The Human Condition Trilogy II: Road To Eternity (Ningen no jôken)

Japan (1959) Dir. Masaki Kobayashi

This is the second instalment of Masaki Kobayashi’s hugely ambitious but rewarding 10 hour, three film adaptation of Jumpei Gomikawa’s epic six-volume novel The Human Condition, an anti-war story based on the writer’s own army experiences.

At the end of part one No Greater Love, pacifist Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) had tried the patience of his superiors once too often with his humanist treatment towards Chinese POWs. As a result, his exemption from being drafted into the Imperial Army is revoked and Kaji has now been conscripted to begin training with other new recruits, putting distance between him and wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama).

Naturally Kaji’s peace loving stance puts him at odds with his superiors at the camp, his reputation having preceding him, yet due to his inherent industriousness Kaji is a highly competent soldier, proving to be a skilled sniper and a smart tactician. But the level of abuse in the barracks meted out towards Kaji and the other recruits by the veterans becomes his next hurdle to overcome ruffling plenty of feathers in the process.  

Thankfully clocking in at just under the three-hour mark this time, Road To Eternity is still a harrowing and affecting viewing experience, losing none of the nervous energy and emotional punch of its predecessor. Of the two films thus far, this one is debatably the more galvanizing in terms of provoking our indignation and frustration at the events we witness here.

Whereas before the treatment Kaji objected to was being dealt out to foreign prisoners, this time around his own people are suffering at the hands of their own compatriots. The pervasive tenet under scrutiny in this film is the entrenched loyalty one must automatically show to the Imperial Army and to Japan itself – more specifically that any man should be willing and proud to die for his country.

Of course, this is not exclusive to the Japanese army, as today’s armed conflicts are fought by people brainwashed by the same sentiments extending to religious ideals as much as patriotic duty. But in World War II Japan, the army is just as tough on their own troops as they are the enemy as this film shockingly depicts, the central maxim being that loyalty and toughness is to be beaten into their men.

As before Kaji tries to argue that the punitive system is counterproductive and with him already being under surveillance for being a “red” (communist) because of his leftist beliefs, his views are scorned upon. Another soldier, Ittôhei Shinjô (Kei Satô), is also under suspicion because of his brother’s communist activities and naturally, they form a mutual bond.

The real tragic case is Nitôhei Obara (Kunie Tanaka), a weak, bespectacled man with no aptitude for military life, tormented mercilessly by his squad mates, including their senior PFC Jôtôhei Yoshida (Michirô Minami). Obara eventually takes his own life and Kaji demands that Yoshida be punished for driving him to suicide, but instead Obara is demonised for his weakness and selfishness in bringing shame to the army.

Such blinkered macho mentality is sadly rife in many armies across the world whilst the bullying problem is one that persists to this day. There is a startling hypocrisy in the thinking that a man should give everything for his squad yet his squad won’t give anything for him, and the refusal to accept culpability, going as far as to convince his widow that his home life drive him to suicide, is deplorable.

It is this kind of revelation which, despite being fictionalised, we hope caused post-War Japan to really look at itself, and while some official bodies and communities cling on to the archaic ways of the individual being less than the group, perhaps the concept of sympathy has become a more widespread attribute in modern Japanese society.

Despite being a troublemaker, Kaji’s conviction earns him the respect of the army generals and his is transferred to the front line, fortuitously under the command of his old friend Kageyama (Keiji Sada). Kaji is now a PFC in charge of training new recruits whom he keeps separate from the veterans, who mock his soft approach to teaching while they believe in slapping everyone for the slightest thing.

It is miraculous that Kaji is able to maintain his pacifist ways but even a good man has a limit and as time progresses, he does violently snap on occasion shocking everyone, including himself. This film ends with a superb battle scene as the Russian tank force invades Manchuria and faced with his own mortality, Kaji is forced to kill in the name of self-defence and survival.

The transformation that Kaji undergoes is quietly subtly, fully justifying the length of this saga to depict it thus far. Again, Tatsuya Nakadai gives the performance of a lifetime as Kaji, proving to be a compelling actor who embodies the role with such commitment. And as if he has some kind of acting gravitational pull, everyone else around Nakadai compliments his work with equally astute turns of their own.  

Masaki Kobayashi also excels himself in the battle scene, a wonderfully understated piece of filming bolstered by some inventive and effective camerawork. One shot, in which a tank passes over the foxhole Kaji is hiding in is simultaneously breathtaking and nerve wracking! Unlike modern war films where everything is frenetic, quick edit shots and noisy, this is filmed in the dark, well paced and frankly, more exciting to watch.

Similar to No Greater Love, there are no answers to the questions raised in Road To Eternity but plenty of points for discussion and rumination. Its anti-war message is still loud and clear but the story avoids being one sided, putting both perspectives forward so we can reach our own judgements on the subject.

The Human Condition trilogy is now in full swing and with the final instalment coming soon, this writer is both excited and nervous as to how it concludes.