One of the most overused terms in art is the word epic. Perhaps only the term surreal (and its variants) has been more abused. Generally, the term epic should only be applied to works of art that are large, in some manner, and have a wide field of inquiry. Simply being long does not qualify. Think of some of the first works to be granted the appellation: the Greek poems of Homer and Virgil. They were, despite their vast overrating as works of art, truly epic. Hence they were called epopee. A long novel like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is epic, both for its length and plunge into human existence. A far longer work like Marcel Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past, however, is not epic, for despite its length, it really only skims the surface of cosmic depths. An even more obvious example is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. Yes, it is about the American Civil War, in a broad sense, but its soap operatic melodrama and characterizations prevent it from even going as deeply as Proust’s work.
In film, and despite the plumbs into the soul, none of Ingmar Bergman’s films can be considered epic; even his longest film, Fanny And Alexander, is really just an extended character study. Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, however, would qualify, as would some of the films of Theo Angelopolous, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the obvious epics of David Lean (like Dr. Zhivago), and Bela Tarr’s Satantango (although that might more honestly be called an anti-epic in that it peers inward, not outward toward the greater things in life). As for those often called epics, but for which the term is a misnomer, I would include (amongst far too many) all the films I’ve seen by Werner Herzog and Michelangelo Antonioni (both are more truly portraitists — excepting, perhaps, Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo), fluffy crap like the Star Wars films, and especially the overrated Blade Runner.
By contrast, Masayaki Kobayashi’s 9½ hour long film, The Human Condition, released in three parts between 1959 and 1961, is undoubtedly an epic, in both size and intellectual scope. Oddly, though, the black and white film rarely uses the widescreen techniques that someone like David Lean used in The Bridge On The River Kwai or Lawrence Of Arabia. Yet, in every other way the film is big, Big, BIG. On a superficial level it might be said to most closely resemble Tarr’s Satantango. Like it, the film is broken into multiple parts that document the human decay of people from within and without, but unlike Tarr’s film, The Human Condition never uses its long passages as anything more; at least in the sense that length, itself, can be a tool to examine the slightest variations of the human condition. There is no reason for the endless traipsings that dominate the second half of Kobayashi’s film, when they could have been distilled into a 30-90 second montage.
In Satantango, by contrast, the length is the very reason, whether a viewer likes it or not, for the length. There is a reason we follow people on seemingly endless sojourns — to experience it with them as they either ruminate on a scene just gone or anticipate what lies ahead. In Kobayashi’s film, since it is based in history, we pretty much know what awaits the defeated Japanese army in Manchuria. Therefore, many of the scenes play out like fragments of war films we’ve seen before, both prior to this film’s release and after, both films that at least strove for art, like Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory (two obvious influences), to throwaway mindless John Wayne and Steven Spielberg crap. Another flaw of the film is that there are too many characters, and they appear briefly, return for a small spell later, and one is left wondering where the film’s lead character knew this other character from. Compared to Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp or Fires On The Plain – much shorter films — Kobayashi’s film cannot hide its rolls of belly fat.
I will briefly sketch the film’s narrative, for to detail it would take too long and give too much of the film’s existential power away, as well as give away too many of the small moments in the film that add tremendously to its excellence — moments in which the lightest touch resonates with depth. Part one of the film follows the film’s lead Kaji (first name or surname we are never told, although one would assume surname since it is how he is addressed in the military; played by Tatsuya Nakadai), a mid-level bureaucrat at a Japanese mining company in Manchuria that exploits Chinese slave labor, as he reluctantly marries his sweetheart, a co-worker named Michiko (Michiyo Aratama). She will soon become his desideratum and life’s unifying force, but initially he views her as a way to avoid being abducted into the Japanese army.