The Human Condition Trilogy I: No Greater Love (Ningen no jôken)
Japan (1959) Dir. Masaki Kobayashi
Quite often in the world of cinema you’ll hear of novels that have been deemed “unfilmable” for a number of reasons, the usual factors being length, the adaptability of the content and the practicalities of the production. In Japan it would be the six-volume novel by Jumpei Gomikawa The Human Condition that studios would refuse to touch with a barge pole.
Aside from the above-mentioned criteria, Japanese film studios also felt the World War II setting and dissertation on the Japanese military’s crimes was too raw for audiences, but Masaki Kobayashi was insistent it could be done and threatened to quit Shochiku if they didn’t finance this ambitious project. The studio acquiesced and the result is an immense work of great scope that was a huge hit and has earned classic status.
Shot over four years Kobayashi’s work as a one whole has a runtime of almost ten hours which is understandably unwieldy for audiences to sit through, so they are split it into three films which in turn are made up of two parts per film.
No Greater Love is the subtitle of this first chapter, yet despite the grim content and unjust atrocities depicted throughout, love is a pervasive theme driving much of the story developments. The central protagonist is Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a pacifist and socialist who dreads being dafted into the Imperial Army which leads him to refuse to marry his long-term girlfriend Michiko (Michiyo Aratama).
Having impressed his superiors at work with a report on how to improve labour through radical management techniques, Kaji is offered the chance to put this theory into practice at the Loh Hu Liong iron mines in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. With the added incentive of being exempt from the draft, Kaji marries Michiko and heads of to his new work placement.
Immediately upon arrival Kaji’s ideas of treating the mine workers with kindness and improved working conditions are scoffed at by the staff, with only a few willing to ease up on the aggression. But when productivity hits a low, the army supply the mine with 600 Chinese POWs, who are be separated from the rest of the worker by an electrified barbed wire fence and are treated even worse than the current workforce.
From here Kaji is fighting his own personal war against the inherent prejudices of the staff that enjoy cracking the whip and the unyielding myopic sadism of the military police. The latter are akin to the Nazis with their persecution of the Jews, the abhorrently gleeful mistreatment of the Chinese in direct opposition to Kaji’s moral and humanitarian intentions, despite supposedly being on the same side.
War is always divisive but this isn’t the message being imparted here – as the title suggests, this is about the indomitable human spirit and the perseverance and strength required to survive life’s trials. Kaji is a man of strong moral values and while his ideas would later be adopted by the hippy community two decades later, during the war they were seen as a weakness and sympathising with the enemy.
There is no commentary on whether Imperial Japan was right or wrong to occupy China (or Korea which is very briefly touched upon) but it isn’t needed – the depiction of the horrific treatment of the prisoners speaks for itself, saving Kobayashi from taking the didactic route in illustrating the horrors Kaji is trying to prevent from happening with unfortunate little success.
It’s not all doom and gloom but there is admittedly little light to be found here. The theme of perseverance extends to the prisoners whose plight is far grimmer than Kaji’s, deprived of proper food and living conditions but there are treated to one motivation to put in an effort in the mines. Kaji is told to provide “comfort women” for the prisoners, arranging for the workers from the local brothel to pay regular visits to the compound.
One in particular, Chun Lan (Ineko Arima) falls in love with one the leaders of the prisoners Kao while the madam of the brothel (Chikage Awashima) seduces Chen (Akira Ishihama), a young half-Chinese staffer under Kaji, into helping the prisoners escape. While there is plenty of vivacity about these working girls, Michiko is the totem of the good wife, happy to cook, clean and be the one constant in Kaji’s life.
With a run time of almost 3 1/2 hours it is remarkable just how much mileage Kobayashi gets out of a rather straightforward plot, not to mention that there are still two more equally lengthy volumes to come. But the story is utterly compelling from the outset and the characters, good and bad, and situations are easy to invest in. It may be as sinuous as other epics but this is an instance where its sparseness is its strength.
Shot mostly in Manchuria Kobayashi creates a palpable sense of the constrictions of imprisonment the Chinese endure, while the austerity of the grass free, dusty grounds of the mining area borders on a post-apocalyptic world, such is the spartan appeal of the landscape. The immense open spaces also serve as a metaphor of Kaji’s lone struggle against system, often showing him as a speck on a vast horizon.
This may be a bleak film but it isn’t depressing; it is often harrowing to watch but it doesn’t incur nightmares (although for the Japanese of the time I imagine it shamed a few people). What it does is hold a mirror up the good and bad sides of the human psyche, showing those who chose to fight as well as those who confirm to the status quo for their own self-preservation.
No Greater Love is a powerful start to The Human Condition trilogy, about which many essay have and deserve to be written by better people than me. On its own it is an extraordinary and important cinematic achievement so I am particularly keen to see how it fits in context with the other parts.