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.

The Sword of Doom (1966)

The film opens as an old man and his daughter are crossing the hills, almost at the end of their long journey. When the girl rushes off to get water, her grandfather is brutally cut down by a samurai, without provocation. This samurai is Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai). We follow him back to his village where he is to take on a rival for the position of leader of their swordfighting school. When his opponent’s wife, Ohama (Michiyo Aratama), pleads with him to let her husband win, Ryunosuke arranges to meet her late at night at a mill where he then rapes her. Spurred on by his anger, his opponent, Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichiro Nakaya), lunges at Ryunosuke after their bout ends. Ryunosuke, an unmatched skill with the sword, counters, striking a fatal blow. He leaves town, cutting down a number of men who attempt to take revenge for the slaying of their leader. Two years later the action has moved to Edo, where Ryunosuke is now living with Ohama. He joins a group of mercenaries, a perfect fit for someone lacking any moral compass. Ryunosuke continues in his violent path, caring little for those around him, and killing without compunction. Later, he is troubled by visions of those he has killed, striking out in a blind rage as the ghosts of his past come back to haunt him.

“The Sword of Doom” is based on the book “The Great Bodhisattva Pass” by Kaizan Nakazato, previously adapted into works of the same title as the novel. The screenplay is by Shinobu Hashimoto, who worked on a number of Akira Kurosawa films including “Rashomon” and “The Hidden Fortress”. Director Kihachi Okamoto brings forth the deadly threat of the period with expert use of long, still takes broken by flashes of violent action sequences. The opening scene, with its shock death early on shows the audience that death and violence lurk constantly behind the seemingly calm surface of rules and ritual commonly assumed of the period. The duel between Ryunosuke Tsukue and Bunnojo Utsuki is a masterclass in creating tension; as the two face off against each other every tiny movement becomes cause for concern. This is achieved through firstly setting up both characters as a serious threat. The audience is more than aware that either could easily kill the other and most probably will. The soundtrack throughout, with the clack of bokken breaking the silences, perfectly captures this sense of dread, making you aware of the frailty of human life and how quickly it can be snatched away. Nakadai’s Ryunosuke is a heartless anti-hero, compelling yet hard to feel any remorse for. The rest of the cast act as a perfect foil for him, reflecting the evil in his own heart by their own purity of purpose and display of emotional depth. Yuzo Kayama plays Hyoma Utsuki, the brother of the fallen duellist and intent on revenge. Michiyo Aratama, as Ryunosuke’s unwilling wife, offers an insight into the struggles of women in this period characterised by violence and an almost pathological reverence for the “way of the sword”. Toshiro Mifune is well-cast as Toranosuke Shimada, the leader of a swordfighting school and a match in skill to Ryunosuke. Yoko Naito plays Omatsu, who having lost her grandfather at the beginning of the film, is part of a major subplot as she attempts to first win over the local lord, and later finds employment as a courtesan, coming face to face with her grandfather’s killer at the film’s climax.

“The Sword of Doom” portrays the ultimate anti-hero in Ryunosuke Tsukue. He is a man with few virtues other than his ultimate skill with a katana. There is a repeated line in the film about the reflection of a man’s soul in his sword. This link is perhaps the key to understanding the message of the film. Ryunosuke has poured every part of himself into his sword, he is no longer capable of compassion or empathy, to many extents he is the embodiment of a vengeful spirit, demonic in his dedication to swordfighting. His cold expression speaks to the emptiness at the heart of his character. By dedicating himself to the art of war, he has become the horror of war itself, with no room left in him for love, friendship, honour, mercy, or any other trait that might mark him as human. The final act of the film sees him crumble in completely, no longer able to hold himself together and becoming no more than his anger and swordsmanship. The final shot of the film sees his face contorted, having lost all humanity he is doomed to die or be endlessly tortured by what he has done.