Like a stinging rebuke to Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, this week the Criterion Collection releases a three-disc set of Masaki Kobayashi's 1959 World War II masterpiece, The Human Condition. Deep where Basterds is shallow, expansive where Basterds is puny, and profound where Basterds is glib, Kobayashi's humanist triumph is finally getting the Western exposure it deserves. Previously unavailable in the United States, a restored version was screened last year at New York City's Film Forum and proved to be so popular that it was brought back for a return engagement. Not bad for a movie that is nine-and-a-half hours long (spread over three films) and so monumentally painful to watch that it stands as the Grand Canyon of despair.
Based in part on a six-volume novel by Junpei Gomikawa and, in part, on Kobayashi's own wartime experiences as a pacifist trying to survive in the Japanese army, The Human Condition is as grand in scale and scope as that other anti-war classic, Gone With the Wind. Like the South, Japan lost a war and can't stop talking about it. Every great Japanese director has a movie about the traumas of WWII under his belt, butnone is as ambitious as The Human Condition.
The movies focus on Kaji (Japanese icon Tatsuya Nakadai), a self-righteous leftist wanker who becomes, over the course of these three films, one of the most fully realized human beings in cinema, the equivalent of Charles Foster Kaneor Michael Corleone. In the first film, No Greater Love, Kaji's unshakeable belief in the equality of men spawns a report on how to implement more equitable management techniques, which, in turn, earns him a promotion in his company and a chance to put his theory into practice at the Loh Hu Liong iron mines in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Before leaving, he impulsively marries the long-suffering Michiko and they head north, convinced that Kaji's socialist management style will carry the day.
Not so much. The Loh Hu Liong mine is a tangled nest of black marketers, sadistic overseers, baby-faced owners with murder in their hearts, payoffs, kickbacks, and bribes with the workers encouraged to meet overly ambitious quotas by whip-wielding pit bosses. On top of that, Kaji finds himself managing 60 comfort women who are dropped into the barracks every night as sex toys for the brutalized workers. His delicate sensibilities shredded, Kaji reaches the end credits still hanging on to his humanity, despite some pauses for mass executions and rope bondage at the hands of the military police.
The second film, Road to Eternity, sees Kaji demoted from a boss to a cog in the imperial war machine. An essay on military brutality that makes Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket look like a church picnic, this movie blurs into one long, endless barracks brawl, only coming into focus toward the end as Russian forces approach the Japanese lines like grim death. The finale sees Kaji's human decency hauled out, held down, and forcibly sodomized by the horrors of combat. In No Greater Love, Kaji agonized over how to be good. By the end of Road to Eternity, he growls, "I'm a monster, but I'm going to stay alive."
The third film, A Soldier's Prayer, achieves a bleak grandeur, with Kaji trapped behind enemy lines and leading a band of shell-shocked refugees and deserters on an incredible slog through thousands of miles of enemy territory as they try to get back home to Japan. It kicks off in a haunted forest, comes to a head with an orgy from hell, then wraps up in a Soviet POW camp, where leftist ideology meets Soviet communism in a bone-jarring collision. Kaji still dreams of "[a] better world. Where people are treated like human beings," but he doesn't find it in these films.
Most folks, given a choice between watching a grueling nine-hour movie about the Japanese occupation of China and dancing to Yanniwill choose Yanni every time. But Kobayashi's epic is not art-house homework. Tense escape sequences rival anything in Hitchcock's early filmography, and a scene of hundreds of half-dead Chinese prisoners attacking a food cart looks like an outtake from Night of the Living Dead. The trilogy is a gothic noir, shot like a survival horror epic. Kobayashi films labor camps, military barracks, iron mines, combat trenches, and POW camps as hellish torture-scapes that stretch to the horizon with no relief in sight.
Tatsuya Nakadai, playing Kaji, literally grows up before our eyes over the film's three-year shoot. Discovered working in a store by Kobayashi, Nakadai would go on to become Akira Kurosawa's leading man of choice after that director fell out with Toshiro Mifune. But even in this, his first starring role, he delivers an indelible performance, one part eye-bulging German expressionism, one part James Dean cool.
But what keeps The Human Condition from becoming a wallow in despair is the rigor and discipline of Kobayashi's filmmaking. The punctuated tracking shots, the way light falls gently across the actors framing them against stormy horizons and endless grass plains, the careful way Kobayashi has, frame by frame, built a nine-hour monument to human endurance—all of this artistry stands as a rebuke to the on-screen degradation. If aliens came to Earth and witnessed these events firsthand, they wouldn't hesitate to destroy the planet, figuring they were doing us a favor. But if they saw The Human Condition, they might pause for a minute, assuming that any species capable of such grim beauty might be worth a second chance.