Ningen no joken (人間の條件) is an exploration of the moral challenges faced during war by men - that is, individuals of the urban middle classes in a late modern and post-modern world, by which I mean me and most likely you, my reader. The trilogy addresses namely the subjugation of enemies in part 1: No Greater Love; the military organisation in part 2: Road to Eternity; and death and survival in part 3: A Soldier's Prayer. A visible blend of 'christian' and 'asian' spirituality- not unlike that of The Thin Red Line, brilliant cinematography, clarity of expression and disquieting beauty make Kobayashi's film a masterpiece.
This is not an epic. There are no voice-off, no bird's eye views. No choir. No 'big picture' to be grasped. From beginning till end, we are stuck with the main character yet the first stylistic tour de force of The Human Condition is that the scare composition of the shots never imprisons the viewer within Kaji's thoughts and actions. Such a framing, by leaving vast 'unoccupied' portions of the image, creates a mental space which we can freely invest. The screen becomes at the same time an expression of both the loneliness and sharedness of moral choices. And those reverse-shots... enough said.
Manchuria's quiet countryside
What would you do, if you found yourself having to manage a forced labor camp? Can anyone be blind to the terrible divide between friend and foe, introduced by a state of war? Can reason itself make the situation 'humane', whereas the whole process seems to aim at shrinking men to bare appetites like water, food, greed and sex? This is what No Greater Love is about, and it is properly overwhelming. Like in a Greek tragedy, Kaji's failure will eventually have him caught into what he initially wanted to avoid - being drafted - but this first part is also a reminder that modern war is a challenge to everyone providing they don't turn their head and pretend they don't see.
Part 2, Road to Eternity, deals mostly with the organization of military life. It may be harder for a non-Japanese to abstract oneself from the historical and cultural context of the Imperial armed forces of the time. Nevertheless, all the challenges posed by a social stratification where violence is both the norm and the purpose are again brilliantly depicted. We're very far from the romantic view of a warrior society, or from the comforting pictures of camaraderie - and all those who have had an insight of what an army is should easily relate.
The combat scenes begin at the end of the second part, yet it is A Soldier's Prayer that unveils Kobayashi's intentions. This isn't about winning, it is about survival, absolute (ie, not death) as well as moral. The ordeals that Kaji and the others character go through are like circles of hell, except they are clearly on earth - a nature scorched by men themselves. Will the circles be broken, and by whom or what? The disenchanted ending, at the hands of the Red Army, isn't the least of The Human Condition's merits. Now hopefully cleared from the ideological debates of the sixties, it stands out as an incredible piece of cinema, and possibly one of the very best films ever made about war in the XXth century.
PS: Sorry about the video quotes, I'll try to correct the aspect ratio and hard-code the subtitles in the future.
Ningen no jôken at imdb
DVD edition (Criterion)