Saturday, March 26, 2011
Purely by coincidence here on this blog, but by design elsewhere, over the past couple of weeks I've been watching and writing about Japanese films depicting the effects of military calamity on ordinary people. My viewing occurred in the context of contemplating the terrible natural disaster that struck Japan earlier this month, but having already written about the triple blows of earthquake, tsunami and radiation release (and assuming most readers are sufficiently familiar with the crisis), I won't say more about it here. Still, the resiliency and grim endurance that is now demanded of today's residents of Japan will certainly draw from traditions and cultural resources that their society developed by sheer necessity over past centuries wracked by cataclysms both natural and man-made.
And as bad as the aftermath of 3/11/11 has been for that nation, I still can't imagine that it compares meaningfully to the ruinous debacle of World War II, or as its referred to in Japan, the Pacific War. One of the films I reviewed recently, No Regrets for Our Youth, was released in 1946, just a year and a few months after the atomic bombs had been dropped and Japan was forced to surrender. Kurosawa's film began a process of psychic and spiritual reckoning in Japanese cinema that continued to build momentum over the next fifteen years and beyond, and several of the milestone films in that tradition have been reviewed here already, with still more to come. Tokyo Story, Twenty-Four Eyes, The Burmese Harp and now The Human Condition stand out in particular, though even several Criterion titles set in earlier epochs can be seen as critiques of the militaristic fanaticism that plunged Japan into war.
Gauging the degree to which these films explicitly depict the crimes and horrors that took place during that time, one can detect an intensifying trajectory as different directors burrow ever deeper into more sensitive, painful and appalling acts of depravity that troubled their conscience. The earlier films in this cycle focused almost entirely on the effects the war had on the civilian population, and for good reason. Such stories were easier to film in postwar Japan on limited budgets, and also presented less risk (though not entirely) of offending the men who fought and managed to survive the war, many of whom no doubt committed their share of atrocities along the way.
But with the passage of time comes increased willingness and even urgency to bring deeds committed in darkness into the light, if they are ever to be dealt with and learned from at all. A growing public interest in engaging with such morbidly fascinating material helped bring films like The Burmese Harp and The Human Condition into production, based largely on the popularity of the novels from which both were drawn. As this trailer demonstrates, The Human Condition represented a significant investment on the part of its studio, and I don't think I would have faulted them for failing to green-light what looked to be an unrelentingly heavy and depressing end-product.
But I'm viewing the situation from over 50 years in the future; as it turned out The Human Condition, all nearly ten hours of it, was a huge commercial and artistic success, hitting a cathartic nerve through its blend of epic scale, luminous cinematography, a charismatic new star and provocative, shocking-at-the-time revelations of just how bad things got out on the Manchurian frontier in the 1930s.
For now, I have only watched the one of three films in the trilogy that makes up The Human Condition. There are six parts altogether (each installment running over three hours, broken up with an intermission), mirroring the structure of the novel, which I'll assume the film follows pretty faithfully (usually that's the case when a director has license to stretch his story out past the nine-hour mark.) The first film was originally released under the title No Greater Love, and the other two have titles with similarly spiritual resonance: Road to Eternity and A Soldier's Prayer. I'll get to those parts eventually, but I'm sticking with my original chronological release strategy, even for a film that was released as a single unit (on four DVDs) by Criterion in 2009.
Granting that The Human Condition was a big deal in Japan back in 1959, the question still arises as to what such a massive slab of cinematic narrative has to offer us viewers in 2011. The decision to take the plunge into a saga that's persistently grim and lacking in levity is not one to be made lightly. Aside from a disciplined approach like the one I use for this blog, which compels me to watch it simply because it's next in the queue, what is it about The Human Condition that commends itself for your viewing "pleasure?"
We can start with the basic point of its towering reputation. A distinguished British film historian, David Shipman, called The Human Condition "unquestionably the greatest film ever made" back in 1983. I don't know about you, but that kind of a reference from a reputable source at least creates some intrigue. I don't necessarily agree with his assessment, but even only one-third of the way through the epic, I can see how some people of a certain temperament might come to that conclusion. There's no dispute that the wide-screen compositions, massive cast of characters, finely tuned production aesthetics and atmosphere of profound misery captured on screen are all world-class. Nor can I argue with the intrigue and significance of bringing a relatively obscure dimension (the 1930s exploitation of colonial labor by Japan in occupied northern China) of the Pacific War to the forefront, especially for American audiences that tend to mark the beginning of World War II history to events that took place after Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941.
The hinge point as to whether or not one climbs fully on board with The Human Condition is what one makes of Kaji, the protagonist around whom all the key events swirl. He's exceedingly virtuous, sincere and long-suffering, spending long sections of the film in a state of perpetual angst and astonishment at the horrible dilemmas that fate keeps thrusting upon him. We learn from the beginning of his upstanding moral character when his girlfriend begs him to sleep with her but he refrains from taking her up on the offer, due to his concern that he might be pressed into military duty and would thus be unable to properly fulfill the husbandly duties that such intimacies would thereby oblige him to keep. Furthermore, he's an idealist, a man of principle who has strong convictions about the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, that he seeks to apply in practice as an workforce overseer for the Japanese mining corporation that employs him. Such sensitivity makes for a tough moral compass to manage in the midst of a society bent on conquest, domination and the imposition of an imperial, racist ideology upon all who live in its domain.
While I can sympathize pretty easily with the struggles of a man who finds his values painfully out of sync with the prevailing culture, Kaji's ordeal throughout No Greater Love grows so brutally oppressive and appalling that you may find yourself exhausted from the continual collapse of any and all hopes that something, anything, might just work out positively for the poor guy. The suffering, the anguish, the cruel rationality that propel Kaji toward an uncertain future as he manages an iron mine that operates on prison labor, grinding the workers to death while offering them only the paltry comforts of nightly visits from prostitutes forced into their electric barbed-wired encampments, may inspire or embolden some, but are just as likely to overload the empathy circuits of others.
So maybe my plan to digest The Human Condition in limited doses with gaps of time between each film is for the best. I usually like to watch my Criterion films two or three times through before blogging about them, but this one doesn't seem to invite me back so quickly. I'm very impressed by Masaki Kobayashi's ambitious vision and technical prowess - he strongly believes in what he's presenting to us, and the film is filled with images that strike one instantly as classic widescreen tableau. The arrival of the prisoners on the train, the proto-zombie horde chasing after and devouring the food wagon, the mournful procession of slaves along the ridgeline heading into the mine and the execution by beheading scenes are especially gripping and memorable. And Tatsuya Nakadai successfully carries a massive load as Kaji, a role that propelled him to superstardom (yes, we'll be seeing a lot of him in future Criterion films!) Ultimately, though I find a lot to appreciate about The Human Condition, I can't help but think that a film with such an audacious title would do well to keep in mind that even in the worst of times, there are moments of lightness and joy that help us tolerate the undeniable mess that we and those in positions of power regularly make for everything else that lives.