Masaki Kobayashi's brilliant pacifist classic — the nearly 10-hour "Human Condition" — gets a rare revival at SIFF Cinema in September.
Slightly longer than the theatrical version of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy — and just as absorbing — Masaki Kobayashi’s pacifist classic, “The Human Condition,” gets a rare revival next month at SIFF Cinema, which will show it Friday through Sept. 25.
One of the legendary movie marathons of the postwar era, this nearly 10-hour World War II drama was filmed between 1958 and 1961 and originally released in three parts, though it’s rarely shown that way now. SIFF is presenting a starkly beautiful, full-length 35-mm CinemaScope restoration, complete with intermissions for each part.
Part one, “No Greater Love” (Sept. 5-11), deals with a young, idealistic Japanese labor supervisor at a Manchurian mine — his struggles with his conscience, the compromises he makes to survive in an atmosphere of oppression and outright sadism, and his eventual defiance of the camp leaders when hundreds of prisoners of war are brought in.
It ends with him being drafted into the Japanese army, as punishment for his rebellion.
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Part two, “The Road to Eternity” (Sept. 12-18), and part three, “A Soldier’s Prayer” (Sept. 19-25), deal with his military experiences and his inability to maintain his ideals as the war draws to an end. The final chapter begins with his almost casual murder of another soldier.
“It was probably the first postwar film to show the Japanese army as it actually was,” Donald Richie wrote in his book, “Japanese Cinema.” “Inevitably, it became one of the most controversial productions made in Japan.”
“I, too, went through similar experiences during the war,” Kobayashi once wrote (he was also persecuted for his pacifist instincts). “I wished to bring back to vivid reality the many tragic experiences of men who wasted their best years fighting a war against their wills if only because cooperation with the war effort was the only way in which to live out the chaotic period.”
The film retains its power today because the anguish of Kaji, the young supervisor (played with great integrity and feeling by Tatsuya Nakadai) is so genuine, and because Kobayashi makes his dilemma so grimly believable. The character realizes (in Kobayashi’s words) that “he cannot escape the brand of oppressor without himself becoming one of the oppressed.”
Kaji is the only friend of the laborers and prisoners at the mine, but by going the extra mile to help them, he loses his position of strength. In one particularly tense and emotional scene, he decides to lay his own life on the line by insisting that a senseless series of beheadings cease.
His life is almost miraculously spared, as are some of the prisoners on the execution block, but his momentary triumph is quickly undercut when he receives his draft notice and realizes that conditions at the mine will only become worse in his absence.
“No Greater Love” runs for 3 hours and 28 minutes, but when Kaji leaves for the army and says goodbye to his devoted wife, you want to see the rest of their story immediately. Despite its length and melodramatic flourishes, the film leaves you wanting more.
“The Road to Eternity” runs just over three hours, but it has a similar impact, building with quiet deliberation to a climactic battle sequence of such intensity that it leaves you hungry for the concluding segment.
Kaji’s belief in nonviolence is most severely tested in “A Soldier’s Prayer.” After his detachment is almost wiped out by Russian soldiers, he joins other refugees making the very long trek home.
Among the characters he meets on the way is the aging leader of a starving village, played by Chishu Ryu, the leading actor in many of Yasujiro Ozu’s films. Ryu was closing in on the end of his career, while Nakadai, who went on to appear in Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro” and “Kagemusha,” was nearer the beginning of his.
Kobayashi, who died in 1996, was one of his country’s most gifted directors. His better-known early-1960s masterpieces include two Cannes Film Festival prize winners: the offbeat samurai tale, “Hara Kiri,” and a stylish, Oscar-nominated collection of ghost stories, “Kwaidan.”
In her book, “Voices From the Japanese Cinema,” Joan Mellen traces Kobayashi’s career as “one of the most trenchant social critics in the Japanese cinema.” His first major film, “Tokyo Trial,” made in 1953, dealt with war criminals. He later did exposés on corruption in Japanese sports and on American military bases in Japan.
“Many times,” he told Mellen, “I have discovered that my interest is not aroused unless I start locating a particular drama in its historical context. It really is essential to my filmmaking.”
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org