The Human Condition Trilogy III: A Soldier’s Prayer (Ningen no jôken)

Japan (1962) Dir. Masaki Kobayashi

“When it’s kill or be killed, you change”

At the beginning of this classic anti-war trilogy it was unthinkable that we’d hear such bold words coming from the pacifist protagonist at the centre of it all, a man who rejected the mere premise of war from the start. Through the events of the first two films, his guard gradually dropped and he learned to adapt to the system whilst clinging on dearly to his principles.

In this final instalment of Masaki Kobayashi’s compelling three-part adaptation of Jumpei Gomikawa’s six-volume novel The Human Condition, we pick up the story in the aftermath of the battle between the Russian army and the remnants of a Japanese battalion in South Manchuria that closed the second film Road To Eternity.

With only two other men surviving the battle, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai in another excellent performance) has had enough of the fighting and senseless deaths and decides to walk away from the war and return home to his wife. The others choose to follow, their group meeting civilian refugees and other surviving soldiers on the way, the numbers dropping due to lack of food, medicine and exhaustion.

They happen across another military camp but the captain accuses Kaji and his men of being deserters and refuses them food, so they walk away. Luckily, an old friend of Kajis’, Tange (Taketoshi Naitô), is at the camp and he also opts to walk away from the war, bringing plenty of food with him. Having found a small farmhouse for shelter the group is attacked by rebel Chinese army, causing more fatalities amongst their number.

Eventually the group, now totalling fifteen men, arrives at a Russian occupied village full of women and elderly men but are captured after surrendering when one of the women (Hideko Takamine) calls for peace. Now an abused prisoner of the Russian army, Kaji once again becomes a thorn in the side of the authority, sealing not just his own fate but also those of his loyal friends.

At 3 hours and 10 minutes this is the second longest film of the trilogy and possibly the most poignant due to the elliptical turn Kaji’s life has taken. In the first film, he was trying to save POWs from mistreatment and now he is doing the same but this time as a prisoner himself. To add further irony to this strange twist of fate, it is the people that Kaji had the most faith in – socialists – that are his tormentors.

Throughout the entire journey from pencil pusher to mine supervisor to soldier to prisoner of war, Kaji had long held the belief that socialism and communal sharing of wealth was the way forward for society. Whilst not explicitly calling himself a communist, Kaji saw merit in the values they promulgated and maintained that the Red Army wouldn’t be so bad, based on his understanding of their beliefs.    

If the rude awakening Kaji receives upon surrendering to the Russians wasn’t enough, there is another bitterly ironic piece of dialogue during the exchange with the belligerent army captain – while discussing the possibility of the Chinese reclaiming Manchuria from the Russians, the captain suggests they want to “get rid of all signs of communism from their country”. Yes, really.

Kaji’s war is in essence an endless one – if he is not fighting with his superiors then it is with his subordinates, the enemy armies or worst still, his fellow soldiers who have sold out to the Russians. Unable to speak Russian, Kaji has to rely on a corrupt translator who would relate false dialogue and get Kaji into deeper trouble, further destroying his faith in the system he believed would treat him humanly.

And this really is the crux of the film’s story, that it isn’t the individual that is the problem but the inflexible system, be one that purports to offer everything, such as communism, or that which is oppressive and totalitarian like fascism. Kaji is the one constant throughout, experiencing the high and lows of each principle and the ones in between, ultimately coming out the loser in the end.

Whilst the war setting is based on real experience of novel author Jumpei Gomikawa, it is very fitting that it should be the backdrop for this story given the period of its making; a modern version could set it in a civilised society with the antagonists being civil servants and the various levels of bureaucracy that both help and hinder our lives.

But don’t let that take anything away from Kobayashi’s extraordinary achievement with this trilogy. This is no reductive tale and the central moral is sadly and painfully relevant today as it was almost sixty years ago, whilst offering modern audiences a look back into a period of history unknown to them.

Of the three films, one could argue this is the most visually striking with its ever-changing scenery as the depleted squad travels across country, each location captured in at least one vivid tableau that defines its own ravages of war, through its sombre desolation or its natural bucolic beauty.

Kobayashi relies a lot more heavily on subtle symbolism in this concluding instalment than in his predecessors, not in the least in the final scene which should go down as one of the most achingly daring and hauntingly tragic in cinema. The script teeters a little more towards the didactic as Kaji’s resolve is pushed to the limit but certainly not to a level where it is detrimental to the overall integrity of this moral and ambitious work.

I rarely, if ever, use the term “masterpiece”, feeling it has been overused for films which are egregiously undeserving, but I make no hesitation in applying it to The Human Condition. A colossal and peerless masterwork of intense passion, conviction, heart, committed performances and visual splendour, this is unequivocally required, nay essential viewing for any true cineaste.