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.
Thus, despite his idealist and humanistic talk about the benefits of Socialism (wow, wasn’t he naïve?), Kaji is willing to engage in an irredeemably evil effort like slavery to save his own hide. Many critics have complained that Kaji’s ethics and devotion to his wife Michiko, especially in the film’s second half, have left him not a real character, but a symbol, a hagiographized Christ-like martyr. But, clearly this is wrong. What makes Kaji such a compelling character (aside from the outstanding depiction by Nakadai) is that he is so real- he is a man with principles, guilt, and a fierce devotion, even as we follow his anti-bildingsroman from a petty hack looking to save his own ass to a murdering killing machine out to survive and return to his wife at all costs. Kobayashi and co-screenwriter Zenzo Masuyama, and the source novel of the film, Junpei Gomikawa’s The Human Condition, get kudos for this, even if the film director and Masuyama get demerits for being too faithful to the book in terms of its length.
By part two, Kaji is an outcast in his company, and hated both by his Japanese co-workers and the subjugated Chinese workers. He is hated by the Japanese military commander who brings the mines new prisoners, and after several escape attempts by the Chinese, he loses faith in them, as they have in him. There is a moment of redemption for Kaji when he is able to help stop the execution of four of seven prisoners by the Japanese military. By doing so, he foments a Chinese uprising and finds himself suddenly drafted into the army. Part three follows his adventures in boot camp. There is a poignant narrative that follows a weakling recruit through torment which leads to his suicide (a trope blatantly borrowed by Stanley Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket, an instance where a director stole from a film that stole from an even earlier film of his, Paths Of Glory).
By the final two parts of the film we get into an actual battle. The Soviet Red Army has, after VE Day and the atomic bombings in Japan, decided to declare war on Japan, and mop up Manchuria. Kaji becomes the leader of a ragtag band of surviving soldiers and civilians, clashes with other surviving Japanese military folks, then avoids the Chinese militias and Russian armies. Eventually, though, he and the others surrender to avoid a battle with a Russian unit. They are taken to a POW camp where they are treated much as the Chinese were treated by Kaji’s former employer. Eventually, after more clashes with Japanese officers (whom we saw he loathed in basic training), and the death of a young soldier who initially despised, then idolized, him, Kaji decides to escape. He then wanders about as a beggar until, obsessed with returning to his wife, he dies on a high plain, in a snowstorm. In a sense, this ending anticipates a similar ending in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. Yet, the later film tends to point up many of the flaws in Kobayashi’s film, for Bresson’s film distills moments into visual poesy that concisely gets at the nub of a matter in ways that The Human Condition fundamentally does not.
The Human Condition has too many technical flaws, goes on too long, and, especially, its first 60% gets annoyingly moralistic and preachy at times (although Kaji does sink into a bit of justifiable depravity by film’s end), to be considered an inarguably great film. But so much of the rest of it is assuredly great that it has to be in the argument for greatness, therefore I can term it a near-great film, even if, for many, it will seem an irredeemably depressing film; not unlike Theo Angelopoulos’s The Weeping Meadow. This observation is true, but it is not a reason to avoid the film, nor art, because a work of art that depresses is not to say that it is not successful for that, if its depression spurs one on to cogitation over why this is. Also, criticism of the love that Kaji holds for his wife are all based on the assumption that the lead character is supposed to be an idealization of the average man rather than an example of the rare man, the potentially great man, who is denied his due. Therefore, the commonplace qualities of love and fidelity that a superior man holds become, in this misinterpretation, an idealized and unrealistically (capital r) Romantic flaw. But that is the flaw of the critics, not the artist.
The film’s equivocal excellence is probably no better exemplified than in its portrait of the Japanese army. On the one hand the film seems to go a bit too light in its portrayal of the Japanese mistreatment of its Chinese victims (for with every passing year it seems that the Japanese Imperial Army made the Nazis seem like rank amateurs in human depravity), yet on the other hand, the film does a great service in its humanizing of the average Japanese soldier from inhuman automatonic supermen to flawed misfits who often criticize and mock their superiors and the war’s rightness. And while it abounds in caricatures and near-caricatures, the film also does an outstanding job of getting to specific moments of intensity (however prosaically – not poetically – rendered) between characters, in what would otherwise seem a mundane interaction. This allows for the speedy introduction of characters and building of empathy with them.
The soon to be released DVD, by The Criterion Collection, is one of the best releases they have had in the last couple of years. I’ve chided the company for skimping on audio commentaries in recent years, but this film’s length, and the fact that it is spread over three disks, pretty much obviates any necessity for a commentary, and even an enthusiastic talking head like Japanese film expert Donald Richie or film critic Roger Ebert (were he healthy) would inevitably spend most of the nine plus hours on dead air. As usual, I wish all black and white films had easier to read subtitles than mere white font, but there are only a few instances of difficult to read wordings. Given that this film had an international release at a time when foreign films were routinely dubbed, it would have been great to have had an English language audio dubbed option, for likely one existed. There is an oddity in that there are Japanese subtitles on the right side of the screen for the Japanese audience at moments characters speak Chinese.
The fourth disk has all the supplements, and while it is missing an extended making of featurette, there are some good moments in interviews conducted with the film’s director and star, and a short video bon mot of the film from Japanese filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda. There are some trailers and an insert essay, as well. But, this is a DVD where the extras are really just that. Even with nothing, this film is worth seeing. It is also a very good restoration, in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, of the film compared to earlier VHS and DVD releases, many of which split the film into its three parts: No Greater Love (1959), Road To Eternity (1960), and A Soldier’s Prayer (1961).
The film’s cinematography, by Yoshio Miyajima, is always solid, with a few moments of adventure, such as a shot as a tank roars overhead, but it is never spectacular. The scenes shot in a studio often clash with location shots, texturally. As for the use of black and white, no one is liable to confuse this film with the masterworks of an Orson Welles nor Michelangelo Antonioni. The film’s score is one of its weakest elements, too often telegraphing ‘important’ moments.
Nakasdai’s acting dominates the film, for he is in virtually every scene, and his slow transmogrification from bleeding heart liberal who sells out to stoic killing machine (he’s an excellent soldier despite his avowed humanism) who yearns for his wife is subtle, believable, and most importantly, lets the viewer empathize with him. There is never a moment where a viewer will think that Kaji would never do that; even in scenes where he stabs a Russian soldier or when he beats a Japanese Quisling in the POW camp to death with a steel chain and pushes him into a latrine hole to drown. Of the many films I’ve seen in my decades there are few other film characters I have ever more identified with than Kaji (who is the Orient’s equivalent of Kirk Douglas’s Colonel Dax in Paths Of Glory). Granted, I am both more practical and prone to dispense justice more violently, but one of the film’s strengths is that it offers a myriad of characters (and some which veer into caricatures) that all viewers can identify with; at least on the masculine side. Like most directors of his age, Kobayashi severely short-shrifts the female sex — they are either whores or angels, but, putting aside that unfortunate malady, Kobayashi is rare in that he is even able to humanize his caricatures.
The Human Condition is one of those works of art that is not great, but has so much going on, at any moment, that it is not difficult to forgive its flaws — even those that glare — for another excellent or better moment will soon recapture your admiration. And, it’s only in true epics that such largess is to be found. Excelsior!