The Human Condition III: A Soldier’s Prayer (1961)

Masaki Kobayashi’s epic trilogy comes to a close with “A Soldier’s Prayer”. After wandering from the desecration of the battle field at the end of the previous film, Koji (Tatsuya Nakadai) finds himself along with two other soldiers making their slow painful return to Manchuria. Their steps are dogged by the advancing Soviet forces and they find that the villagers they meet are less than sympathetic. Though a few Japanese still cling to the idea that the war is not yet over, it is clear that they cannot survive. All Koji wants is to return home to Michiko, but first he must trudge through the horrors of their defeat.

The film opens with a sequence that turns much of what has happened in previous films on its head. Koji is forced to kill a guard in order for them to escape detection by an enemy patrol. This leaves him with blood literally and figuratively on his hands and it is a decision that will later come back to haunt him. He can no longer separate himself from the atrocities of the war. The final film in Masaki Kobayashi’s epic “The Human Condition” trilogy is far from a triumphant send off. It shows the men of the Japanese Imperial army at their lowest ebb. The idealistic Koji of the first film is all but gone and he is left as no more than a shell. It is only his love for Michiko that keeps him putting one foot in front of another. Much of the plot also concerns the advancing Soviet troops. Koji, who has always sympathised with the communist cause, finds himself beaten and harassed as they are taken prisoner and put to work in Soviet camps. He maintains his staunch belief in doing good and strives to improve conditions, but just as in the first film he finds that power can corrupt and the leaders of the Russian forces prove no less cruel than the Japanese when they are in control. The film is packed with incident as the protagonists move from one catastrophe to another. It plays off many things that we have seen in the previous two films with references to what Koji has seen. There is also much more open philosophising in this film, with voice over narration explaining what is going through the characters mind. It is a time for reflection. Japan is soon to be crushed by American and Soviet Imperialism. It has reached the limits of its power and is about to suffer a precipitous fall. The acting is once again top notch with Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance a joy to behold. He undergoes a complete transformation throughout the trilogy, from naïve humanist to someone who is struggling to salvage the last scrap of his humanity.

“A Soldier’s Prayer” is about the futility of war and the complete dehumanisation of individuals. It plays heavily on emphasising the importance of power in individual relations. Here we have a reversal of the first film with the Japanese soldiers captured and put to work for the Soviet cause. There is delusion amongst certain Japanese officers who still believe they should continue fighting, while Kaji is convinced that it is over. The most shocking thing about this film, and the trilogy as a whole, is that it shuns the heroic myths of war in favour of brutal realism. Kaji is not perfect, just trying to do his best in the worst possible situation. There is no victory for any side in this war. There certainly appears, in contrast with most trilogies, to be a definite downward spiral to events, with this seeing the characters and situation hit rock bottom. This makes for a powerful drama that is unlike anything else. This lengthy trilogy contains some outstanding sequences and acting. It also delves into the psychology of war and the absolute horror of it in a way that many films shy away from. A masterpiece of storytelling from start to finish with a potent message that remains relevant today.

The Human Condition II: Road to Eternity (1959)

At the end of “No Greater Love”, part one of this epic film trilogy, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is handed a conscription notice. This film takes place a couple of years after the events of that film and sees Kaji in his role as a private in the Imperial Army. It is a tough life, but Kaji has decided to keep his head down and get through it. In fact, he proves himself an excellent shot and would be a model soldier if not for his belief in pacifism. A fellow recruit, Obara (Kunie Tanaka), in contrast is a poor soldier and repeatedly finds himself facing the wrath of his superiors and fellow conscripts. Kaji faces suspicion not only for his empathy with Obara, but his close relationship with fellow soldier Shinjo (Kei Sato), as the two of them are believed to have communist sympathies. Kaji battles with his decision to remain in the army rather than desert as it goes against many of his principles.

“Road to Eternity” brings back only the characters of Kaji and his wife Michiko. The rest of the film is a completely new story that takes us to another part of the war, that is basic training and the front lines of Japan’s Imperial progress. Again the film creates strong characters. As in the first we focus on Kaji and the antagonism his pacificism causes. He is abused verbally and physically, but never wavers from his convictions. As with the first film the story is told on a large canvas and with many characters. This makes the scenes in the barracks full of life and vibrancy. When they are digging the pits it also gives a sense of the monumental scale of events. The climactic battle sequence is incredible to watch with tanks and men scrambling across trenches as the ground explodes around them. As with much of the rest of the film it knows to keep its main focus narrow, while the broader strokes of the war are painted around. The character of Obara gives the audience an insight into the dehumanising process of army life. Similarly, at the end Kaji shares a moment with a young recruit that gives an emotional and relatable coda to the incomprehensible horror of the full battle.

While the first film showed the cruelty of Japanese forces, this film gives a more pointed rebuke to the intentions of the government and Imperial Army of Japan. Before the film’s closing tank battle, characters are already discussing the inevitable failure of this venture. The Italian and German surrender means it is a matter of time before Japan falls. There are several men who are still firmly committed to the Ultimate Victory promised by their leaders. Kaji again is a solitary voice, telling them he would much rather be home with his wife than fighting these pointless battles. However, Kaji is also in turmoil over his own decision to remain in the army. He questions whether it is not more cowardly to remain than to flee when he knows that he is part of the problem. “Road to Eternity” continues the story of Kaji with a story that stands easily on its own. It creates a whole new scenario that plays off his experiences in the first film, while introducing new characters and ideas.

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.

Kwaidan (1964)

An anthology of four short films based on the popular supernatural tales of Lafcadio Hearn. The first film “The Black Hair” tells the story of a former retainer brought low by the death of his lord. After leaving his wife and marrying another woman he begins to regret his new life and returns to his old home to find that things are not as he expects. The second story “The Woman of the Snow” tells the tale of a couple of woodcutters trapped in a blizzard. The older man is killed by a mysterious pale woman who takes pity on the younger man allowing him to live if he swears not to tell another what he has seen. In the next tale “Hoichi the Earless” the spirits of an ancient battle visit a blind biwa player who is led to the spirit world to play for them. The final story “In a Cup of Tea” tells of a man who is troubled by spirits after seeing a face appear in his cup.

The four stories contained in “Kwaidan” are connected by a common theme of the supernatural, though they cut directly between each with no common characters. It is therefore more akin to watching four short films than a single narrative. The film respects the source material of the Lafcadio Hearn book, which provides a great base. Each of the paranormal tales builds to a twist ending or an inexplicable occurrence and with a short running time none of them outstay their welcome. Director Masaki Kobayashi does a great job of bringing the stories to life. There is a sense of theatre to the film with amazing sets and painted backgrounds giving the impression that these are retellings of ancient legends. However, this does nothing to lessen the impact of the drama with good acting and sound design along with the set decoration creating an impressive atmosphere of dread. There is also an interesting use of light, with blues and reds used to great effect. It is a perfect blend of theatre techniques with the medium of film.

Intriguing supernatural stories that are brought to the screen in timelessly beautiful versions. Many of the stories warn of the danger of spirits or focus on the horror of death. I would highly recommend this for fans of folklore and ghost stories. The design elements, music and acting perfectly capture the eerie atmosphere of Hearn’s tales.