Masaki Kobayashi's six-part magnum opus, The Human Condition, based on Junpei Gomikawa's postwar novel, bears the imprint of Kobayashi's tutelage under legendary filmmaker Keisuke Kinoshita at Shochiku's Ofuna studio, a critical, introspective, and deeply personal account of wartime Japan framed from the perspective of an idealistic everyman (and Kobayashi's alterego), Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai). Opening to the ironic image of lovers Kaji and Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) meeting under an archway auspiciously called the Southern Gate of Peace in Manchuria as Imperial troops march in the street, Kobayashi presents an incisive image of 1930s Japanese society that is morally consumed—and ravaged—by increasingly extremist values of militarism, occupation, and nationalism.
Parts 1 and 2 chronicles Kaji's assignment as a labor camp manager at a rural outpost in southern Manchuria, a position that he had reluctantly accepted to avoid imminent conscription to the Imperial army. Brimming with wide-eyed (and implicitly leftist) theories on worker relations and industrial production, Kaji is confronted with the reality of the rampant abuse, exploitation, and inhumane working conditions at the mine, where forced laborers and designated "special prisoners" (presumably captured Chinese insurgents, but more likely, enslaved peasants) are routinely beaten, overworked, and undernourished (using the convenient excuse of nationwide rationing) in the name of increased production to support the ongoing war effort. Candidly exposing such taboo issues as the forced recruitment of comfort women (usually from occupied territories), slavery of the colonized population, and mass execution of civilians, the first installment of The Human Condition, nevertheless, captures redemptive moments of grace, most notably in Kaji's cultivated relationships with the world weary, but sympathetic senior official, Okishima (So Yamamura) and the Chinese labor leader, Chen (Akira Ishihama).
Parts 3 and 4 continues with Kaji's travails as a junior enlisted man in the Imperial army stationed at an outpost in the frozen tundra of northern Manchuria. Despite proving himself a disciplined soldier and excellent marksman, Kaji's prospects for promotion in rank have been systematically stifled by senior officers wary of his leftist tendencies and blemished record with the Kenpeitai (military police) from his former career as a labor camp manager. Resigned to a demoralizing existence of continual harassment from veteran soldiers who share barracks with new recruits, Kaji gradually finds renewed purpose in his role as protector, initially, in supporting a bullied, fragile soldier, Obara (Kunie Tanaka), then subsequently, in leading a class of new recruits. As in Parts 1 and 2, the second installment of The Human Condition reinforces the sense of a dysfunctional morality engendered by a culture of ingrained hierarchy, entitlement, and aggression as virtue in the jingoistic quest of winning the war at all cost.
Parts 5 and 6, in a way, represents an inverted full circle, a Japanese rendition of the Long March (in this case, from north to south) in which Russian Red Army forces and Chinese insurgents patrol the countryside in the waning days of the Pacific War, and the soldiers return to a transformed landscape where the Japanese are now the displaced refugees left to fend for themselves, exploited and humiliated by their conquerors. Determined to make his way home, Kaji soon realizes that he cannot escape the toll of the battlefield, and even the hope of compassionate treatment under the ideals of an enlightened revolution proves to be an illusion in the face of petty grudges, self-interest, and miscommunication. Suffused with recurring images of figurative concealment - night time excursions, jungles, and obscuring grain fields - the final installment of The Human Condition is more austere and alienated than the preceding chapters, reflecting the sense of disillusionment intrinsic in Kobayashi's caustic social indictment. Concluding as the installment began with the twilight image of Kaji instinctively heading south to return home to his beloved Michiko, Kobayashi creates a sobering allegory for a tainted national soul in the indelible image of noble determination and blind delusion.