20 October 2014 | mevmijaumau
The Human Condition I: No Greater Love
The Human Condition (Ningen no jôken) is a 9,5 hour long epic film trilogy directed by Masaki Kobayashi, based on the six volume novel by Junpei Gomikawa. The trilogy stays true to the novel's composition by being divided into six parts, meaning that each of the three installments are split in two parts, in between which are intermissions. Both parts in the first film begin with the same opening credits sequence, showing us some stoneworks portraying dramatic imagery (the similar intro opens all three films). The three movies, each long 3 hours or more, are called No Greater Love, Road to Eternity and A Soldier's Prayer.
No Greater Love introduces the main character Kaji, a pacifist during the chaotic mess that was Japan during WW2. To avoid being drafted, he moves to Manchuria with his wife, where he becomes a labor camp supervisor and clashes with the oppressive nature of camp officials and their lower-ranked men.
Masaki Kobayashi's films often feature individuals against an oppressive and totalitarian system, be it the feudal Japan in Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, or WW2 occupied Manchuria in The Human Condition. Kobayashi himself was drafted into the army and sent to Manchuria during the war, meaning that the character of Kaji is not far away from the director himself. Some people accuse the trilogy to be too melodramatic - well, if that's how Kobayashi saw the situation, and he was there, I don't have much of a big problem over it.
Kaji is brilliantly portrayed by Tatsuya Nakadai, one of the most versatile Japanese actors. He handles the role fantastically and lives up to the challenge of carrying the entire 9,5-hour plot on his back. Michiyo Aratama, who played Michiko, is perhaps more well-known for her role in Kobayashi's Kwaidan.
The Human Condition offers some brilliant widescreen composition and magnificent B&W imagery, as most Kobayashi films do. The film has some problems, though, most of which are of strictly technical nature. First, some of the violent scenes were filmed awkwardly, like the whipping scene listed under IMDb "Goofs". Second, because the entire cast was Japanese, the Mandarin spoken by the miners is very unrealistic (doesn't bother me personally, but it's still there). Third, the mining conditions are surprisingly underplayed and were even harsher in real life. Fourth, the music is sometimes too annoying, loud and even useless in several scenes.
But overall, this is definitely a film you have to check out if you're into Japanese cinema, WW2 films, or epic films in general.