Sunday, December 21, 2008

Review – Human Condition I, II, and III

December 19, 2008

The Human Condition I, II, and III – Japan, 1958, 1959, 1961

Had Masaki Kaboyashi’s epic trilogy The Human Condition been made in another country and at a different time, it might have ended like this. The film’s hero Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) would stand before both the Japanese government and Japanese military officials. He would tell his story, a story about an idealistic young man who believed that everyone should be treated humanely, both friend and foe. He would tell them of his experiences trying to make factory bosses, military veterans, and fellow soldiers understand the importance of life and love and of the foolishness of blind obedience and war. At the end of his speech, there would be stunned silence. Suddenly, the emperor of Japan would rise and begin applauding. The rest of the audience would quickly follow suit. Kaji’s wife would beam with pride, and we would have the sense that this moment marked a monumental change in Japan. Such an ending would reinforce that popular adage - one man can make a difference. However, The Human Condition was made in 1958, and it is takes place during a time in Japan when a single man – even a man with Kaji’s convictions – did not have the power to change his country. Nor was it just his country that needed to change.

The Human Condition I takes place in South Manchuria in 1943, six years after Japan’s invasion of Nanking. A young man full of ideals, Kaji’s first ethical dilemma involves his girlfriend Michiko (Michiyo Aratama). She would like to get married; however, he is reluctant to grant her wish, for he questions the morality of getting married when he could be drafted into the military any day. Kaji is also an advocate for the fair treatment of workers and prisoners, reasoning that happy and healthy workers will produce more than abused and starving ones, an idea that I suspect would seem like common sense if there weren’t a war going on and if many people had not been educated to believe that some races were naturally superior to others. Unexpectedly, Kaji’s boss thinks Kaji may be on to something and offers him a chance to test his theory at an Iron Ore factory in Loh Hu Liang. In addition, Kaji will receive a military exemption if he accepts the assignment. Naturally, Kaji jumps at the opportunity. With his worries about being drafted eased, he quickly marries Michiko, and the two of them set off to begin what they hope will be the start of a wonderful life together. What lies ahead of them however is a life filled with immense challenges and hardship.

Kaji’s story is told in three movies. The Human Condition I sees Kaji trying to change how factory foremen and supervisors think of and treat their workers, some of whom are prisoners of war. This in no easy task, for when we first see his coworkers, they are in a meeting discussing how raw materials are more important than people. Later we see workers in mines beaten and kicked mercilessly. A military officer best sums the situation up when he says that six hundred “special workers,” a euphemism for the prisoners of war, can die but must not be allowed to escape. As Kaji struggles in his efforts to convince others to accept his views, he finds himself increasingly compromising these beliefs as he comes to the conclusion not only that his efforts are failing but that people who mistreat workers - and in some cases abuse them to the point of death - are seen as patriots. Kaji’s support of the workers will lead him to be labeled a Communist sympathizer and put him in great physical danger.

A few other aspects of The Human Condition I are worth mentioning. The film is remarkably frank about Japan’s use of comfort women. The factory Kaji works at has a separate house for these women, and the movie makes it clear that not all of them are there willingly. One of them even tells Kaji, “I didn’t come of my own free will.” The film also references the common misperception of the time that comfort women would somehow be beneficial to both soldiers and workers. In fact, the opposite was true. The film also shows the horrible conditions that many Chinese prisoners of war were kept in. In one scene, we see a train arrive, and as its cargo doors are opened, the bodies of thin, frail, malnutritioned P.O.W.s simply fall out onto the ground below. It is reminiscent of scenes from Nazi concentration camps.

While The Human Condition I focuses on conditions at a factory and how Japanese officials treated Chinese and Korean workers and prisoners, the second film finds Kaji confronted with the system that produces the kind of person who views abuse and mistreatment as permissible, the Japanese military. In The Human Condition II, Kaji is a recruit in the Japanese army, and the film begins with a scene that speaks volumes. A high-ranking private tells two rows of recruits to “get ready for what’s coming.” A moment later, every recruit is slapped with enough force to knock them over. They are expected to stand right back up immediately and prepare for another blow, which in many cases is what follows. The reason for the recruits’ harsh treatment is that a cigarette end is in the water tank. A young recruit named Obara is blamed for the infraction, and his punishment is a public beating, this despite Kaji’s attempts to come to his defense. We soon see that this is not an isolated incident, that abuse of recruits is commonplace, and that Kaji, because of his prior experience at the factory, is particularly at risk. In fact, he and a fellow recruit named Shinjo are viewed by many at the camp as traitors and are under constant surveillance.

The Human Condition II follows Kaji as he tries to seek justice for himself, Obara, who is simply not cut out to be a soldier either physically or mentally, and a group of new recruits, some in their forties, whom he is asked to train. Along the way, he meets the kind of resistance that would shatter a normal man’s resolve. Recruits are beaten up by other recruits, veterans objects to Kaji’s way of training troops and punish him and his recruits for it, and his military superiors act helpless or are in denial. It is a searing indictment of Japan’s military system at that time. In one scene, Kaji tells a military commander that the fault for a recruit’s death lies with the military. He is punched in the face for the remark. Later, we even see a nurse so indoctrinated into the military’s strict system of discipline that she strikes Kaji for simply stretching his legs without her permission. The same nurse even punishes a younger nurse for becoming friends with Kaji by having her sent to the front lines.

The final film in the trilogy takes place in the Manchurian Countryside. There with the few survivors of his squad, he finds himself struggling with his conscience. By now, he has been in battle and killed soldiers on the other side, and he struggles to define himself. Is he a murderer now or is he just a soldier doing what soldiers have to do to win a war? Is there even a difference between a soldier and a murderer? Later he asks one of the most interesting and pertinent questions of the film, “How many of us are qualified to cope with defeat?” He could ask the same thing about victory. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, convinced that the war has ended and that Japan has lost, he decides that there is nothing to do but return home. It proves easier said than done. Lost in the jungles of Manchuria and surrounded by Chinese militias and Russian troops, he attempts to lead his men, one of whom outranks him, to safety. On this journey, he meets women who have been raped by Chinese soldiers, ordinary Japanese citizens fleeing their homes, groups of Japanese soldiers continuing to fight or hording supplies, and Japanese soldiers who later rape and murder a Japanese woman trying to return home to see if her parents are still alive. The message of this journey is crystal clear: Inhumanity is a part of all nationalities and races. There is no paradise just over the border.

The Human Condition trilogy is tough to watch. It honestly addresses Japan’s atrocities during World War II and graphically depicts its systematic abuse of its own citizens, abuse done in an effort to produce the best soldiers the world had ever seen. And yet there are moments of tenderness that I will remember as well – Kaji and Mishiko’s reunion at the end of The Human Condition I, a recruit named Sasa asking Michiko to write to his wife and ask her to visit him, the laughter of Kaji’s recruits when they are finally away from the cruelty of the veterans, an elderly man walking with his wife in the Manchurian jungle and assuring her he will never leave her side, and Kaji’s inner letters and conversations with Mishiko as he wills himself to continue on his journey home. In the end though we’re left with a picture of a country that sacrificed everything to wage a war and lost. For Kaji, there will be no victory parade, nor will there be any recognition that his ideals were correct. In fact, there isn’t even a boat waiting to take him home. (currently out of print on DVD)

The Human Condition I: 4 stars
The Human Condition II: 4 stars
The Human Condition III: 4 stars

*The Human Condition trilogy is in Japanese with English subtitles. The films were originally released on DVD by Image-Entertainment. The English subtitles on those discs are occasionally fractured and incorrect. There is a rumor that the Criterion Collection plans to release a box set of the trilogy in the near future.

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