Written by Caballero Oscuro
This film’s daunting 9 ½ hour length may scare off many casual viewers, but those willing to make the significant time investment will be rewarded with an absolutely essential experience. The Human Condition was originally released as three separate films over a three-year time span, and each film is split into two parts, so in effect this is a six-film miniseries which closely parallels its original six-volume source novels by author Junpei Gomikawa. Its story is told in strictly linear fashion and traces the WWII wartime activities of a principled office worker named Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai).
As the film opens, Kaji is an idealistic, fairly soft office drone content to escape military service by accepting a role as a POW work-camp supervisor in Manchuria . His everyman demeanor makes him an instantly identifiable and sympathetic character, fully pulling viewers into the harrowing future effects of the war on him. His work-camp experience opens his eyes to the mistreatment of the Chinese prisoners by his countrymen and forces him to try to improve conditions for the workers whenever possible. Unfortunately, this puts him in opposition with his compatriots and eventually leads to his transfer to active military service, the exact occupation he had hoped to escape through his work-camp appointment.
In the second film (parts three-four), Kaji discovers injustices within the Japanese Imperial army, enduring abuse at the hands of his fellow soldiers and witnessing their improper treatment of POWs. The film is clearly an indictment of Japan ’s wartime mentality as it takes pains to emphasize the corruption and injustice at every level rather than just singling out a few bad apples. Kaji attempts to retain his principles, but his continued exposure to the harsh reality of his situation eventually causes him to come to terms with the violence needed to protect his interests.
Finally, in the third act (parts five-six), Kaji finds himself a prisoner in a Soviet POW camp, a complete reversal of roles from his initial indoctrination as supervisor of his Japanese POW camp. Here he learns that even his idealized concept of a fair Soviet army is false, as he finds himself subjected to treatment similar to the offenses committed by his countrymen in his old camp. Nakadai does an incredible job of conveying the full horror of the war as he nears the film’s end as a broken, haunted man bearing little resemblance to his previous life as a virtuous office worker. It’s stunning to watch Kaji’s transformation throughout the film and particularly intriguing to get the full flavor of the war’s impact from the Japanese perspective.
Criterion has produced another exceptional package here, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the film’s initial bow at the Japanese box office. They struck a new print of the film and took rigorous care to remove the noise (dirt, scratches, hiss) carried over from the original negative, making this quite possibly the definitive edition of the film. Additionally, they produced a new 2009 interview with the still-spry Tatsuya Nakadai, a fascinating reminiscence by the actor who carried this mammoth production entirely on his shoulders. There’s an older interview with deceased director Masaki Kobayashi, as well as another appreciation of the film by a Japanese film scholar. The film is spread across three discs, while a fourth disc contains the special features.