The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959)

Set in 1959, “No Greater Love” is the first part of Masaki Kobayashi’s epic trilogy “The Human Condition”. This first part follows Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a young man who is sent out to Japanese-occupied Manchuria in 1943. His job is to oversee the iron-ore mining operations. He travels to China with his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) and soon comes up against fierce resistance in his attempts to improve the conditions of the workers. Despite his colleague Okishima (So Yamamura) being sympathetic to his aims, the foremen of the mines, in particular Okazaki (Eitaro Ozawa), treat him with contempt believing him to be weak. When the military police send hundreds of prisoners to be put to work, Kaji is left in charge of the men and tries to help them despite their distrust of the Japanese and repeated escape attempts.

“The Human Condition” is based on a novel by Junpei Gomikawa with a screenplay by Zenzo Matsuyama and director Masaki Kobayashi. The story is epic in scale, but manages to keep its central plot personal. Beginning with Kaji and Michiko, they act as a focal point for the horrors that are happening around them. Kaji represents the viewer in his disbelief and disgust at what he finds in Manchuria. But despite his best efforts he is unable to stop many of the atrocities. This creates a poignant narrative of humanity’s failure to effectively tackle its most vile elements. Despite a large cast of characters the film never feels overly complex, even when it comes to the escape attempts which involve a number of players on both sides of the fence. Likewise, the framing creates clear distinctions between characters and numerous moments of tension as their ideologies come into contact. This is most clear when Kaji faces off against the military police officers.  The presence of the Japanese Imperial flag in the background in scenes where the characters actions may be immoral mark the film as a bold work. It is unsurprising that it had its critics on release due to an apparent anti-Japanese bias (in fact the film is staunchly anti-war, but this distinction may have gone unnoticed at the time). The production value is clearly high and the sets and number of extras create a sense of realism that helps the film achieve a greater impact. The brutality is largely only alluded to until the final third of the film. This creates a sense of tension and foreboding that something terrible will happen. Chuji Kinoshita provides a suitably epic score and the cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima is exceptional.

The film is a startling criticism of Japanese militarism and a rebuke to nationalist sympathies. It shows the Japanese occupation of Manchuria as cruel and the inhumane treatment of their prisoners who were put to work in the mines. Racism is rife, with the Japanese looking down on the Chinese locals. The inclusion of “comfort women” and enforced prostitution in the film also exposes a part of history that many would rather keep hidden. The women are given a strong voice through the character of an unwilling prostitute used by the Japanese forces and their captives. She states explicitly that they are as much prisoners as the men who are kept behind the barbed wire fences. They have no freedom to choose. The film shows the most despicable side of human nature, one that is cruel and discriminatory. However, it balances this by including the love story between her and one of the prisoners. There is a frail sense of hope that love can blossom even in adversity. In the end, Kaji feels that he has failed. Not because he participated in the violence, but because he allowed it to happen. Kaji’s pacifism and humanism are a constant cause of scorn for his fellow men, who believe this to be a sign of weakness. However, as the film progresses it becomes clear that he has chosen by far the more difficult path, to espouse peace and care for his fellow men when all around him are violent.

My Friend ‘A’ (2018)

Masuda (Toma Ikuta) and Suzuki (Eita) are new recruits at a factory in Saitama. Masuda is a former journalist who has given up his vocation for unknown reasons to take on this manual work. Suzuki is an inscrutable figure, attracting the ire and suspicions of his co-workers. The two are friends through circumstance and learn more about one another as the film goes on. When a brutal murder of a junior high-schooler happens nearby, Masuda is led to believe by a former colleague that Suzuki may be responsible. We soon discover that both men are running away from their pasts. In a parallel story we follow cab driver Yamauchi, whose son was responsible for a terrible tragedy and who is struggling to come to terms with the guilt and the ensuing break up of his family.

“My Friend ‘A’” is based on a novel by Gaku Yakumaru and both the pacing and number of characters reflect these literary origins. Not only do we have Masuda, Suzuki and Yamauchi, around whom the majority of the film revolves; but abundant side characters who are rendered in varying levels of details. Yamauchi’s family, his son and new partner; a parole officer (Yasuko Tomita) and her relationship with her own daughter; Suzuki and Masuda’s co-workers, Masuda’s ex-girlfriend and colleague at the newspaper; and Suzuki’s girlfriend. It is an almost overwhelming amount of subplots and details to take in. Director Takahisa Zeze does a good job, helped by an amazing cast, of making all of these rounded characters, though at times it feels a little overcrowded with so many stories to follow. The film takes its time to build up the audience relationships with the characters and the thematic threads connect everyone in a satisfactory way. It is a film very much about ideas and will linger on a shot to allow the audience time to think about the significance of certain moments. This is an uncomfortable watch with child murder, self-harm, suicide, rape, and bullying being major plot points. For the most part these things are mentioned only obliquely, though there are a couple of shocking moments. The overwhelming emotion of the film is sadness that these things occur and a sense of powerlessness in the face of such events.

The film explores notions of guilt and redemption through its main characters, both of whom have deep regrets about their actions as younger men. Now they are adults, they question whether they can ever leave behind these things, or whether they are doomed to be haunted by their mistakes forever. It is a dark and difficult debate, one which many people are unwilling or unable to have due to the depth of feeling associated with the types of crimes and events detailed in the film. Forgiveness for crimes is an impossibility for many though the film does a sterling job of addressing the issue and evoking a level of compassion and understanding for its protagonists. The past is something that all the characters are dragging around with them, held back by its weight, unable to forget it. The film also poses the question of whether a person can and should be defined by a certain action. The moral ambiguity makes this a much more difficult watch that many crime features, in that it is asking the audience troubling questions about their own feelings on these issues. On a deeper level the film considers the notion of evil and the sanctity of life. The importance of continuing to live in a world that is so wicked and corrupt is expressed by several characters and becomes the single point of hope in this bleak world.

Killing (2018)

Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a samurai boarding in a village of rural farmers. He has a relationship with one of the women in the village, Yu (Yu Aoi), and spars with her brother Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda) daily. Their peaceful existence is interrupted by the appearance of another samurai, Jirozaemon Sawamura (Shinya Tsukamoto), whom they witness defeating another man in a duel. Sawamura conscripts the Mokunoshin and Ichisuke to join him on a trip to Edo and Kyoto, which they agree with, Mokunoshin reluctantly and Ichisuke happily. Sadly, their plans are disrupted by the appearance of a group of ronin whom the villagers fear are there to rob them. Events soon turn violent and Tsuzuki is caught up in a world of death that he had avoided until then.

Written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, “Killing” is on the surface a simple samurai story, though with a dark subtext. The sets and costume design are perfectly evocative of the period and the score by Chu Ishikawa compliments the action perfectly with drums and traditional instrumentation. Where the film strays from the well-trodden path of other samurai dramas is in its arthouse aesthetic. The story is pared back to its essentials, that is to say it is about the taking of life and what this means for the person who does it. The sword-fighting and sparring sequences are well-choreographed and have a fluidity and intensity that makes them a joy to watch. When real swords are used, the film does not shy away from blood spatter and some wince-inducing injuries. There is also humour, often darkly comic, employed to great effect. Tsukamoto is a director with a unique style and will often use a conventional idea in an unusual way. One example is in a scene between Tsuzuki and Yu, that is both tender and erotic without being explicit. It also, as with many other scenes, manages to capture wordlessly yet perfectly exactly what the relationship is between the characters. Dialogue is often sparse with the performances speaking for themselves and the cast do an excellent job with their roles. Ikematsu is brooding and troubled with the path he is set on; Yu Aoi is a tough foil for him, the emotional mirror to the seemingly cold samurai characters. Tsukamoto himself is suitably intimidating as the deadly swordsman, almost personifying death itself. Certain stylistic flourishes, such as darkening the camera, are used sparingly but to great effect throughout. The film’s simplicity may not appeal to everyone, but it allows the themes room to breathe and allows the audience to experience the emotional turmoil of the characters without the need to follow excessive characters or subplots.

As the title suggests, this is a film about killing. Tsuzuki is a man who shies away from violence. His life in the village, despite daily training, is an easy one and he appears comfortable. Sawamura’s appearance is almost like a dark spirit descending on the villagers. The notion of a spirit becomes more apparent at the very end of the film as an unseen force seems to be drifting through the forest searching for its next victim. Sawamura tells Tsuzuki that to not use his sword makes it meaningless. He exists to kill. In this way Sawamura represents the very evil of murder itself, appearing in this rural idyll and setting of a catastrophic chain of events. “Killing” also discusses the theme of revenge, whether it is ever justified and whether a cycle of revenge can ever be broken. ‘Kill or be killed’ is an oft used phrase, but this film exposes the horror of the sentiment in recognizing that there is no good option. Of course, most would consider killing to be preferable, but that leads to a loss of self that is almost as devastating as being killed. “Killing” examines this moral conundrum in a way that leaves a lasting impression, building to a darkly satisfying climax. The film is a philosophical take on the popular samurai genre that dissects what it means to kill and whether killing strips us of our humanity.

(Not) Perfect Human (2015)

Two brothers, Masato and Jun, are out on a hike in the woods when Jun slips. This results in Jun becoming partially paralysed. Jun lives at home with his younger brother Masato as his carer. Finding physical relationships difficult due to his impairment, Jun is consoled by online interactions with a young woman (though their video communication is only from her side). Masato pays for a service from “Care Hands”, a company that specialize in relieving disabled patients by masturbation. When a new “Care Hands” worker, Yoko arrives, Jun finds himself drawn to her. His sexual frustrations turn to jealousy of his brother, whose relationship with his own girlfriend is far from perfect.

The film is directed by Kuwazuru Yuki and stars Kunhiro Koyama and Kosuke Komura. The plot is certainly a little unusual, dealing with an issue that is commonly avoided by people. The disabled community are often excluded in cinema and many problems such as this are ignored. This film gives a sympathetic portrayal of the difficulties for the character of his situation. He feels resentment for his brother at what happened to him. In turn, Masato has feelings of guilt at what happened to his brother. The film is shot on a low budget with a guerrilla filmmaking style, often shot through the windows of a store, or on limited locations. However, Yuki Kuwazuru shows a talent for directing that makes it an interesting watch. There is skilful shot selection, framing and cuts that are noteworthy. The plot is kept very minimal and the film is short at just over an hour. It does feel as though it is missing a third act. The film sets up the various character dynamics and establishes the relationship between the brothers perfectly, but the film ends abruptly with an unsatisfactory resolution to their story.

“(Not) Perfect Human” is a human drama that tackles issues of disability in society and brings to the fore an issue that is rarely discussed. The sexual drives of people who are unable to act on them is something that is explored in this film. The feelings of resentment, envy, and even hatred that people might feel at the unfairness of their situation. The film does not exaggerate, but it is very emotional to see Jun struggle with his disability. In the end the film closes with no real resolution for this issue, but that is fitting. If it delivers anything it is a greater understanding of an often marginalised group.

Suffering of Ninko (2016)

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a trainee Buddhist monk with a problem: despite a religious proscription against carnal lust, he finds himself irresistible to women. As he walks through the town with his fellow monks he is accosted by women who are barely able to restrain their desire. Being dedicated to his chosen path, Ninko resists any and all temptation, but soon he begins to be visited by strange manifestations in his dreams. As he attempts to ward off the thoughts through recitation of sutras, the visions of lascivious women exposing themselves to him and luring him to unwanted thoughts become to much. He flees the temple and sets off on a pilgrimage to find some kind of solace. On his way he comes across a ronin (Hideta Iwahashi) and the two of them travel together to a remote mountain village. There they hear tell of a mysterious mountain woman (Miho Wakabayashi) who manages to entrap men with sexual desire before killing them. The samurai agrees to kill the woman, ridding the village of this fear, and sets out with Ninko to face this peculiar foe.

“Suffering of Ninko” is the debut feature of Norihiro Niwatsukino, who not only wrote and directed the story but was also responsible for the special effects and animated sequences. The story has a folkloric feel about it and this is played up with the use of narration and the interweaving of traditional-looking animation. The film has a great visual style and although the locations used are sparing it does a good job of recreating the period in costumes and sets. The cinematography by Takayuki Okazaki and Shunichiro Yamamoto is a joy to behold, reminiscent of classic period and samurai dramas with vivid colours and camera work emphasising the ambient beauty. The style of animation reflects Japanese wood-cuts or ancient calligraphy and adds to the film’s charm. Masato Tsujioka does a good job with the character of Ninko, a man who is struggling to balance his innate sexuality with his religious duties. The narration by Quoko Kudo is important in creating a tone for the film that suggests it should be read more as a moralistic fable than a true-life account. The main cast is rounded out with Hideta Iwahashi as Kanzo the ronin and Miho Wakabayashi as Yama-onna.

Although the premise of the film, a sexually irresistible man fighting off the advances of insatiable women, may sound like that of a raunchy sex comedy, in truth the film is actually far more thoughtful than this. “Suffering of Ninko” treads a fine line between the sublime and the base and plays on the apparent contradictions inherent in human nature. Ninko’s role as a priest is in constant conflict with his reality as a man and the innate sexual desires that comes with that. Sexual repression through religion has been a feature of many civilizations and here it is brought to the screen in a way that is not overly sombre, but similarly doesn’t take its subject lightly. The removal of masks by characters during his extended sexual dream suggests that Ninko sees through humanity’s seemingly respectable façade. This is further emphasised by his meeting of the woman in the forest, where she talks to him from behind a mask. Kanzo tells Ninko that he both desires sex and is repelled by it, in the same way that Kanzo desires violence but shies from it. This duality of nature is important. There is a shame attached to sex in modern society that is partly, though not entirely attributable to the control exercised by religious organizations. “Suffering of Ninko” features many scenes set outdoors and Ninko’s escape from the temple shows this return to nature narrative. He is a man struggling against instinctive desires in pursuit of something higher in the form of religious transcendence. The film is one that is worth watching as it presents a unique directorial vision that blends arthouse with low comedy, but has a genuine depth of theme and ideas.