The Human Condition

Long films are hard to digest. They often challenge your patience even when you are able to enjoy them. However, they are even tougher for the makers who are forced to craft more substantial content than in other films, a smooth pace and above all, the filmmakers need to create a strong narrative to keep the film from falling apart. Sion Sono’s 4-hour Love Exposure is a masterpiece that wouldn’t be possible without its long running time. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the greatest achievements of contemporary cinema since it manages to be entertaining while maintaining its huge scope and ambition. However, there are films like Bela Tarr’s Satantango which are simply too scary so I keep pushing them for later even though I’m interested in them. I had that problem with Masaki Kobayashi’s grand magnum opus, The Human Condition.

I’m a devout fan of the director Masaki Kobayashi. I even bought Criterion’s DVD release of the film. Yet I still kept avoiding the 574-minute monster – even though it’s split into three parts. I doubted Kobayashi’s ability to make his alienating and self-assured form work for nine and half hours. When it comes to films like this, it’s either going to fully absorb you or completely, utterly fail. What did I think of Kobayashi’s epic criticism of authority and war (among other things)? It’s one of the most compelling artifacts of Japanese cinema.

Set in Japan during World War 2, The Human Condition follows the protagonist Kaji (played by Tatsuya Nakadai) as he takes up a job as a labor supervisor in a Manchurian prison camp in order to be exempted from military service. His humanist and leftist views put him in a tough position as he tries to be kind to the prisoners who are constantly beaten up by the other supervisors. This conflict becomes a genuine problem when Chinese prisoners of war are sent to the camp. And that’s only the setting for the first hour and half of the film.

As usual, Kobayashi points his finger at authority in Japan. In Harakiri, he portrayed the madness of authority by exploring the Bushido code in a negative light. In Samurai Rebellion, the authority completely rips apart the family of a good samurai. While these films were always cynical and depressing, The Human Condition always seems to have hope in store for its characters. Kobayashi repeats similar scenarios and conflicts, always in different context, to explore his themes fully. I dare say it’s such a convincing exploration that the pretentious title is justified. By the time you are watching the third part you will feel the frustration built in Kaji as his attempts to create a better world for everyone fails one after another. This is one of the reasons why the film works so well and still packs a punch during its final minutes.

It’s impressive how Kobayashi manages to create a vast cast of characters and introduce them effortlessly. Most of the focus is still on Kaji, upon whom Kobayashi imposes his own socialism. Even though he is quite ”monotonous” as a character – considering that he has so much screentime and even then he shows surprising new aspects – Kaji is still damn fascinating and worth rooting for. What really stands about the protagonist is how Tatsuya Nakadai captures the character so extensively. His penetrative gaze and controlled body language become more and more stunning the longer the film runs. By the end of the film his eyes are full of darkness and despair, which Nakadai portrays vividly.

The narrative is strictly separated into 6 pieces, following the structure of Gomikawa Junpei’s novel on which the trilogy is based on. Each part of the trilogy shows 2 sections of the story and each one of them can be viewed on its own. Kobayashi lets the film flow its own pace yet he manages to provide new, essential content all the time. To put it shortly, The Human Condition has a good narrative that pulls you in easily without failing for a moment.

Kobayashi’s form is the real surprise in The Human Condition. Instead of being only distancing, like in Harakiri, it strikes a nice balance between alienation and warmth. It isn’t as obviously manipulative like in his other films and instead the form stays in the background, only to pop up suddenly with fierce power with its diagonical compositions. Even the music is fairly normal in comparison to his other films. That can most likely be credited to the fact that Toru Takemitsu didn’t create the musical score for this trilogy. With an exhaustive running time Takemitsu’s experimental music would have been a nuisance in the long run.

In the end The Human Condition is a unique cinematic experience. Yes, it is very exhaustive, but it’s extremely rewarding as well. It might ruin your evening by making you unable to do anything else until the next morning. It might crumble your spirit to pieces by putting such heavy weight onto your mind. It is one of the most hard-hitting, ambitious and interesting gems of Japanese cinema.


About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (, Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

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