After filming the first two parts of The Human Condition (No Greater Love and The Road to Eternity) in close succession, Masaki Kobayashi and his crew took a well-deserved and presumably much needed respite from their labors before undertaking the task of shooting the excruciating finale, A Soldier's Prayer. Given Kobayashi's faithful adaptation of the popular novel on which the films were based, everyone involved - cast, crew and audience - knew they were in for a gut-wrenching ordeal when the time came to put the remainder of poor Private Kaji's sad story on screen for the ages. A substantial break, not to mention a lot of planning and technical coordination, was needed to bring this magnificent (though draining) epic to its devastating conclusion. After taking viewers on a journey through forced labor camps, military exercises and front-line battles in the first seven hours of the trilogy, A Soldier's Prayer thrusts us into the brutal aftermath of the Pacific War, as Kaji and various companions scratch their way through tangled forests, barren deserts, refugee hideouts and a Soviet P.O.W. camp, persistently struggling to stay one step ahead of death's shadow for the simple sake of witnessing another day.
Murder, starvation, imprisonment, suicide, depression, abandonment, isolation and betrayal. Debasing shame and humiliation, loss of hope, groveling in filth, fire and freezing snow... deprivations of every sort imaginable - even inconsolable screaming babies in the middle of the night! - all this and more press down relentlessly upon our protagonist and his unfortunate fellow survivors of Japan's disastrous defeat after its occupation of Manchuria. The spectacle is riveting, the cinematography luminous in its horrific splendor, and every performance impeccably captures the unique angles on misery experienced by soldiers, peasants, old men, young women, confused and innocent children as they scramble over the war-swept plains in their visceral fight for life.
I don't know if the casting for A Soldier's Prayer had already taken place prior to the release of the earlier sections, but the appearance in this last part of a pair of familiar actors, Chishu Ryu and Hideko Takamine, whom I highly respect from their work with Ozu and Naruse, seems to indicate that the success and massive sweep of the trilogy made it an attractive project for high-profile performers, the kind they like to have on their resume, even if it's just a bit part. Certainly, the list of acting credits included in this handsome box set is among the longest one will find among any Criterion films, and I imagine that others more familiar with Japanese cinema of the late 1950s find it a fascinating "who's who" of actors from that period.
In the meantime, The Human Condition's first two installments went on to become box office sensations in Japan, establishing Tatsuya Nakadai as a major star for years to come. The process that led to him landing the role of Kaji, and his later-in-life musings on the impact that role had on his career and personal development, are given good long looks on the supplemental features disc included with this package. It was a coveted role with many aspiring actors in pursuit, but Kobayashi saw something special in Nakadai, who hadn't done all that much to distinguish himself from the pack up to that point and seemed mystified by his selection both before and after the production wrapped up. The story goes that in his screen test, Nakadai made a certain facial expression, one capturing the crazed delirium that overtook Kaji at the conclusion of The Human Condition, that sealed the decision.
There's no doubt that Kobayashi got it right. Nakadai absolutely emptied himself in order to take on Kaji's metamorphosis from a stubborn, intellectualized and ultimately self-serving idealist to the haunted, shell-shocked and war ravaged soul who knew no rest in his pursuit of a reunion with his wife Michiko. The physical ordeals he underwent as an actor included weeks of boot-camp intensity military training, as well as taking real beatings from his fellow actors in various fight scenes and coming close to clinical hypothermia as he laid motionless on the ground in an actual snowstorm in the film's conclusion.
No less demanding than the hardships he experienced in the varied geographic settings of The Human Condition was the intense psychic and emotional topography he had to navigate as we see Kaji gradually but inexorably reduced by circumstances and grief to a staggering husk of a man. In that process, he's still called upon to be a leader and a protector of those who look up to him, and to most observers there's no obvious fault to be found in how he discharges his duties, guiding his various companions through hostile forests, dangerous homesteads inhabited by vengeful Chinese peasants, barren deserts and innumerable other dangers. And yet Kaji finds himself repeatedly facing situations in which his noble convictions and simple reverence for life are forcibly compromised or sometimes simply overwhelmed by the furious emotions stirred up by an overload of stress and futility.
Part 3 opens with him carrying out a premeditated act of murder in order to help his companions avoid detection by an enemy patrol. Near the end, Kaji kills again in raw vengeance, falling far short of his lofty principled pacifism of just a few years earlier. Conscious of his failures throughout, Kaji's quest is to achieve some sort of redemption, some way of atoning for the disappointments and squandered opportunities that he knows are attributable only to him. As admirably heroic as Kaji may be when comparing his deeds to the conduct of others around him, he's much more complex and intricately rendered than your standard war-movie protagonist. That's partly due to the fact that we spend so much time seeing the war through Kaji's eyes - this is a nearly 10 hour movie in which the main character dominates almost every scene, after all. But Kobayashi's deep grasp of Kaji's motivations, and his courageous exposition of the man's irreconcilable interior conflicts, makes Kaji a truly transcendent figure who convincingly embodies some of the most troubling yet invigorating characteristics of human nature.
As I've said in my reviews of the first two parts, there's more breadth and levity to our common "human condition" than this monumental work chooses to portray, but in giving a profound articulation of the power that love and a quest for moral purity can exert in resistance to extreme hardship, after the idols of nationalism and political ideology have been stripped of their delusional powers, A Soldier's Prayer is practically without peer. The high artistry and depth of detail that went into its production adds to the sobering inspiration that this masterpiece delivers.
Next: Blast of Silence