Even when reckoning with a three-part, nearly ten-hour movie called The Human Condition (1959-61), some proportion is called for: no, Masaki Kobayashi’s long march through the Japanese occupation of Manchuria is not “the finest achievement yet made by the cinema,” per historian David Shipman’s existing-to-be-pullquoted pullquote. (He also nominated it for a Nobel…) It is, though, a never less than engrossing field study of a belief system in contact with the world, composed by Kobayashi in classically delineated, high-contrast space that would make his peak 60s works self-contained worlds for thought-out consciousness.
His project is humanism, as discussed by directorial surrogate Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai, as the protagonist of Jumpei Gomikawa’s novel, which resonated with Kobayashi’s own bitter life during wartime) in symposia with building-block supporting characters. Scenes are dialogues, in the Greek sense, Kaji and a counterpart working through their respective principles and self-interests; the getting of wisdom is a process of accumulation. Human Condition’s fury is that this constructive process takes place amid devolution, the film’s three parts taking Kaji from a civilian role overseeing a labor camp, to conscription and hazing, to a broken-field run through WWII’s endgame (recalling Paths of Glory’s macho pacifism, then Kon Ichikawa’s apocalyptic Fires on the Plain), encountering Chinese prisoners of war, last-gasp nationalists and Soviet jailers, ramming his head against conditioned attitudes and, finally, survivalist necessity. Kaji, in Kobayashi’s crusading construction, is the Last Great Hope for humanity’s ideals. No wonder he’s in sackcloth by the end — or that Kobayashi cast Nakadai, in his star-making role, with those bulging eyes big enough to take in all the sins of the world.
July 18-August 7 at Film Forum.