Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Human Condition (1959-1961)

Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition is exactly what it sounds like - a long, sprawling, grandiose epic about war and heroism and patriotism and humanity and a whole variety of other things. Unsurprisingly, it is overlong and overambitious. More surprisingly, it is often a bore. The first film in the trilogy is at least engaging as a conventional war story and character study, but the second and third parts become so prolonged and predictable that when the trilogy finally stopped in its tracks, nine and a half hours after it started, I had lost interest. There is a lot of money thrown at the screen, and a lot of speechifying, and many pretty widescreen vistas. But none of that can hide the film's lack of a meaningful insight into any of the themes it considers.

The Human Condition
was originally released as three films, each about three hours long. In Part 1, we are introduced to the protagonist, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a young management trainee who gets appointed to the position of a labor camp supervisor in Manchuria during World War Two. There, he tries to implement his socialist ideals in the treatment of the workers, but is opposed by an immoral and rigidly bureaucratic military system. In Part Two, Kaji becomes a soldier in the Imperial Army and is sent to the front lines. In Part Three, a disillusioned Kaji deserts in order to return to his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama).

If that plots sounds awfully tidy, it's because it is. From very early on, we know where this is heading. The film follows a linear decline: as time progresses, Kaji's circumstances become more dire, he becomes increasingly cynical, and the film's mood becomes all the more somber, its tone all the more self-serious. Even with nine and a half hours to spare, Kobayashi finds little time to develop his characters in any but the most basic ways. Kaji does change over the course of the trilogy, but his development seems perfunctory, always at the service of the plot and Kobayashi's grand thematic aspirations. The films were based on a six-part novel, and apparently Kobayashi was so enamored of it that he cut almost nothing from the book. But his slavish devotion to the arc of the novel doesn't give the film any room to breathe.

On a technical level, The Human Condition is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Kobayashi hired a new cinematographer, Yoshio Miyajima, specifically for the film. He also employed a then-innovative widescreen film format called Grandscope. Kobayashi's direction is clean and clear, but also rather dull. The camera seems to merely record the action. There are many wide shots of landscapes, but one gets the impression that Kobayashi and Miyajima are merely straining for grandeur; the shots lack depth and meaning. In terms of music, Kobayashi lays it on pretty thick, employing loud, bombastic swells to call our attention to anything particularly dramatic.

For a while, The Human Condition gets by on the strength of its cast. As Kaji, Nakadai is eminently likable, and convincing in his descent from sincere idealist to disillusioned cynic. Aratama, playing his wife, is equally good in what could have been a thankless supporting role. These two actors keep the audeience interested, even as the plot follows its all-too-predictable course.

The Human Condition is perhaps most interesting as a social and political document. Released 15 years after the end of World War two, the film - which depicts the entire Japanese army as a corrupt and outdated institution - was enormously popular in Japan. That says a lot about the nation's postwar attitude. The film's existential concerns also clarify why it was so popular; such themes were the staple of 60's "arthouse" cinema.

Still, the fact that the film's social and political context is its most interesting aspect suggests a larger truth - that over time, The Human Condition has become dated and esoteric rather than universal. Kobayashi's literal-minded and heavy-handed apporach to the film renders it curiously unaffecting. It seems to me the Japanese equivalent of a particularly overwrought Hollywood epic, or maybe a Japanese imitation of a David Lean film. Perhaps the only reason why this film is so revered, why the critic David Shipman called it "unquestionably the greatest film ever made," is that it comes dressed up in subtitles and a long running time, making it seem worth more than it really is.