Released in 6 acts over 3 entries, The Human Condition is considered Masaki Kobayashi's greatest work: an epic humanist tragedy, nearly 10 hours in length, set against World War II Japan. The production was directly adapted from a six-volume novel by Junpei Gomikawa, and also drew from Kobayashi's own experience as a pacifist attempting to survive in WWII Japan.
The setting is Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the last two years of the war, 1943-45. The film centers on Kaji (played by Tatsuya Nakadai), a smitten scholar with strong convictions in pacifism and socialism. The film presents Kaji attempting to retain his life and soul through various moral and ethical trials - all the while trying to get back to the woman he loves.
This film is notoriously painful to watch, due to its crushing theme and atmosphere. However, it's often considered to be the greatest singular piece of Japanese cinema ever created for its all-encompassing scope, its incredible ability to utterly dehumanize humanity and its incredible character development.note
The Human condition has 3 entries:
- The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959): Kaji is a manager in a Japanese mining corporation in Manchuria. He is reluctant to marry his sweetheart Michiko because he could get drafted into the army and sent off to fight in the war with China at any time. Kaji is a liberal, and a paper he writes on treating the company's Chinese labor force more humanely gets him sent off to a mine in the boonies, to test his theory, and with the promise of an exemption from military service if things work out. He and Michiko marry and they go off to the mine, but things do not work out, not at all.
- The Human Condition II: Road to Eternity (1959): Kaji has been conscripted into the Japanese army. His time in the army is particularly unpleasant because the authorities know about his liberal sympathies. Kaji tries to protect a particularly weak soldier named Obara, then, after he's promoted to private first-class, he tries to protect his men from some particularly brutal artillery men. Things then go From Bad to Worse when the Red Army comes over the border and attacks the Japanese.
- The Human Condition III: A Soldier's Prayer (1961): Kaji and the few men left with him head south in an attempt to rejoin what's left of the Kwantung Army. Eventually, when it becomes clear that there's no hope of rejoining the army, Kaji, along with a small band of soldiers and civilian refugees, turn their thoughts to escape. They struggle on until they're finally surrounded and forced to surrender to the Soviets, but Kaji still hopes to escape and find Michiko again.
Tropes featured in the film:
- Anti-Hero: Mostly of the Knight In Sour Armor type in Kaji near the end of the film.
- An Arm and a Leg: A soldier runs off to get orders during the Russian attack, until a tank shell explodes right in front of him. All we see is a single severed arm resting on the edge of the shell hole.
- Battle Trophy: Kageyama has an American helmet as a keepsake.
- Being Good Sucks: Kaji is often the only one willing to be altruistic, and he has to fight an uphill battle trying to defend people's rights.
- Boot Camp Episode: Much of Road to Eternity deals with Kaji's time as a new recruit soldier, and the brutal, pitiless savagery of the Imperial Japanese Army.
- The Bus Came Back: Kaji's friend Kageyama appears briefly in the early scenes of the first film, where he is bummed out about having gotten his notice of induction into the army. A good four hours later in the second film, he shows up on the front line in Manchuria as a 2nd Lieutenant and the commanding officer of Kaji's squad.
- Crapsack World: Manchuria in the 1930s and 1940s, where Japanese occupiers run brutal, nightmarish slave labor mining camps, and armies fight a savage, pitiless war.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: All the cruel, merciless instructors in the training sequence of Road to Eternity. PFC Yoshida drives Obara to suicide by relentless bullying.
- Driven to Suicide: Private Obara, a weakling who really has no business in the army, kills himself after nonstop, relentless bullying by just about everybody in the unit except for Kaji.
- Dutch Angle: A lot of Dutch Angles are used in the sequence where the Japanese are beheading Chinese prisoners. Notably, after Kao insists that he will walk to his own execution, the camera tilts back to straight horizontal.
- Epic Movie: As a single film, it's 9 hours, 47 minutes long without any intermissions. So it definitely qualifies.
- Evil Colonialist: The Japanese in the first film, who ruthlessly exploit the Chinese miners in Manchuria, using them as quasi-slave labor. Later, they acquire Chinese POWs that they use as slave labor. Kaji tries to make things better for the miners, and pays for it, big time.
- Fallen Hero: Kaji is forced to change purely for his and his own peer's survival - although he becomes less and less concerned with others as time goes on.
- A Father to His Men: When Kaji gets promoted to PFC and is assigned a squad of new recruits, he tries to protect them from the vicious sociopathy of the artillery veterans in the regiment.
- Humans Are Bastards: Even though Kaji risks himself to help others, nearly everyone else is willing to push him aside for a bag of rice.
- The Idealist: Kaji, of the wide-eyed kind at the start.
- Inherent in the System: Nearly everyone is self-serving - implying that in a crisis situation where civilization is collapsing the masses will do anything; morality no longer exists.
- Kick the Dog: The labor foreman demonstrates the deadliness of the electric fence to the POW slave laborers by picking up a dog and throwing the dog into the fence. It is killed.
- Kubrick Stare: Naruto, one of the recruits being tortured in a scene from Road to Eternity, does this right before he snaps and attacks the NCOs.
- Laughing Mad: Onodera flips out and starts laughing at the very end of Road to Eternity, screaming that the Russians aren't so tough and he'll kill them all. Kaji strangles him to death, to stop him from giving them away, and has a major These Hands Have Killed moment afterwards.
- Meadow Run: Slag Heap Run, as Kaji and Michiko run to each other in the last scene of the first movie, after he's been released from the Kenpeitai but only a day before he has to report to the army.
- Mood Whiplash: One of the few non-horrific parts of the entire saga is a scene where Kaji and his work detail are out on the steppe, building fortifications, laughing and joking about their wives. This is followed by an officer gathering the men to tell them that the Soviets have attacked.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Despite Kaji's best intentions, his altruistic acts towards others often puts them in a worse-off situation.
- Ominous Fog: The mining camp is wreathed in fog for the scene where the Chinese prisoners make a doomed escape attempt, as Japanese guards lie in wait outside.
- Pin-Pulling Teeth: Kaji does this in the battle sequence at the end of Road to Eternity, as the Soviet tanks bear down on them.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: It's based on Junpei Gomikawa's six-part novel series. 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 him in this regard. If any scenes were in the book, but not the script, they would be added in when possible.
- Protagonist Journey to Villain: On an epic scale.
- Sex Slave: The Chinese "comfort women" held in the mining camp to service both the Japanese overseers and the Chinese laborers.
- Sound-Only Death: When the Chinese prisoners hit the electrified fence that as it turns out is still electrified—Chen never got the power cut off—there's no sound, only the visual of the electricity sparking as they fry against the wire.
- Spiteful Spit: Kao, a particularly spirited Chinese POW/slave, spits on the ground when Kaji makes empty promises about how the workers won't be killed.
- Star-Crossed Lovers: The only motivation that remains in Kaji throughout the film is his desire to get back to his love, Michiko.
- These Hands Have Killed: Kaji, who has tried through two movies to remain faithful to his moral code, breaks down at the end of Road to Eternity after killing Onodera to keep him from giving their position away.Kaji: I'm a monster, but I'm still alive!
- Toplessness from the Back: Michiko in Road to Eternity, although in this case it's not really for Fanservice. It's actually an emotional scene after she makes a difficult journey to the fort to see Kaji. Knowing full well that he may never see her again, he asks her to take her clothes off, so he can burn the image of her into his mind.
- Tragic Hero: Kaji, and his attempts to be good.
- Training from Hell: The horrifically brutal training sequences in the first part of Road to Eternity, where all the draftees endure brutal punishment, and Obara kills himself.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Kobayashi based much of the film on his very own experiences in the Japanese army during WWII.
- Voiceover Letter: Early in Part II Kaji's CO reads a Voiceover Letter from his wife, who pleads for him to give Kaji a break.
- Whatever Happened to the Mouse?: The last we see of Kaji's friend Shinjo is him taking advantage of the chaos caused by a fire on the prairie to run off and desert to the Russian lines. We never find out if he made it or what happened when/if he got there.