romanticize it. As I mentioned before, his beliefs result in well-intentioned actions that often result in greater tragedies. The film seeks to convey that you cannot practice the ideas of socialism when everyone else is functioning in a fascist world. The deck is stacked against you right from the start. So, while you admire Kaji for standing up for what he believes in, you can acknowledge that it is quite foolish and unrealistic of him to believe he can accomplish what he wants to.

In regards to the fascism on display, one cannot help but draw parallels to the many screaming groups that have been given a large stage by our news media to practice their brand of bullying. Admittedly, it does become sometimes comically repetitive when Japanese superiors in the film, whether in the mining or boot camp, choose to discipline the rank and file by constantly slapping them across the face. Granted, a slap is one of the most degrading acts to inflict on men by other men. There is something about the act that really cuts someone else down to size. When you substitute that act with, say, name-calling (Socialist! Hitler!) or veiled insults (Only small towns represent real America!) or more obviously, questioning the patriotism of those who do not follow the will of the government, you can understand why I do not think Japan in World War II is such a far cry from what we have seen in the United States for some time.

More importantly, "The Human Condition" truly gets at how the world beats people like Kaji down. Whether you think he may be self-righteousness or not, you still admire him for how far he is willing to stick to his principles, especially during a time when few hesitate to sell them out for convenience. You can also understand how much he loves his wife and struggles with the decisions he makes that either can make his life with her easier or can put him into a position that can separate them for good. Once Kaji begins to realize that his beliefs may have done the latter, there is a limit to how much you can fault him for some of his more questionable acts in the second half of the film. You do sense he takes responsibility for his actions on the battlefield and thinks of himself as a lesser man,. But you cannot forget that it was his country, and, more importantly, the mindset of Japan that has forced him to abandon what he believes in. A nation hellbent on winning a war is not going to concern itself with humanistic practices and nuanced concepts. Extremist attitudes exist outside the land of reason. By the third film, Kaji pledges his love for his wife rather than his country or principles.

One cannot discuss "The Human Condition" without noting the phenomenal filmmaking on display. Despite the length and scope of the film, this is actually one of the more intimate epics I have seen. Employing a very stark and contrasty look in its black and white imagery, Kobayashi conjures up some great shots throughout the film. The widescreen compositions never really go for a large scale feel, as much as they seem more concerned with showing how characters are almost a small part of something much greater than they are. The movie represents itself visually by placing someone in front of distinctive landscapes or cloud patterns. The cinematography is quite effective, as the image defines itself by using the varying degrees of grey between white and black.

It is a film that expresses its emotions through imagery: characters thinking in front of a clear sky, grey skies contrasting with white clouds during an act of violence or the pitch blackness of either the labor or boot camps at night. The style of the film varies slightly as it moves towards the end. "No Greater Love" is shot more classically, while "Road to Eternity" which focuses on the war has a less leisurely pace. The third part, Kobayashi experiments more, as it becomes about the state of Kaji's mind, employing quick flashback cutaways and using freeze frames to emphasize moments. This is a visually expressive film that tries to achieve more than empty beauty in its shots.

The most important aspect to note is the performance of Tatsuya Nakadai, particularly the way he subtly modulates the way his character chooses to express himself throughout the film. Primarily known for being the actor that Toshiro Mifune killed in several samurai battles (Nakadai actually filmed his role as the gun-toting villain in "Yojimbo" while filming "Condition"), in recent years, Nakadai has begun to receive his due for his work as an actor. Look at his later lead roles in "Hara-Kiri" or "The Sword of Doom". There was also the later Kurosawa films after the director had a falling out with his usual lead Mifune and cast Nakadai in the central roles in both "Kagemusha" and "Ran".

Nakadai's performance is important to the success of "The Human Condition", as he is not afraid to portray the character's faults along with its strengths. The film could have been more relentless if it were a lesser actor in the role. You can see the weight of every decision on his face and body. It is startling to witness the physical and moral transformation from the wide-eyed idealist in the first film to the cynical and gruff soldier in the third film. It is a monumental and, for the most part, non-showy performance that has strangely not been mentioned when the greatest performances in the history of film are discussed.

Then again, I am not sure how widely the film has been seen in recent times. As I had mentioned, it took a long time for me to even find out about "The Human Condition" or Masaki Kobayashi. I am sure that the film's length has scared off some, but the experience is worth it. Yes, I think it is an important film, but I believe we can view it through the prism of our current political and military cultures and understand what it is trying to achieve. The ambition of this movie is not merely about presenting an expansive tale about a world war, but to use that to explore the human spirit and how each of us find the will to fight for our souls and beliefs on a daily basis, especially when it is inconvenient.

The Human Condition was seen on the Criterion Collection DVD via Netflix.

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