480 The Human Condition

Discuss DVDs and Blu-rays released by Criterion and the films on them. If it's got a spine number, it's in here. Threads may contain spoilers.
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Re: 480 The Human Condition

#201 Post by FilmSnob » Tue Jun 15, 2021 1:55 am

I watched The Human Condition over three nights this weekend on Criterion Channel. My thoughts:

Part I

This was the strongest part in my opinion. The cinematography was extraordinary, I'm thinking about the scenes of workers hiking up to the mines, the Chinese prostitutes parading on the other side of barbed wire in the fog of night, and the masses of half-dead human zombies disembarking from the train.

The supporting cast: Michiyo Aratama has most of her screen time in this part as Kaji's wife; Chikage Awashima, who played the idealized but suffering wife so beautifully in Ozu's Early Spring, shows some flesh here as the main Chinese prostitute at the camp; Kôji Mitsui plays the weasel villain pitch-perfect (as always); and Sô Yamamura deserves special recognition for his rugged but sympathizing portrayal of Okishima, Kaji's co-worker.

The weakest aspect of Part I was Tatsuya Nakadai's main character, Kaji himself. Like Michael Kerpan and others, I found his story simply unbelievable at times. I am by no means an expert on Imperial Japan, but I simply could not believe his idealistic insubordination would have been tolerated for so long. Surely he would have been arrested by the Kempeitai much earlier in the movie. I also was not a fan of Nakadai's wide eyes in this part, lacking all subtlety, which reminded me of Masayuki Mori's similar portrayal of the Prince Mishkin character in Kurosawa's adaptation of The Idiot.

Nevertheless I did find this to be the strongest part of the trilogy.

Part II

This had to be an inspiration for Full Metal Jacket, with a 20-minute tank battle at the end. The first half, before the intermission, was quite strong, and I found Kaji and Nakadai's portrayal much more likeable and compelling. Not sure whether he would ever have been allowed to stay with his wife for a night at basic training, but the scene was beautiful anyway (too bad it was cut from the theatrical release by Japanese censors in 1959). Ultimately though, the second half devolves into repetitive melodrama and squabbling. I would have preferred to see a half hour romance between Kaji and the cute nurse, and less biting and slapping by the recruits back at the barracks.

This was the only section of the trilogy I found boring, but thankfully Part 2 ended on a high note with the tank battle against the Russians at the end.

Part 3

This started out as my favorite part, Homer's The Odyssey except much more realistic and set in the Manchurian wilderness; instead of Scylla and Charybdis, Kaji and his small groups of Japanese soldiers and civilians have to avoid Soviet troops looking to capture or mop them up, and local Chinese civilians seeking revenge. They also have to trek across hundreds of miles of fields and forests with little or no food or logistical support. You know some of them are going to make it and some of them won't, you're just trying to guess who the entire time. Very compelling cinema, but a very odd spot to insert the intermission instead of a more natural place like the start of the Soviet POW camp sequence.

The other thing to mention about this part is that the other Japanese are often not friendly to each other either, lying, stealing, deserting, betraying each other, doing whatever it takes to survive. There's a great quote from Part I when Kaji arrives at the labor camp-- when he's told he won't need his books or intellectual theories anymore, because men are not poets or philosophers, instead they are nothing more than masses of flesh of excrement. Everything comes full circle by this point in the series, because there are no more agreed upon rules or conduct anyone should live by; any such notions shift and change depending on new enemies or alliances made. Stripped of all agency and confronted with the unbending reality of human suffering during war, Kaji's idealistic nature gradually breaks him down until he finally starts to go insane. His actions become wanton and careless. At last, after enjoying almost the entire series, the very unsatisfying ending causes me to pause and reconsider everything I've seen before...

What was the point? And I don't mean the outcome, I mean the summation of his choices. Some spoilers:
He saved like what, three or four men of dubious character at the labor camp, maybe even only temporarily. Those guys probably died in the mines later anyway. For all that, he was undoubtedly replaced by someone who made the working and living conditions much more deadly for the other 10,000 captives. He was arrested by the Kempeitai, conscripted into the army, had to kill numerous Russians in battle to save himself and a few members of his company. He never saw his wife again and left her a widow. The people he encountered in the Manchurian wilderness, certainly the civilians, would have been better off never meeting him. He brutally murdered a man in cold blood, pretty much torturing him as an act of revenge. Even the act he avenged, the rape of the woman, happened because of his own idiotic carelessness.

I can't help but remember back to the words spoken by Wang, the Chinese leader of the camp workers in Part I, who expressed what sounded like noble words of solidarity with Kaji for risking his life to save other human beings. Suddenly, the Kaji of Parts I. II, and III, all seemed the same to me-- an idiot who was used by everyone around him until he eventually went insane.

Ultimately I can only see this as a morality tale, and a rather didactic one with an unlikeable character in the lead. In the hands of a more nuanced writer or director, this story might have been a more lifelike and realistic conversation between the two viewpoints posed in Part I -- what is a man, especially in times of war? Is he human ideals, or a mass of flesh and excrement seeking only to avoid pain and survive?

But as presented in The Human Condition, that conversation becomes a one-sided argument, which I find fundamentally untrue to life. Yes, there's a lot of base humanity in the world, even during times of peace. It may become nearly ubiquitous during extreme conditions and times of war. But the good side of humanity, including some positive outcomes, even in the darkest of times, never completely disappears. There is such a shocking lack of any evidence of goodness by the end of The Human Condition that it appears artificial to my eyes.

Don't be a self-righteous idealist who can win a small battle but ultimately lose the war. Lesson learned.

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Re: 480 The Human Condition

#202 Post by ChunkyLover » Mon Sep 20, 2021 9:39 am

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