Jun 15, 2021
By Kaveh Jalinous
Easily one of the greatest film trilogies of all time, Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition is a sweeping nine-and-a-half-hour epic about the horrors of war. Each of the three films is divided into two parts. Together, they tell the story of Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a pacifist and socialist forced to serve in the Japanese army throughout World War II. Right from the opening scene, where Kaji complains to his partner and soon-to-be wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) about his fears that serving in the war will destroy their relationship, Kaji’s distaste for the Army and his thoughts on the War are perfectly clear. Setting this tone early on in the film only amplifies everything that happens next.
The first film in the trilogy, No Greater Love, showcases the beginning of Kaji’s role in the Japanese war effort. In order to get out of direct combat, Kaji agrees to move with Michiko to a prisoner of war camp, where he is tasked with overseeing the Chinese prisoners forced to work in the mines. Instantly, Kaji’s emphasis on treating the prisoners in humane ways – avoiding violent punishments, forming close relationships with them, and allowing them more freedoms – ticks off the other Japanese Army officials. This film introduces some of the ethical questions that are constantly explored throughout all three films and emphasizes Kaji’s constant struggle to be a good person when he is surrounded by people, and a war, that is anything but. The film also shows how incredible Nakadai’s performance in all three films actually is. Watching how he portrays Kaji here, when the character hasn’t been touched directly by the war yet, shows just how broad of an acting range he is actually able to achieve throughout the trilogy.
The second film, Road To Eternity, feels like two different films in one. The film’s first part, following Kaji as a recruit in the army, feels like a natural continuation of the previous film. Kaji’s good morals arise mainly in his fight to protect a recruit named Obara (Kunie Tanaka) from the cruel and unfair treatment of the upper soldiers. The second part of the film is where the pacing of the entire trilogy completely changes. Kaji is put in charge of soldiers of his own, and because of his young age and his refusal to punish his troops with violence, he is often taunted and physically beaten by the other veterans. The film’s last act is the first and only time that actual front-line combat is shown in the trilogy, as Kaji and his troops are forced to defend their position from Russian troops. Through all of these moments, the film constantly questions what is acceptable because of wartime and what is the right thing to do. Road to Eternity also emphasizes how one’s identity is changed as a result of war. As viewers watch Kaji having to defend himself from enemy forces, one of the main themes of the entire trilogy quickly unwraps itself: in the end, nothing matters but survival.
The final film in the series, A Soldier’s Prayer, continues to explore this idea in particular. Almost playing like an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, the film centers around Kaji’s journey trying to make it back to his home and to his wife. Traveling with a group of soldiers, he makes his way through the now-decimated countryside while attempting to avoid Soviet forces and stay true to his morals and beliefs, even when he has nothing left to lose. A Soldier’s Prayer is perhaps the most gruesome of the three films, particularly because of its deeply harrowing visuals and events. The film does a commendable job of communicating how the effects of war long outlive the battle itself, evident within the thread of hopelessness running throughout the film – the destroyed land, the lack of food and the unlivable conditions. Kaji’s continued hope throughout all of his trials and tribulations shines like a bright light, highlighting the perseverance of the human race that the entire film trilogy constantly emphasizes.
Each film in The Human Condition is unforgettable, but the film is just as powerful, if not more powerful, when examined as a single product. Even though Kobayashi never actually gets into any of Kaji’s past before the war began, the trilogy is a complete picture of a man’s life. It shows, in a variety of ways, how war destroys livelihoods, families and communities. One of the most harrowing parts of watching the trilogy, perhaps the most harrowing part, is actually knowing that Kaji’s story is merely a mimic of the stories of countless others, in all kinds of different wars and struggles. The Human Condition also highlights and reiterates aspects of the human experience – such as the sacrifices one makes for love, for others, and for what they think is right – that are constantly surrounding us in everyday life.
The Criterion Collection’s new digital restoration of the film looks incredibly clear, showcasing all of Kobayashi’s beautiful, haunting visuals in a truly striking way. The physical edition of the film doesn’t come with a lot of supplements, but the two most notable featurettes are interviews, one with Kobayashi in 1993 and one with Nakadai in 2009.