This Friday, I traipsed through the rainy streets of Montreal over to Cinema du Parc to catch the first part of Masaki Kobayashi’s nine-and-a-half hour epic The Human Condition (1959). Set against the backdrop of WWII in Japanese occupied Manchuria, Condition follows the trials and tribulations of a young, idealistic Japanese man as he fights to retain his humanity in an inhumane world of greed, corruption, and brutality.
Of the many phenomenal directors to emerge from Japan in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Kobayashi is certainly one of the more challenging. Fans of Japanese cinema may be familiar with his later films of the 60s such as Harakiri (1962), Kwaidan (1964), or Samurai Rebellion (1967). If you are familiar with some of Kobayashi`s films, you will know that he is not the most accessible director for the casual film enthusiast. Frequently tackling the theme of an individual in conflict within an unjust society, Kobayashi’s films are often sparse, poetic, and haunting – Condition is no exception. However, if Kobayashi`s films are challenging, they are also equally rewarding. His intense examinations on morality and justice lend his films a certain gravitas which imbed them deep into your mind.
The first part of Condition, entitled No Greater Love, opens with a couple in the midst of a lovers’ quarrel. Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) wants to marry Kaji (Tetsuya Nakadai) but Kaji is worried that he will soon be drafted into the army and leave Michiko a widow, to which she responds: ‘Happiness only lies in marrying the ones you love.’ Her sentiment is reinforced when Kaji’s friend, Kageyama (Keiji Sada), convinces Kaji to marry Michiko by saying that the only regret he has before going to war is that he hasn’t put the ‘seed of life into the womb’ of a woman he loves. Luckily, Kaji is offered an exemption from military service on the condition that he accepts a job as a labor supervisor at a Manchurian mining camp. Having written a thesis paper on worker productivity, his superiors wish to see if it can be put into practice. His thesis states that if the working conditions improve, then productivity will reciprocally improve. At heart, Kaji is a humanist who believes that ‘men should be treated as men’ always. However, theory and practice come into conflict as Kaji encounters inept managers, corrupt officials, and brutal supervisors who deprive the workers of food and beat them until they die of exhaustion. The situation is only exacerbated by the arrival of 600 Chinese POWs labeled as ‘special workers’ who Kaji is put in charge of. Riding a fine line between friend and jailor, Kaji is continually put into situations which test his sense of morality and justice. Tensions come to a head when a group of seven prisoners are accused of trying to escape and are consequently sentenced to death. Kaji finds himself at a crossroads. He must fight against all odds to save their lives, both for their souls as well as his own.
Reviewing Condition places me in a peculiar position. Intellectually, I am engaged with the film, emotionally however, I feel somewhat disconnected. The film doesn’t quite deliver the emotional intensity that Kobayashi’s later films Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion display. Tetsuya Nakadai’s performance as Kaji is carried out quite well and yet there is something about his steely dispassionate gaze which fails to move me during the most emotional scenes. I appreciate it as a work of art more than an emotionally powerful story. Ironically, Condition is a film which favors substance over style. It delivers the aesthetic excellence Japanese cinema is known for, yet the style is more subdued, focusing on the characters and story rather than the filmmaking. Compounded with the enormous length of the film, I find it difficult to recommend this to the casual cinephile. Nevertheless, for the avid fan or budding scholar of Japanese cinema, this is truly an important and ambitious work and I cannot think of a more engaging way to watch it than at the theater on a 35mm print. Also, to its credit, the three and a half hours pass surprisingly swiftly. I will definitely be down at Cinema du Parc this week for parts two and three.
Part One of The Human Condition will play again Aug 14 at 8pm with Parts Two and Three following the over the next two days. Almost ten hours devoted to Man’s plight in the universe a little too much for you? Try Akira Kurosawa`s samurai western classic Yojimbo, which begins playing next week on 35mm and be sure to check the retrospective on Yasujiro Ozu coming up later in the month.
For Cinema du Parc tickets and showtimes, visit www.cinemaduparc.com.