Some of the user criticisms towards the film (i.e. IMDB reviews) that I read seem to be more or less about the implausibility of such a saint and idealist as Kaji. Is Kaji really that implausible as a human being? And if so, should it be used against the film? Is realism supposed to be absolute in such a film?
But even then, he isn’t exactly a saint. Does he not go mad under pressure and tight conditions? After being beaten up by the veterans and trying so hard not to go so low as to use the same violence towards them as it is against his principles, he does finally crack up and threaten to kill one of the veterans. After days in the woods without food and finally getting to a place where people are, the leader of the army unit refuses to give them food and Kaji does once again threaten to kill them. And, of course, his final act towards another human being where all his emotions being built up after all that he has experienced.
And the last scenes of Part 2 and Part 4, the prostitute throwing coal at Kaji and calling him a devil and Kaji shouting out that he has become a monster (after accidentally choking the soldier who has gone mad?), show his slow transformation from a naïve idealist to something else more monstrous due to the war. The war, a test on his ideals, more specifically, certain events where one’s survival is at stake, makes him at least sometimes act against his principles and ideals. And is that not what constitutes a human being?
Also another minor thing. The melodrama in parts of the film is also used as criticism towards the film although this is only more evident in the first part. Can’t a war film devoid of sensationalism and melodrama? Aren’t most (war) films filled with that sort of thing to, for a lack of a better word, toy with the audience’s feelings and emotions but less obvious? Can’t realism and melodrama exist in the same realm?
I think that characters like Kaji do exist in real life, even if they’re extremely rare in a world that is dominated by egoism and self-righteousness, and often early on get to a point at which they’re forced to give up on the ideals which a rigorous education might have taught them. In that sense his character is perhaps a late bloomer who must have not yet taken the blinkers off before the film starts, but of course he’s a necessary starting point for what Kobayashi wants to express, and the film would have been a pretty pointless depiction of the inhumanity of war if the main character himself had already become inhuman before. I’d say that we don’t learn enough about Kaji’s backround to consider his behavior as implausible, and there are a number of reasons that lead to idealism, but we certainly learn enough about him throughout the film to comprehend his character development as plausible.
“Can’t realism and melodrama exist in the same realm?”
The foundation of film realism is built upon melodrama.Bicycle Thieves, Ossessione, Rome, Open City, Umberto D. (among others) are some of the greatest melodramas ever made, and form the very basis for the ‘realist’ film.
If one were to criticize The Human Condition Trilogy (which I’ve never thought of as a ‘realist’ film, at least not in the pure sense) for being melodramatic one would certainly have to lay the same criticisms against… well, pretty much every film made in the U.S., Italy, and Japan before about 1960. It certainly contains no more melodrama (in its over 9 1/2 hours) than Bicycle Thieves does (in its 90 minutes).
As for the ‘implausible’ character criticism… That certainly is an egotistical criticism of a film (any film)… Seeming to exert that the critic knows pretty much every plausible human reaction and ideology.
One can exert the character is presented in an implausible manner (which he isn’t in Human Condition), but that the character himself is implausible? Way too assumptive, and subjective for my taste.
Most of the criticisms I’ve heard of the film focus almost solely on the first part (90 minutes) and ignore the other five (490 minutes)… which for some passes as genuine film criticism.
It didn’t occur to me he was implausible- there are decent people who refuse to fight in wars and would baulk, even under all sorts of social pressure and worse, at doing physical harm to others. What is extraordinary is how we live in a world that takes warfare and nationalism leading to all sorts of horrors as not only normal but acceptable. Kaji didn’t strike me as a saint. Kobayashi himself was something of an idealist with an unusual attitude in the army in WW2, which i would like to know more about in terms of how much he felt obliged to go along with the militarism
As for melodrama, there is too strong a tendency to find fault with it on principle- a preference for emotional restraint and avoidance of “excessive” situations that might give the audience’s emotions rather than merely intellect a good work out.
Another thing to keep in mind when watching this work is that the English title is an egregious mistranslation. The Japanese word joken can indeed mean condition, but not as in “general state of affairs” but as in “prerequisites, qualifications, requirements.” So the title itself is about the struggle of Kaji—or any other “human” being—to meet the requirements of what means to be human in a time of inhumanity.
“So the title itself is about the struggle of Kaji—or any other ‘human’ being—to meet the requirements of what means to be human in a time of inhumanity.”
Which is the precise reason I’ve never thought of the film as a ‘realist’ work, but rather as a work commenting on mankind in general. Kaji, to me, has always been representative of more than just a single human, but of an entire ideology and mindset… and how that mindset has been increasingly beaten down and compromised as people put it to use. Kaji, not as an idealist Marxist, but as the essence of an idealistic Marxism present in Japan in the thirties.
^^ YES, in total agreement with the above.
This was a film picked by Kenji for the World Cup event, which was when I saw it. Rather than go into specifics after a rather long period since viewing the film, my comments will be general. My main criticism of the film at the time was the implausibility of Kaji’s own actions confronting the military command. From what I know of the Japanese military and the tight grip that nationalism and militarism held over Japanese society at the time (through incidental reading and talking to prisoners of war interned by the Japanese), I think it highly unlikely that anyone would have been given the leeway to be critical of the military as shown in the film. To try to subvert military authority at the time would have been suicidal and could subject one to very harsh treatment or even death.
Kaji is shown repeatedly questioning and opposing authority and always trying to do the right thing. To me, his idealism is more of a wish fulfillment after the fact of a society reflecting back on its own war experiences. Kaji represents Japan’s guilty superego. We wish that a Kaji – with all his faults – did exist, but I doubt that he would have lasted for very long. This is the implausible part, for me. Also, the Chinese are presented in the film as even more immoral and opportunistic that the Japanese, especially toward the end. Remember when the Chinese women still left in the village toward the end of the film say to the Japanese soldiers that they treated them better than the Chinese soldiers did? I don’t think so. The Russian soldiers are also shown as extremely cruel, making the Japanese soldiers seem not that bad in comparison, especially with Kaji’s repeated attempts at trying to define his own actions. This seems a bit self-serving and trying to gloss over certain harsh facts. I don’t think the Japanese military had any really effective ‘good conscience’ types, as represented by Kaji. I think Kaji is a myth.
All in all, elements in the film are not as truthful or critical to the actual situation of the Japanese military and occupation of Manchuria for a film that is definitely seen as antiwar. I think Ichikawa’s films like Fires on the Plains and The Burmese Harp are sharper in showing the cruelty of the military and are more believable and truthful.
Although the film is based on a novel by Gomikawa i think it may have rung some personal bells with Kobayashi, who was a pacifist and apparently ended up captured by the US in the Pacific islands. He turned down promotion above private, made clear when called up he wasn’t in favour of the war and lived to tell the tale. What i would like to know is how much he could be a thorn in the side of his superiors and to what extent he was punished. Kaji however has to go through much more by the sound of it, though the film may not be the most daring and innovative in terms of style it does gain from epic accumulation, i think, though some may find it too long.
“My main criticism of the film at the time was the implausibility of Kaji’s own actions confronting the military command. From what I know of the Japanese military and the tight grip that nationalism and militarism held over Japanese society at the time (through incidental reading and talking to prisoners of war interned by the Japanese), I think it highly unlikely that anyone would have been given the leeway to be critical of the military as shown in the film. To try to subvert military authority at the time would have been suicidal and could subject one to very harsh treatment or even death.”
Yeah, Kobayashi’s own experience in the war is proof that criticism of the military at the time was possible… and one only needs to look at the films of Yamanaka, Mizoguchi, and Ozu during the war to be proved that one could criticize the military (though in oblique manners)… But yeah it’s much more likely that the military held a death grip over the mind of every single person in Japan and anyone that opposed them wound up dead (who is arguing about myths on this thread?)
The real myth about the Japanese militarists is they thought they were going to win (every major adviser told them they would lose the war if they didn’t defeat the U.S. in six months… a near impossibility), and that everyone believed in their cause (there was an attempted coup by the military against the military in 1936, for God’s sake), and that no one could ever speak up.
And even beyond that in the first part of the film Kaji isn’t even dealing with the armed forces; but rather a contractor hired by the military, and the military police (there is a difference). So…
“Kaji is shown repeatedly questioning and opposing authority and always trying to do the right thing. To me, his idealism is more of a wish fulfillment after the fact of a society reflecting back on its own war experiences.”
Actually it’s a film about ideology, as I stated before, not about one man, or a society looking back… Marxism was present among the youth of Japan in the 1930’s (see: No Regrets of Our Youth). Which yet again busts up your theory that the military never allowed dissent.
“Japan’s guilty superego. We wish that a Kaji – with all his faults – did exist, but I doubt that he would have lasted for very long.”
He doesn’t last! He dies in the winter escaping from a prisoner of war camp! And! He only fought in one battle. It would be incredibly easy for us to assume that if he were to continue in battle he wouldn’t have lasted, but… the actual content of the film and the society at the time doesn’t seem to be our concern…
“Also, the Chinese are presented in the film as even more immoral and opportunistic that the Japanese, especially toward the end. Remember when the Chinese women still left in the village toward the end of the film say to the Japanese soldiers that they treated them better than the Chinese soldiers did?”
1. They’re not soldiers, or members of the military… Did you forget the fact that Kaji accepted a position at the prison camp in lieu of military service?
2. These are prostitutes. Treated poorly in society (any and all society), but as queens in war time (would anyone really be surprised if a Vietnamese prostitute had said the American personnel treated her better than the society therein during the Vietnam War?). This isn’t implausible; it’s a fact of war time occupations.
“The Russian soldiers are also shown as extremely cruel…”
“…making the Japanese soldiers seem not that bad in comparison…”
Says you… The only thing more horrifying, to me, in the film then the way the Soviets treat Japanese troops is how horribly they treat each other (they sell each other out for favours, and kill each other… that’s “not that bad in comparison?” I suppose to some…)
“I think Ichikawa’s films like Fires on the Plains and The Burmese Harp are sharper in showing the cruelty of the military and are more believable and truthful.”
You know the Japanese actions in Burma and The Philippines were completely different from actions in Manchuria, correct? Manchuria was right next door to Japan; they had supplies, and food. Leyte, and Burma weren’t. They ran out of supplies, and food, they turned on each other and killed and ate each other… of course it’s going to seem more brutal in comparison… because it’s a false comparison…
And also, Fires on the Plain and Burmese Harp are specifically about war. The Human Condition Trilogy is about ideology. If it “glosses over certain harsh facts” it’s because it’s not concerned with portraying every single detail of the war correctly (hence, not realism). It’s much, much, much, much more about the death of idealism, and political ideology. It’s both a historical film, and as a comment on the modern time in which it was made.
I actually took this film on last Saturday, and no, I did not have a problem with the “plausibility” of Kaji. Early on, he’s being told that he will be sent to the mining community, and therefore avoid the war for the time being, his boss tells him that his ideals will now be put to test in the real world. It was very clear to me that Kobayashi was setting us up for the entire movie. Kaji would represent pure ideal, and we would see how that ideal played out off paper. As someone who has been an idealist (though not in the same way that Kaji) was, I found his plight and transformation more than believable within the confines of the film’s universe.
But, beyond this, it has already been pointed out that Kaji is no saint. He does some horrible things. He makes poor choices at times. This is not Francis of Assisi, Japanese style.
Takamine – Thanks for the close reading of my post. I can see that we have a different perspective on the film. I respect your own viewpoint, so don’t want to get into any type of detailed discussion of each point you raised. I am aware of each of the distinctions you raise, but it still doesn’t change the tone of my initial post. My concern with the film treatment was primarily one of historical accuracy. For me, it was hard to believe that a Kaji could exist in such a brutal situation and operate as freely as he does. At times, the level of brutality by the Japanese in Manchuria was glossed over. Having seen the occupation from the Chinese standpoint, in the brilliant City of Life and Death, convinces me that there is more to be told re what really went on during the Japanese occupation.
One comment of yours at the end was enlightening to me, however: It’s much, much, much, much more about the death of idealism, and political ideology. It’s both a historical film, and as a comment on the modern time in which it was made. Thinking about that, I tend to agree. I really did appreciate the effort Kobayashi put into making Human Condition, and think it a worthwhile film on many levels. Kaji’s journey from idealism to bitter realism, the final heart-breaking scenes of him in the snow, are all powerfully done. However, in terms of portraying the occupation accurately, I think the film still has too many elements of fantasy for my own taste.
I realize the Ichikawa films deal with a completely different theatre of operations. However, my point was that his films do nothing to in any way justify or explain the actions of the military. He doesn’t have anyone standing up to or defying authority in his films. He presents things – to me – much more realistically, without any attempt to gloss over. That is the distinction I was trying to make.
Mike, I re-read my response and felt I was too snarky, and maybe even a bit mean… I apologize for that.
I just saw Tora! Tora! Tora! today, and the first lines of dialogue were of some interest:
Lt. Cmdr. Fuchida: I hope our new Commander-in-Chief isn’t the coward they say he is.Officer I: Whatever they say, Yamamoto is the kind of leader we need. He believes in the value of the airplane.Officer II: But why a Vice-Navy Minister for such an important position?Officer III: Maybe the climate in Tokyo was detrimental to Yamamoto’s health. The army is against him for opposing their policies.Lt. Cmdr. Fuchida: So he runs away to sea. Now he has the entire fleet to guard him.
This is very interesting and deserves some attention… In fact Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was vehemently opposed to the actions of the army throughout the 1930’s in Japan, and the idea of war with the U.S. (despite his leading of the attacks on Pearl Harbor… one finds many of these odd contradictions in Japanese culture (and all culture for that matter… but I’m rambling)). He was very boisterous in his opposition and a very important part of the early war effort.
If a man that controlled the Navy could survive twelve years (until he was killed by the U.S.) openly opposing the militarists is it then not implausible that an insignificant PFC (with a high-ranking friend right beside him… let’s not forget that) could survive 4-5 months basic training and a single battle, despite his opposition to the army’s actions? Is it really all that out of the question?
That’s the point I’m trying to make.
“I realize the Ichikawa films deal with a completely different theatre of operations. However, my point was that his films do nothing to in any way justify or explain the actions of the military. He doesn’t have anyone standing up to or defying authority in his films. He presents things – to me – much more realistically, without any attempt to gloss over. That is the distinction I was trying to make.”
Here’s the issue for me… Timing… Both Burmese Harp, and Fires on the Plain take place at the end of the war; all the soldiers in the film know the war is over (literally over; not that it is going to end, but is over), but The Human Condition Trilogy takes place in the final months of the war. There’s a totally different mindset at work.
There is no need to justify the actions of the military in the Ichikawa’s because there isn’t one. It’s just a collection of ex-soldiers, now defeated Japanese private citizens, waiting for what may come next and trying to survive.
And I don’t really see how Kobayashi justifies the actions of the military? That he doesn’t portray the rape of Nanking? Or doesn’t go into the atrocities the Japanese committed? That’s not what the film is about, though. Not every Japanese soldier committed atrocities, and not every one saw them being committed (especially if you only saw battle a few days before Japan surrendered, like Kaji).
Yes the film does attempt to portray the ‘horror of war,’ as the old vaunted saying goes, but more on the ideological side than the physical representation of horrors. In Fires on the Plain the physical act of eating “monkey” is the horror; in The Human Condition Trilogy the ability of one man to ignore the lives of the people around him is the horror. Both are equally valid in my mind.
And I really do oppose the “realism” tag on Kobayashi’s film; to me, it’s a political epic akin to Shoah… not about the physical recreation of WWII, but of it’s ideological, and psychological impact. That is how it gives us the “truth” of the war, just as Ichikawa’s realism does. I don’t value one over the other even if one ‘glosses’ over some things (which… let’s be honest… all historical films ‘gloss’ over something).
I actually think there’s only one Japanese film I’ve ever seen that directly confronts the atrocities the Japanese committed; Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, and the only reason I mention it is because the real-life Kenzo Okuzaki’s idealism so resembles Kaji’s it’s eerie. I think that’s odd… even forty years after the war Kaji’s still do in fact exist.
Oh! Wait! Masaki Kobayashi also made a documentary on Japanese atrocities in WWII! The 5-hour Tokyo Trials (which reminds me I need to see it)… which I think is funny in the context of this discussion.
Not to worry, Takamine. I certainly did not see your response to my post as especially snarky, but more in the manner of spirited, friendly debate. You are a good poster, so I took no offense, just appreciated your own observations. Also, on reconsidering, I think I was too harsh on the film, coming at it with my own set of expectations. Within the context of the film, I think Kobayashi certainly identifies with Kaji, based on his own war experience. As pointed out by posters, Kaji is not presented as any kind of saint, but as a person trying to do the right thing because of his own idealism and sense of right and wrong. Kobayashi shows that Kaji’s own innate humanism is subject to pressures and circumstances beyond his control, causing him to at times betray his own values. Within the context of the film itself, I think the portrayal is quite vivid and realistic.
As you point out, Kaji purposefully places himself in a marginalized position, trying to avoid military service for a cause he doesn’t believe in or support. Of course, he gets swept up by the corruption all around him, even in those very prisoners he is attempting to help. Kobayashi makes it clear that even an idealist, trying to do the right thing, will sometimes be placed in an impossible position, where their ideals are ultimately compromised. To expect the film to also be an historically accurate document is perhaps too much to ask. I would like to see the documentary you mention, to see just how he does deal with the real events. In any case, Human Condition is more of a profound character study than an essay on all the political dimensions of the conflict. It is a pessimistic work and clearly an antiwar film, just different than the Ichikawa films.
I also think that you are right that the Ichikawa films are set in a completely different theatre of operations, reflecting the chaos and desolution of the Japanese military at the end of the war. So, comparison with Human Condition are perhaps not that appropriate.
I have yet to see Tora Tora Tora, but have read that Kobayashi was at one time considered for the Japanese sequences. Would have made it even more worth seeing, had he been involved.
In any case, I am happy to believe, based on your own description of a high ranking officer who did defy authority, that Kajis did and still exist. Even if such figures are an ideal, they represent the side of humanity we would hope to be present, even in the most trying situations. But, really, to comment further and in more specifics, I need to see the film again. Just going by my gut reactions to a quick initial viewing.
I have finally seen this amazing film and, like many of you, was blown aware by its sweep, power and ideas. As far as the debate in this thread, I had no problem accepting the plausibility of Kaji as a character. I was only slightly distracted by a few overly melodramatic scenes, but the cause of that, for me, was not the content, as much as the music score. A very Western sounding score for a Japanese film, its occasional overreach is my only quibble in an otherwise excellent film.
I just saw this recently too. I thought after watching it that it was melodramatic myself, but upon reading what other posters have left here on this thread, it makes sense that the film would have to be somewhat melodramatic to get it’s point across. In the first part, I have a little bit of a problem with some of the scenes such as Kaji helping some Chinese laborers to escape from their fenced in surroundings. Surely, the Chinese laborers couldn’t get very far without the Japanese knowing. And I don’t think the Japanese would be so soft on Kaji for not participating in helping the Chinese laborers. In the second part of the film, I did not totally buy the scene where Kaji and his wife spend time together in a storage room and I don’t know if a lot of the soldiers would participate in physically abusing him and not just leave him alone. Perhaps some of the soldiers would bother him, but not as large a portion as we see in the film. I don’t know. I could be wrong on that account though. In the third part, I don’t know if the soldier that Kaji comes across who is working for the Soviets would actually get to be placed in such a position and if so, would the Soviets not have some kind of cruelty to place upon him as well as his fellow Japanese soldiers. Come to think of it, it in a way, reminds me of one of my favorite films: Ingmar Bergman’s The Shame.
Kaji, to me, is not only a very realistic character, but in fact gained me admiration for the writing in this movie precisely because of how his saintly ideologies broke under pressure—going as he were from someone unable to hit another human being, to someone capable of beating another to death with a chain, not—in my opinion—as a melodramatic point to the fallibility of all humans or anything like that, but as an actual depiction of his motivations and ideology changing their nature in increasingly desperate situations. It is very easy for people in comfortable, secure positions in life to maintain higher rigorous moral standing and treatment towards others, just as it is capable for those in the same position to take advantage of their power and get greedy, which is where most of the antagonistic characters in this movie come from; however, as Kaji’s options are increasingly limited, so are his abilities to operate under any other manner. Eventually even he the rigorous humanist has no other choice but to take another man’s life, under his own pacifistic ideology.
It may not work in real life but I still consider it realism, as the literariness of it is concerned. The “melodrama” I feel comes mostly from the secondary characters that are set up largely as method of slowly chipping away at the motivations of Kaji. This goes both ways—there are the evil guards, commanders, etc. who do damage to other people mercilessly and operate only out of selfish interests, but there are also the victims who place a weight or pressure on the drama so that Kaji’s conflicts are always immediate and pressing. In each of the three parts there is one character in specific that Kaji attempts to protect, and in each of those three parts that character dies—not only as a reflection of the inability of Kaji to save him, but also at the tenacity of the conflict of interests of people to drive human lives to extreme denouement. From a sentimental perspective, sure, the movie can seem “melodramatic” in that it pulls at the audience from the presentation of guiltless victimization; from a “realistic” perspective, there were MANY more victims of the exact same situations than is presented in the movie; from a “realist” perspective, each of those three characters are synecdoche for a wider pile of corpses, the surviving other victims in the background similarly synecdoche for a wider pile of just as victimized survivors. In The Human Condition, as I saw it, each character stands in as a general type for a much wider and broader range of roles—it is to Kobayashi’s credit that he was not satisfied with regulating character types to stereotypes, but increasingly expanded to pool of perspectives in each movie to show the variety and multiplicity of ways that, essentially, the humanist character Kaji is prevented from attaining the sublimation of his own ideology. It is not JUST that powerful people are e-vol and do bad things to innocent people, but an enormous weave of attached and detached interests and motivations that ultimately end up for the worst—especially in times of war.
So someone may consider Kaji “unrealistic” for trying so desperately to be a paragon of virtue, but only if they miss the part where he completely fails at being just that because such an ideology has no hope when confronted with the mass of conflicts that is many parts of human life, so that Kaji himself becomes capable even of killing. The movie would be unrealistic and idealistic if Kaji managed to succeed without any chipping away of his initial ideology (which occurs much sooner than simply his killing of the guard—in each three parts Kaji gives up a part of his morals), ending with him giving some speech or something as to the solution of the world or whatever. I do think the whole dying in the midst of snow and nothingness to be a tad more to the unrealistic end of nihilism, as I think it would be a fascinating and realist ending for him to finally arrive home as is his outward goal, only to have to live with himself and the knowledge that ultimately his morality went out the window to achieve that goal. Either ending, however, still represents the same result of the conflict that drives the entire ten hour movie, and for what it’s worth, an escaped prisoner is much more likely realistically to be recaptured or die than to manage to make it home successfully.
In the above paragraphs I tried to use realist and realistic in their separate semantic senses; I may have accidentally switched one for the other in a few of the cases. I have reread through it and it seems fine, but we all know the tendency for eyes that have written the post to misread it for editorial concerns. At any rate, please understand that the terms “realist” and “realistic” mean two different things, as the former is a mode of artistic representation and the latter is representation’s proximity to reality.