That headline seems more ambitious than is warranted … Masaki Kobayashi’s ten-hour, six-part epic, The Human Condition (three features with breaks for intermission), has another few days at the Film Forum (it runs through April 16), and you can still commit to the long haul. Yes, it’s worth it, but more for the experience — for the commitment itself — than because Kobayashi’s humanism will rock your world. Chances are if you’re there in the first place you know that occupying foreign lands and abusing the locals is wrong; that killing people you can barely see for reasons you probably don’t agree with is not a design for living; and that struggling to survive while fellow soldiers, women, and children perish around you from starvation will destroy your capacity for empathy and take the ultimate toll on your humanity.
Kobayashi tracks his hero, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), through three phases of his life in the last year of World War II. He’s a humanist, as other characters constantly remind him: “You’re a humanist and your humanist ways will get you nowhere here … ” “Don’t try your humanism on me ... ” etc. In the first film, No Greater Love (1959), he campaigns for more humanist treatment of Chinese prisoners in a Manchurian work camp. This doesn’t work out so well, and after interfering with the executions of prisoners who tried to escape (but only after a few of them have been shot and chucked into a pit), he is torn from his loving wife and shipped (part two, Road to Eternity, 1960) to the front, where there’s little his humanism can do to stop his superiors — as well as nasty veteran soldiers — from brutalizing the new arrivals. In the final part, A Soldier’s Prayer (1961), he and a shrinking band of Japanese soldiers and civilians make their harrowing way through China toward their conquered homeland, his humanism fatally undermined by his abandonment of fellow humans and the necessity of killing Soviet liberators.
1. As storytelling, The Human Condition is repetitive: humanism meets brutal counter-force, counter-force wins the battle, but man (or a man) continues to reach for the ideal — i.e., love — even as his body fails. Yet beat by beat it’s still riveting stuff.
2. Kobayashi likes to use low angle close-ups against stark, godless white skies. You’ll recognize the style from his many foreign imitators.
3. Nakadai is in 95 percent of the film and acts with all his heart. His most strenuous histrionics are in the first section, when he’s still a city-boy college grad with humanist ideals and hasn’t yet been broken in — every inhumanity he witnesses hits him like a blow. Later, his face tanned to leather by all the brutality, he still registers grief, albeit in ways that are more measured: He knows he can’t deplete his strength if he wants to survive. But at what price survival?
4. On the basis of The Human Condition, it is the human condition to slap or be slapped. More people get slapped in this movie than in any other, ever. The Japanese are big slappers. Talk back and you get slapped. Don’t talk back and you get slapped. Try to slip away and you get slapped. The humanist hero slaps no one and eventually gets slapped, but others are slapped more.
5. It must have added insult to injury for Japan to see this portrait of itself even fifteen years after the end of the war. Yet The Human Condition is still, based on what we now know, a whitewash. The Japanese commanders are the villains, but they are not sadists, and the soldiers, tough as they are, commit no atrocities against the Manchurian population. The hero, when forced to kill, does so in sorrow. For those of us who believe that true hell of war — as seen in Bosnia, Rwanda, for a few years in Iraq, and this year in Gaza — is not seeing your buddy blown up beside you but killing in the grip of some inhuman drive for revenge, The Human Condition, alas, falls short.