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MK born in 1916 in Hokkaido, studies oriental art and philosophy at Waseda University. In 1941, at age 25, begins a career in film working as an assistant in a film studio for 8 months before being drafted into the Japanese army. From 1942-44 MK serves in Manchuria and Ryukyu islands and refuses any promotion above private as a protest against the war. In an interview MK states the autobiographical nature of the film he made:
... I was in the army for 6 years. The experience heightened my social consciousness. During those six years I never became an officer. In fact I withheld myself from becoming an officer. I was really a rank-and-file soldier. I had a strong conviction that I must resist authoritarian pressure. I was wholly against the power which bore down on us and I was against the war itself. I still think that I was able to make Ningen no Joken ("The Human Condition") because I had voluntarily refused to become an officer. I was the protagonist and I felt this identification very strongly. The life the hero leads was much the same life I lived as a soldier. (Interview in Joan Mellon, Voices from the Japanese Cinema, p. 138).
At the end of the war MK spends some time 1945-6 in a detention camp in Okinawa. Resumes his career as a film assistant 1947-52, making his first film in 1952. MK is concerned with issues of social justice and war in many of his films - war criminals, corruption in professional sport, organised crime and prostituion around US military bases in Japan.
In "The Thick Walled Room" (1953-6) MK deals with the problems of war criminals and their reacceptance into Japanese society. Based on the diaries of actual war criminals but issue was so sensitive that its release was delayed for 3 years. Censored by the "Movie Morality Committee" because the government did not want to offend the US army of occupation. MK believed that the real criminals had been let off and that only their subordinates had been punished. MK raises issue of responsibility for war crimes by those involved (compare with the ending of Klimov's "Come and See" and the recent Australian film "Blood Oath") and his comments have much relevance to "The Human Condition" as well:
The film dealt with "B" and "C," or second- and third-rank war criminals. You should understand that during the end of the war, with such great confusion and all, there were many soldiers and low-ranking officers punished cruelly, although they were not directly responsible for particular crimes. I heard that many war crimes trials were hastily arranged with only one or two native witnesses willing to point out a given Japanese soldier. The trials brought down severe verdicts on any Japanese who happened to be in the vicinity. Certainly I am not speaking of "A" rank war criminals such as those who were tried in the Tokyo trials. I am talking about small people, mostly conscripts - rank-and-file soldiers and low-ranking officers who were designated "B" and "C" war criminals.
These war criminals were actually victims of the system itself, first because they had to obey the orders of their superiors while the war was going on, and second because they were punished after the war for performing their "duty." I must acknowledge, therefore, that on the surface you might perceive in my film certain criticisms against the American army, which was directly responsible for many of the war crimes trials. But what I intended to portray in the film was a much deeper and more universal theme, namely the human dilemma, the human condition created by the particular setting of the last war. (Mellon, pp. 144-5).
In 1957 MK begins work on a 9 hour trilogy about the war known collectively as "The Human Condition": "No Greater Love" (1959); "The Road to Eternity" (1960); "A Soldier's Prayer" (1961). Japanese cinema had a strong pacifist element during the 1950s due to the memory of the horrors of WW2 and reaction against the US action in Korea. In addition to MK's work other notable pacifist film is Kon Ichikawa's "The Burmese Harp" (1956) about a Japanese soldier who refuses to be repatriated after the war, but prefers to dress as a monk and go about the country burying the war dead. Other films by MK: a beautiful adaptation of Lafcadio Hearn's ghost stories, "Kaidan" (1965); two historical films about heroes who take a moral stand and die for their beliefs, "Seppuku" (1962) (also an attack on the restrictions and injustices of feudal Japan) and "Joiuchi" ("Rebellion) (1967); and most recently a documentary about the War Crimes Trial "The Tokyo Trial" (1983).
Taken from the 6 volume novel of the same name by Junpei Gomikawa published 1956-58. A claim that the war experience provides insight into the 'human condition" in way other experiences cannot.
A 9 hour epic film composed of three separate films each of which is divided into 2 parts. In spite of its great length, is a powerful and moving indictment of the systematised brutality inherent in militaristic society such as Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. Joan Mellon regards it to be "one of the most brilliant historical films ever made" (Waves, p. 180). MK says that it was both a "war-resistance" film and an exploration of "the fundamental evil nature in human beings." MK believes "The war was the culmination of human evil." (Mellon, p. 145). Based on a novel by Jumpei Gomikawa but is also very similar to MK own war experiences as stated above.
About the ordeal of a young idealistic almost Christ-like man, Kaji (played by Tatsuya Nakadai), who is a pacifist (and a socialist) by conviction but who accepts a job in late 1943 as the supervisor of a Japanese mine in Manchuria. He comes to realise that the mine is vital to the Japanese war effort and that the company systematically exploits the labour of the Chinese mine workers (in fact they are slave labourers). He tries to improve their condition and ultimately has to rebel against the mine bosses when he witnesses the beheading of a number of troublesome mine workers. Kaji is punished for his outspoken opposition by being arrested by the dreaded military police (Kenpeitai), tortured and then conscripted into the army. The second film deals with K's basic training into the Japanese army which is as brutal as anything he witnessed in the mine. He eventually sees action on the Manchurian border against the invading Russian army which entered the war shortly after the dropping of the atomic bombs. The Japanese control of Manchuria and China collapses rapidly and K is caught in the chaos. He is caught and interned in a Russian labour camp where he comes to realise that the Russians offer no real alternative to Japanese militarism. K finds the Russians as fascistic and brutal as the Japanese. In the third film K escapes and attempts to walk home in the middle of the Manchurian winter in order to be with his wife. He dies alone and lost in the snowy wastes of Manchuria, thinking of his wife.
The film gives an uncompromising look at the brutality and inhumanity (the "evil") of Japanese militarism. Although the characters are rather too black and white at times, with the hero Kaji a bit too good and wholesome and the other characters too consistently bad, MK's humanistic message is movingly expressed in an austere documentary-like style (compare with the neorealism of Rosselini's "Rome: Open City" (1945). K protests and struggles against and is ultimately killed by an oppressive and inhumane system. His death changes nothing and is noticed by no one. Yet it stands as an assertion of humanity which the system had not been able to break or to adapt to its needs. Very Christian view of Kaji's death somehow "negating" the presence of evil. In his death others could overcome evil.
I spent four years making Ningen no Joken. While making it, I received many letters from people requesting me not to let Kaji die in the end. I had considered that possibility, but to me his death was actually a resurrection. He had to die there. With his death he lives in the minds of people for a long time as a symbol of the hope that we can eradicate the human tragedy of war. (Mellon, p. 147).
Plot of part 3: trials undergone by 3 misfits who are conscripted into Japanese army in January 1944 in Machiria and put through basic training - the pacifist Kaji who is being punished for his opposition to the maltreatment of Chinese labourers in a mine; Obara the frail and weak-willed man who is picked on by the drill sargeant and driven to commit suicide to escape his torment; Shinjo the communist sympathiser who dreams of deserting to the Russians in order to escape the brutality of Japanese militarism and to find "freedom."
Joan Mellen, Waves at Genji's Door: Japan through its Cinema (New York: Pantheon, 1976).
Joan Mellen, Voices from the Japanese Cinema (New York: Liveright, 1975).Chap. 7 "Masaki Kobayashi", pp. 131-52.
Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, ed. Mark C. Carnes (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), Carol Gluck, ""The Human Condition",pp. 250-53.
1. The amount of physical punishment used in Japanese basic training - "hazing". Slapping soldiers on the face.
2. Kaji always going to the aid of maltreated and weak individuals - the Chinese mine workers, the inept Obara, the disobedient nurse.
3. The visit of K's loving wife Michiko to the training camp. The nude scene was ordered to be censored but MK refused to cut the film. Note the contrast betweeen the love, affection and tenderness of their relationship and the violence, intimidation and brutality of the army. K's love for M and his desire to return to private family life is the ideal which sustains K in his struggle. He prefers to return to M rather than desert to the dubious "freedom" of Russian communism (as urged to do by S).
4. The humiliation and death of Obara. Compare with quite similar episode in Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket." Obara picked on because he is the weakest. Humiliated by being made to dress up as prostitute. Takes his rifle into the barrack's latrine to commit suicide. Fails to do this successfully. Dies by accident. K tries to get justice for O's death but cannot challenge army bureaucracy. Blames O's death on brutality inherent in Japanese militarism.
5. Kaji's relationship with Shinjo who dreams of desertion to "promised land" of Russian communism. K reluctant to join him - wants to return to Michiko, dubious about how free one would be in communist Russia, questions morality of deserting even from invading Japanese army.
6. Hospital scenes. Compare with "All Quiet on the Western Front." Kaji meets someone, Tange, who shares his views and also resigns himself to just surviving ordeal of war with humanity and dignity intact. Brutality of army transferred even into hospital wards. The hospital orderly and the matron use violence to intimidate soldier patients. Kaji again punished for defending weak individual from authority. For defending nurse caught fraternising with a patient K is sent to the front.
7. Compare MK's uncompromising view of the brutality of Japanese soldiers against the "revisionist" view of Ichikawa's Harp of Burma in which the humanity and redeemability of Japanese soldiers is stressed.
8. The disillusioning of Kaji when he comes into contact with the Russians as a POW. The Stalinist "Red Fascists" disregeard his individuality as much as the "Samurai fascists" from whomhe has fled.
9. The problem anti-war films like this one face when depicting "the personal experience of war" in which the "enemy" is the miliatry system which conscripts a young man like Kaji. But, as Gluck correctly notes:
Now, many decades later, this view of the human condition seems too simple. Antiwar films that concentrate on the human dimension, like the Vietnam movies depicting war at the platoon level, can leave unasked and unanswered the larger question of how wars come about in the first place and what might have been done - by human beings - to prevent them. Kaji's tragedy was his heoric ability to go the distance without questioning the direction of the road others had laid for him to travel. (p. 253)