This was the centrepiece of the retrospective of Kobayashi Masaki at the Leeds International Film Festival. This is a trilogy of films running for nine and half-hours in total. The films follow the physical and emotional journey of Kaji (Nakadai Tatsuya) through the Japanese occupation of Manchuria during World War II. The films offer the most potent expression of Kobayashi’s loss of faith in devotion to the traditional codes of honour and obedience. The Festival Catalogue quotes Philip Kemp’s question: “The dilemma of the principled dissident – how can someone who rejects the basic tenets of an unjust society remain within it and avoid being tainted and even ultimately corrupted by it?” A dilemma expressed in a line of dialogue by Kaji in the film, “It’s not my fault that I’m Japanese … yet it’s my worse crime that I am!” [English subtitle].
Like all of Kobayashi’s films from 1959 onwards the drama is presented with carefully designed mise en scène and with excellent widescreen compositions. The black and white Shochiku Grandscope cinematography is by Miyajima Yoshio and this is one of the finest aspects of the films. All three features were screened in good quality 35mm prints.
Ningen no jôken: (Daichibu: Jun’ai hen; Daishibu: Gekido hen) – The Human Condition: Part 1; No Greater Love, 1959, 208 minutes.
The film opens in 1943 in Manchuria where Kaji works for the South Manchuria Steel Company. The firm depends on Chinese and Manchurian labour. As a junior manger Kaji produces a report arguing that more humane treatment of the indigenous labour would actually increase production. Kaji is sent to the Loh Hu Liong mine to test out his theories. Though he receives support from a colleague he faces opposition from the military government (Kempeitai), the mine executives, the mine pit bosses and the Manchurian contractors who skim money off the workers. The focus of these problems are 600 Chinese prisoners who are forced to labour in the mine
The Chinese labourers are supplied with the services of local prostitutes and some individual relationships develop. One of these in particular comes back to haunt Kaji at the close of the film. There are also attempts at escape by some of the more active prisoners. This leads to a public execution with a military firing squad. Forced to go along with this Kaji is caught between his humanitarian concern for the labourers and his duties to the code. This is also the occasions when a mass protest by the Chinese labourers confronts the army personnel.
The film opens with a night-time shot. It is snowing and centre screen is a large tunnel through which a military patrol can be seen. Two people emerge from the darkness, Kaji and Michiko (Awashima Chikage). This is a stunning shot with which to open the film. But it also sets up the thematic concerns. The falling snow and darkness sum up Kaji’s predicament, caught in no-man lands but not out of range of the army, enforcer of the code. The massive blocks suggest the weight of entrenched values that weigh down on him. Both Kaji and Michiko are living in communal hostels. Michiko wants them to marry and set up their own home: Kaji prevaricates, troubled by what would be both a gamble and be frowned on by his peers. This indecision sets the tone for the whole series of films as Kaji tries but never fully succeed in resolving his contradictory position.
The film’s story and characters are presented all the way through with fine imagery. The exteriors benefit from the widescreen compositions. But the interiors are also powerfully composed. The architecture of rooms and of the prison camp reinforced the feeling of entrapment. Right at the end of the film as Kaji returns to be greeted by Michiko the setting, among hillocks of black soil excavated from the mine, comments on their situation: and this is reinforced by the figure of one of the prostitutes on the skyline.
However, the powerful drama is undermined at times by excessive melodrama and this is accentuated by the music. Some of this is excellent, adding a sense of oppression. But at other times the use of melodramatic themes and martial airs seems to distract from the drama. Audie Bock in Japanese Film Directors (1978) comments: “The story is an excruciating one, sentimentalised in moments by the participation of Kobayashi’s long-time allies, scriptwriter-director Zenso Matsuyama and composer Chuji Kinoshita.” But he also notes how Kaji is ‘played to perfection’ by Nakadai Tatsuya. The film won the San Giorgio Prize at the Venice Film Festival
Nineteen no jôken (Daisanbu: Becky hen: Daishibu Sen’un hen / The Human Condition Part 2: Road to Eternity, 1959, 181 minutes.
Having lost his deferred status Kaji is called up for military service. The army life is just as brutal for ordinary recruits as was the labour camp at the mine. Kaji is relatively proficient at military duties, which offer some some protection. A fellow recruit Obara (Tanaka Kunie) is seen as weak and inadequate and become the butt of bullying. As with the mine labourers Kaji tries to protect him but fails. His closest friend is Shinjo (Sata Kei) who has communist leanings: both men are antagonistic to the authoritarian regime. The war is now running against Japan and Soviet forces are pressing into Manchuria. The Japanese soldiers unsuccessfully attempt to hold their advance. Once again Kaji becomes complicit in criminal violence. By the late stages of the war he is reduced to a desperate desire to survive and make it home to Michiko.
The film once more uses fine widescreen compositions, especially in the exteriors. Composition is also important in the interiors, and the barracks become a setting of shadow and containment. At one point Michiko is able to visit Kaji and the meeting in a small store hut also displays the oppressive setting. It is worth noting that Michiko appears to be the stereotypical submissive Japanese wife. Certainly she does not display the forthright resistance found in the heroines in the films of Naruse Mikio. But she is a strong character, indicated by the relationship in Part I and here also in the way that she supports Kaji.
Road to Eternity seems a more cohesive film that No Greater Love. In part this is due to the film’s focus on the military and Kaji’s experience in one unit, and over a more concentrated period. But like Part I this is a bleak story and the overall tone is pessimistic. Visually it is as impressive as the first film, though like that there are occasional discordant notes of melodrama and military music at odds with the critical tone.
Ningen no jôken: Kanketsu hen (Daigobu: Shi no dassatsu; Dairokubu: Aarano no hôkô / The Human Condition Part 3: A Soldier’s Prayer, 1961, 190 minutes.
This was where the problems of a Festival surface and I missed the concluding film of the trilogy. My friend Stephen did see it and thought it was the most impressive of the three films and described some really fine widescreen compositions, including Kaji travelling through the Manchurian woodlands. The film shows the last stages of the war and eventually Kaji is imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp. He escapes and continues his desperate attempt to return home to Michiko.
The whole trilogy is an extremely impressive work of art. And even in the post-war Japanese cinema it stands out for the uncompromising critique of traditional codes. Kobayashi had some early connections with the Japanese New Film Wave of the 1960s, and whilst the story and style are more traditional than avant-garde, it achieves something of the same rupture with the conventional culture. Stephen thought the film was typical of the post-war humanism in Japanese films: something earnestly worked at during the US occupation after the Japanese surrender. The film certainly shares some of the values found in, for example, Kurosawa’s post-war films. However, Kobayashi’s trilogy has a central pessimism that is some way removed from other humanist films. This particular sense is something that sets him apart from other Japanese filmmaker of the period.
What also makes his best films, like The Human Condition, memorable is the command of composition. His films are nearly all in the scope format, a number of them with black and white cinematography. One is constantly taken with the beauty of the images on screen but also with the way that the composition draws out the tragic situation of many of his protagonists. The Leeds Film Festival is to be commended for screening the whole epic work in 35mm, thanks in part to the support of the Japan Film Centre. And also a word of praise for the Hyde Park Cinema staff who projected the films. A real treat – and equal to the fine Tanaka Kinuyo retrospective of 2012.