The Human Condition (人間の條件, Ningen no jōken) is a Japanese epic war drama film trilogy made between 1959 and 1961, based on the six-volume novel published from 1956 to 1958 by Junpei Gomikawa.
It was directed by Masaki Kobayashi and stars Tatsuya Nakadai. The trilogy follows the life of Kaji, a Japanese pacifist and socialist, as he tries to survive in the totalitarian and oppressive world of World War II-era Japan. Altogether, as a single film it is 9 hours, 39 minutes long, not including intermissions, making it one of the longest narrative films ever made.
The Human Condition follows the journey of the well-intentioned, yet naïve Kaji who transitions from being a labour camp supervisor to an Imperial Army soldier and eventually Soviet POW. Constantly trying to rise above a corrupt system, Kaji time and time again finds his morals an impediment rather than an advantage.
Part 01: No Greater Love (1959)
In World War II-era Japan, Kaji marries his sweetheart Michiko despite his misgivings about the future. To gain exemption from military service, he moves his wife to a large mining operation in Japanese-colonised Manchuria, where he serves as a labour chief assigned to a workforce of Chinese prisoners.
Kaji aggravates the camp bureaucracy by implementing humane practices to improve both labour conditions and productivity, clashing with foremen, administrators, and the Kenpeitai military police. Ultimately his efforts to grant autonomy to the POWs are undermined by scheming officials, resulting in the electrocution of several prisoners and the beheading of others accused of attempted escape. When Kaji protests the brutality, he is tortured and then drafted into the army to relieve the camp supervisors of his disruptive presence.
Part 02: Road to Eternity (1959)
Kaji, having lost his exemption from military service by protecting Chinese prisoners from unjust punishment, has now been conscripted into the Japanese Kwantung Army. Under suspicion of leftist sympathies, Kaji is assigned the toughest duties in his military recruiting class despite his excellent marksmanship and strong barracks discipline. His wife Michiko pleads for understanding in a letter to his commanding officer and later pays Kaji a highly unorthodox visit to his military facility to express her love and solidarity. Kaji considers escaping across the front with his friend Shinjo, who is similarly under suspicion due to his brother’s arrest for communist activities. Distrusting the idea that desertion will lead to freedom, and being faithful to his wife, Kaji ultimately commits to continued military service despite his hardships.
When Obara, a poor-sighted, weak soldier in Kaji’s unit, kills himself after troubles from home are compounded by ceaseless punishment and humiliation from other soldiers, Kaji demands disciplinary action from his superiors for PFC Yoshida, the ring leader of the troops who pushed Obara over the brink. While Yoshida is not disciplined, Kaji helps to seal his fate by refusing to rescue the vicious soldier when both men are trapped in quicksand while in pursuit of Shinjo, who finally seized the opportunity to desert. Kaji is released from hospitalisation related to the quicksand incident and is transported to the front with his unit.
Kaji is asked to lead a group of recruits and promoted to private first class. He accepts his assignment with the condition that his men will be separated from a group of veteran artillerymen, who practice intense cruelty as punishment for the slightest offenses. Often taking the punishment for his men, Kaji is personally beaten many times by these veterans, despite his relationship with Second Lieutenant Kageyama. Demoralised by the fall of Okinawa and continually battling with the veterans, Kaji and most of his men are sent on a month-long trench digging work detail. Their work is interrupted by a Soviet army onslaught that produces heavy Japanese casualties and the death of Kageyama. Forced to defend flat terrain with little fortification and a light armament, the Japanese troops are overrun by Soviet tanks, and untold men are killed. Kaji survives the battle but is forced to kill a maddened Japanese soldier with his bare hands to prevent Soviet soldiers from discovering his position. The film ends with Kaji uttering “I’m a monster, but I’m going to stay alive!” and running and screaming in desperate search of any other Japanese survivors.
Part 03: A Soldier’s Prayer (1961)
The Japanese forces having been shattered during the events of the second film, Kaji and some comrades attempt to elude capture by Soviet forces and find the remnants of the Kwantung army in South Manchuria. Following the bayonetting of a Russian soldier, however, Kaji is increasingly sick of combat and decides to abandon any pretence of re-joining the army. Instead, he leads fellow soldiers and a growing number of civilian refugees as they attempt to flee the warzone and return to their homes. Lost in a dense forest, the Japanese begin to infight, and eventually many die of hunger, poisonous mushrooms, and suicide. Emerging from the forest on their last legs, Kaji and the refugees encounter regular Japanese army troops, who deny them food as if they were deserters. Carrying on further south, Kaji and his associates find a well-stocked farmhouse that is soon ambushed by Chinese peasant fighters. A prostitute to whom Kaji had shown kindness is killed by these partisans, and Kaji vows to fight them rather than escape. However, overpowered by these newly armed Chinese forces, Kaji and his fellow soldiers are nearly killed and are forced to run through a flaming wheat field to survive. Kaji then encounters a group of fifty Japanese army holdouts who are attempting to resume combat in alliance with Chiang Kai-shek, whom they believe will be supported by American forces, in a civil war against Russian-backed Communist Chinese. Kaji, a believer in pacifism and socialism, rejects this strategy as misguided and doomed to failure. Eventually, Kaji and a group of Japanese soldiers, whose number has grown to fifteen, fight through Russian patrols and find an encampment of women and old men who seek their protection. Kaji is driven to continue moving in search of his wife but decides to surrender to Soviet forces when the encampment is besieged.
Captured by the Red Army and subjected to treatment that echoes the violence meted out to the Chinese in the first film, Kaji and his protégé Terada resist the Japanese officers who run their work camp in cooperation with Soviet forces. While such resistance amounts to no more than picking through the Russians’ garbage for scraps of food and wearing gunnysacks to protect them from increasingly colder weather, Kaji is branded a saboteur and judged by a Soviet tribunal to harsh labour. With a corrupt translator and no other means of talking to the Russian officers with whom he feels ideological sympathies, Kaji becomes increasingly disillusioned by conditions in the camp and with Communist orthodoxy. When Terada is driven to exhaustion and death by harsh treatment from the collaborating officer Kirihara, Kaji decides to kill the man and then escape the camp alone. Still dreaming of finding his wife and abused as a worthless beggar and as a “Japanese devil” by the Chinese peasants of whom he begs mercy, Kaji eventually succumbs to the cold and dies in the vast winter wasteland covered in snow.
The film was based upon Junpei Gomikawa’s six-part autobiographical novel of the same name, which strongly resonated with the director Masaki Kobayashi. Like the novel’s protagonist, he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II and stationed in Japan-occupied Manchuria. Self-described as a pacifist and socialist, he had refused to rise above the rank of a private, feeling opposed to both the war and Japan’s imperialist ideology at the time. Kobayashi adhered to such views for the rest of his life, always remaining critical of Japan’s conformist culture.
Remembering his own experiences in the war and feeling connected to the novel’s events, Kobayashi secured the rights from Gomikawa and petitioned Shochiku to approve the project. Due to the subject matter directly criticizing the actions of Japan during World War II, the studio was initially unenthusiastic about the film and only relented when Kobayashi threatened to quit. During filming, Kobayashi aimed to be as faithful to Gomikawa’s work as possible; he had a copy of the original novel on hand to help in this regard. If any scenes were in the book, but not the script, they would be added in when possible. The actors were usually notified of these changes a day in advance to memorise their new lines. Because of this striving for accuracy, Gomikawa was reportedly very pleased with the adaptation.
Tatsuya Nakadai, who had previously appeared in Kobayashi’s The Thick-Walled Room and Black River, was specifically chosen by the director to play the protagonist Kaji. Much of the supporting cast were veteran film and stage actors who had previously worked with Kobayashi on other projects, or who would later become regulars with the director. The film marked Nakadai’s first leading role, and he later recalled his performance as being exceptionally challenging. Certain fight scenes called for actual contact, leading to the actor’s face becoming swollen. The final sequence additionally involved Nakadai lying face-down in a field, the cameras not stopping until he was completely covered in a mound of snow.
As opposed to hiring Shochiku staff, the crew from the independent studio Ninjin Club were used instead. Kobayashi utilized cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima for the film, having been an admirer of his work for director Fumio Kamei. Despite featuring extensive dialogue in Mandarin, none of the actors were actually Chinese. These lines were spoken phonetically with accompanying burnt-in Japanese subtitles on all prints. Non-Japanese and Russians were seemingly used for the roles of Soviet soldiers, though only Ed Keene and Ronald Self are credited. Due to the non-existent China-Japan relations at the time, Kobayashi scouted out filming locations in Hokkaido for the Manchurian setting over two months. Including pre-production, The Human Condition took four years to complete.
Noted for its length, The Human Condition runs at nine hours, and thirty-nine minutes (579 minutes) and would be the longest film in Kobayashi’s career.
The film was released as a trilogy in Japan between 1959 and 1961, while shown at various film festivals internationally. All-night marathons of the entire trilogy were occasionally shown in Japan; screenings with Tatsuya Nakadai in attendance typically sold out. In 1999, Image Entertainment released The Human Condition on three separate Region 0 DVDs. These discs were criticised for their image and sound quality and translation. On 08 September 2009, The Criterion Collection released the entire trilogy with restored image, new translation and supplements. Arrow Video released a dual-format (Blu-ray and DVD) edition of The Human Condition in September 2016. This release included an introduction and select scene commentary by film critic Philip Kemp and supplements, including a booklet with new writing by film scholar David Desser.
While the trilogy earned considerable controversy at the time of its release in Japan, The Human Condition was critically acclaimed, won several international awards, and established Masaki Kobayashi as one of the most important Japanese directors of the generation.
At the 21st Venice International Film Festival, the film won the San Giorgio Prize and Pasinetti Award.
The Human Condition Series
- Part 01: No Greater Love (1959).
- Part 02: Road to Eternity (1959).
- Part 03: A Soldier’s Prayer (1961).
Production & Filming Details
- Masaki Kobayashi.
- Shigeru Wakatsuki (all parts).
- Masaki Kobayashi (II and III only).
- Masaki Kobayashi (all parts).
- Zenzo Matsuyama (all parts).
- Koichi Inagaki (III only).
- Chuji Kinoshita.
- Yoshio Miyajima.
- Keiichi Uraoka.
- Ninjin Club.
- Release Date:
- Part 01: 15 January 1959.
- Part 02: 20 November 1959.
- Part 03: 28 January 1961.
- Rating: 18.
- Running Time:
- All Parts: 579 minutes.
- Part 01: 208 minutes.
- Part 02: 181 minutes.
- Part 03: 190 minutes.
- Country: Japan.
- Language: Japanese, Mandarin, and Russian.