Monday, January 3, 2011

#480: The Human Condition

(Masaki Kobayashi, 1959)

The Human Condition begins and ends with a snowstorm. In between these two natural events are nine-and-a-half hours that make up one of the great epics in cinema, and easily one of the best war movies I've ever seen. Set during the end of World War II - and based on a similarly epic novel - the film tells the story of a Japanese man named Kaji, who goes from young worker to soldier to POW over the course of a few years. Initially an idealistic socialist and essentially a pacifist, Kaji is broken down into a cynical and vengeful wielder of justice, his only hope for humanity stuck on somehow returning to the wife he was forced to leave when he was drafted.

Spread over six episodes, the movie is really made up of three sections: Kaji at work trying to reform the labor practices of his company and attempting to help Chinese prisoners gain better conditions, Kaji being drafted into the military and facing the even more difficult authoritarian structure of the army, and finally Kaji wandering the countryside desperate to survive at any cost. Despite its lengthy running time, there are no lulls in the action, and each section has its own unique twist that keeps the running themes from feeling too repetitive. Still, the constant moral and social defeats Kaji faces can be draining, and the film is certainly difficult to watch at times.

Kobayashi's other masterpieces, Samurai Rebellion and Harakiri, cover similar themes of corrupt systems destroying the individual, and The Human Condition is at its core anti-authoritarian. Yet those later films couched their criticisms in the cinematic tropes most familiar to audiences. Here, there is no metaphor to shield you from the truth: war isn't hell, it's society at its most obvious and inevitable conclusion. As a true humanist, Kobayashi doesn't set Koji up as a Jesus figure, but he also doesn't shy away from showing the true horrors human beings are willing to stoop to when they are unfettered. Over the course of the film, Koji meets many good people, some of whom grow and evolve as they gain new experiences. But The Human Condition does not fault evil men for doing what they want any more than it faults good men for being unable to stop them. The movie instead condemns a system that doesn't allow good to prevail, and in fact rewards evil. In war and peace alike, rationality and power are divorced, so justice dies. Koji slowly realizes this truth is universal when he is captured by the Soviets, whom he had formerly held up in his mind as the ideal, having bought the bill of goods sold to so many left-sympathizers of his generation. By this time, he is a broken man, uncertain of even his own chance for redemption.

The Human Condition offers no answers, and in fact asks very few questions. Instead, it hopes for the possibility of redemption through personal growth. When faced with such injustice and despair, all anyone can do is look inside themselves. That's what Kobayashi did when he made this film, and any viewer who makes it through its entire running time can hope to come out the other side a little more aware of their own humanity.

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