I've never seen anything quite like The Human Condition and I'm willing to bet that you haven't either.
Masaki Kobayashi's adaptation of Junpei Gomikawa's epic novel is a sprawling trilogy that fiercely attacks the fascist culture of World War II-era Japan. Unfortunately, at an incredible nine-and-a-half hours, the viewer quickly numbs to the unprecedented human suffering and begins to lose sympathy for the characters and their plight.
Oh, but what a plight it is. The central character of the film is Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a young bureaucrat who agrees to supervise a remote forced-labor outpost in Manchuria. His progressive ideals — namely, treating the prisoners like human beings — brings him into sharp conflict with the military's code of "honor." As a result, Kaji's idealism is sapped away. He suffers greatly, as does his new wife, Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), who fights to keep Kaji's spirit alive.
Kaji can only secure minimal concessions from the powers that be. As a result, he ends up siding with the prisoners, which is regarded by his superiors as little better than treason. As chaos sets upon the prison camp, Kaji is unable to avoid getting sucked into the imperial war machine. Thus he begins a humbling experience in the army, which leads him across East Asia — or basically, through hell and back.
From the beginning, we get a sense of Kaji's hopeless struggle against the inhuman, militaristic culture of imperial Japan. My problem was that his struggle was so very hopeless that it failed to maintain my interest. Kobayashi goes to great lengths — and I mean great lengths — to illustrate the inhuman tyranny of the powerful over the weak. But the struggle is so one-sided that one quickly loses hope that the weak can win anything at all. We very quickly lose sympathy for Kaji, whose catastrophic attempts to assert his idealism will, we know, only lead to more suffering. He eventually does begin to accept things and make fewer suicide missions for justice. But by that point, we've already given up on him.
This sense of hopelessness isn't helped by the film's 574-minute running time. Even if you stop and take a break now and then, you cannot escape the mounting sense of fatigue brought on by endless human suffering with no reprieve. Plus, unlike other epics, the film isn't episodic. The plot is entirely linear; we follow Kaji every single step of the way.
Even more troubling is that no other character (except Michiko) is central to the story at all. They are simply bystanders, characters who matter for an hour or so and then only reappear three hours later, if at all. God help me, I could not tell the difference between the four or five idealistic martyrs who periodically appear to help Kaji before they are killed. And when a character does reappear after three or four hours, it takes quite a while to remember who they were without referencing the synopsis.
I must point out, however, Kobayashi's brilliant visual style in bringing this suffering to light (thanks in part to a brilliant transfer to DVD from the original film). I was very much affected by a particular scene very early in the film. After Kaji has arrived at the prison camp, a group of Chinese prisoners are shipped in on a train. Kaji meets the train out in the fields. He is immediately taken aback by the physical condition of the prisoners: starving, crying, or simply dead.
Kaji and his assistant try to help the prisoners off of the train, but they are woefully outnumbered. Then, the prisoners see a wagon of food pull up. They spill out of the train car like water breaking from a dam. Then they slowly drag themselves toward the food wagon. It looked like a scene from a zombie film. The delirious prisoners, grasping their last bit of energy, stalked the food, trampling anyone in their path. It's unfortunate that such a striking depiction of the human condition would be rendered mundane after a few hours
It's quite possible that The Human Condition just isn't for me. I'm no great scholar of classic Japanese films. Still, I have to wonder who this film is meant for. What percentage of the film-going public can endure such a repetitive parade of human misery?
Granted, most critics view the film as a classic and a milestone. I'm not saying they're wrong, but perhaps film critics are the ones best suited to appreciate Kobayashi's work. I don't think the rest of us have the patience — or the stomach.