The Human Condition is an epic trilogy set against the backdrop of World War 2 Japan and China, directed by Masaki Kobayashi between 1959 and 1961, with each film over 3 hours long. The technical proficiency with which they were made, in my judgment, stands up today as quality cinematography. The story is both epic and personal in scale.
Short summaries and some commentary on the three films are available on Wikipedia, on The Auteurs, and on Reverse Shot; and reviews are available on The New York Times, on Film Forum and on Slant Magazine.
Below is a Japanese movie trailer for The Human Condition (with English subtitles):
I will focus on the first of the three films and provide an extended summary indicating a succession of sequences that make up the plot, followed by some comments on the main character and the conflict in the story of the film. In all plot summaries some details are emphasised and some are left out. I have focused on the personal story of Kaji who has a duty, imposed by others, to manage a work-group of captive Chinese labourers but also a duty, imposed by himself, to treat the Chinese people under his care with compassion and respect.
Plot Summary (each segment corresponds to a sequence around 15 minutes long)
Kaji is transferred to run a labour camp in Lo Hu Liong, Manchuria (as an alternative to being drafted into the Army) where he will oversee Chinese captives working as slave labourers for a mine. Kaji’s fiancee Michiko decides to go with him rather than be separated.
Kaji settles into town and meets with friction from the mine management and guards, except on guard named Okishima.
Kaji begins to experience the true extent of problems related to the treatment of the captive labourers.
Kaji tries to oppose the use of ‘comfort women’ to motivate the male labourers. He also tries to report the murder of a labourer by one of the guards, but ultimately feels pressured to follow orders on both issues.
One of the comfort women and a labourer named Kao plot an escape for Kao so they can go away and be together, and Chen, a young Chinese-born Japanese labour camp employee, who Kaji relates to, works on getting some flour for his mother despite rationing. Kao’s companion seduces Chen into shutting off the camp’s power supply to enable Kao’s escape.
Kaji deals with the aftermath of an escape and the Kempeitai (miltary police) will now hold him personally responsible for ensuring there are no more escapes.
Kaji wants to keep the labourers safe in the camp, as the likelihood of being killed by Japanese soldiers after escaping is high. They want to escape. Guards plan to allow an escape to be plotted so they can foil it, scaring the labourers into compliance and receiving credit from their superiors. Kaji wants to put more trust in the labourers than Okishima does, and Okishima resorts to cruel treatment of the labourers to keep them in line because he doesn’t want to be punished along with Kaji if there is an escape.
Relationships have been split. There is hope, but danger looms – for the three major parties; Kaji, Okishima, and the labourers – as an escape plot forms. Complete or partial success for one or two of the three means failure for one or two of the others.
Chen is supposed to cut off power to the camp’s electrified fence, as a double agent to the escaping labourers while really betraying them to the guards. He fails to shut off the power when he turns back in an effort to save the escaping labourers. But when he also fails to warn them in time, they die on the fence and he deliberately runs at the fence and takes his own life.
Kaji grieves in the aftermath of the deaths, blaming himself for reluctantly striking Chen when he stole some flour, before hearing that a new group of alleged escapees will be executed.
Kaji tries to do something about the executions; his first preference is to prevent them and his second option is to protest their deaths to those in positions of power in the Japanese administration.
Kaji suffers through the execution of several men, which he is made to watch, before leading a mass gesture of defiance that ends with the remaining executions being called off.
Kaji is beaten and relieved of his duties for treason but let go… to be drafted into the Japanese Army and sent to the front. This means Kaji and Michiko will be separated from one another.
Kaji – a character with principles and integrity
According to Ryan Niemiec and Danny Wedding (as featured in the Cinema and Fiction article on their book Positive Psychology at the Movies), integrity “relates to authenticity, wholeness, and honesty. People strong in integrity ground their behavior in personal values, abide by their convictions, and treat others with respect […] eschewing pretense, hypocrisy, and subterfuge.”
Kaji maintains his own personal integrity through extreme hardships and never turns his back on his principles for personal gain. Many times throughout the three films, Kaji places the welfare of others over his own. His personal hardships, as opposed to those of people around him, could have been avoided by going along with the status quo and ignoring the suffering of people around him. Kaji, however, stands up for them despite the heavy penalties for himself.
The story conflict - not just a simple case of protagonist and antagonist
Many people teach that good stories have a protagonist and an antagonist. However, The Human Condition does not have such a clear cut singular two way division as many fictional stories and films. By that I don’t mean the conflict was ambiguous – it was quite clear – but there was no singular two way conflict to attribute as the defining conflict of the plot.
A topical comparison to clarify this is James Cameron’s Avatar. While Avatar has been compared to many films since its release, it provides a good basis for comparing the main conflicts in The Human Condition. In The Human Condition there are two groups of people, with one group in a much stronger position than the other and whose leaders have a goal that will make the people in the other group suffer. Then a character unexpectedly finds themself an insider to both groups with primary loyalty to the stronger one. Over the course of the film, the character becomes more and more aligned with the other group. At the end of the film, the character betrays the first group and asserts their loyalty to the second. This also matches the plot of The Fast and the Furious (the 2001 street racing film; not the 1955 film of the same name produced by Roger Corman). While there is also a comparison of Avatar to Pocahontas going around the internet - like the comparisons of Harry Potter and Star Wars, Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz etc that have gone around - these comparisons are based on selected details and only pay attention to elements of each story to the extent that they match the comparison. These films are all very different in many ways. As with Avatar and The Fast and the Furious, if you wanted to attribute a simplified two way conflict between a protagonist and antagonist to The Human Condition you would have to choose whether the protagonist and antagonist are two sides of Kaji’s character, or Kaji is the protagonist and the rest of the Japanese are the ensemble antagonist, or the Chinese are the ensemble protagonist and the Japanese are the ensemble antagonist etc.
As in the Cinema and Fiction article about Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, by providing conflict situations focusing on more than two characters Kobayashi presents opportunities for viewers to consider a range of aspects to the situation, beyond just a two way opposition.
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