Although the conflagration of World War II has passed into the embers of history as its veterans have died off and time has inevitably marched on, the war is important not only for its sweeping scope of destruction but because it is one of the first conflicts where artists could use the medium of film to depict and dissect the madness after it ceased to search for a shred of reason among the carnage. Though much is made of the numbers of Allied lives lost during the war, it is also important to recognize the tremendous guilt and demoralization the defeated nations of Germany and Japan suffered. It may be reductive to say, but Nazism was a nationalistic response to the tremendous war guilt of World War I. Losing has a stigma, but admitting fault is even more difficult.

Masaki Kobayashi’s 574 minute colossus The Human Condition, recently released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, makes its bold statement early. “It’s not my fault that I’m Japanese…yet it’s my worst crime that I am,” utters the film’s protagonist Kaji (Japanese megastar Tatsuya Nakadai) just a scant decade after Japanese emperor Hirohito surrendered to General MacArthur. As Kobayahi’s epic unspools, Kaji will undergo just about every sort of torture and humiliation at the hands of a Japanese society hell bent on colonialism and destroying the enemy.

Based on the six-volume book of the same title, The Human Condition may be the crowning achievement in Kobayashi’s career, which spanned less than 20 films. Though Gomikawa’s book is based on his own experiences during the war, Kobayashi also shared a similar trajectory as the author, being conscripted into the army, fighting in Manchuria, butting heads with the army’s brutality and eventually ending up in a POW camp. While nine and a half hours about World War II may sound like a lot to swallow, The Human Condition was actually made as a series of three films, each with a clear break in the middle. So rather than sit through the entire film at once, it can easily be broken into six, more easily digestible parts.

Kaji is an idealist with a strict abhorrence for the war. When the film begins he agrees to manage a mining camp in inner Manchuria where he will be in charge of Chinese prisoners in exchange for his exemption from the Army. This cowardly move, self-preservation without batting an eye, begins Kaji’s journey. “This crucial morale compromise- accepting a role in the oppressive system to avoid a worse fate for himself – is the first step in Kaji’s downward path,” writes critic Philip Kemp. Yet this devolution is a slow one. Kaji’s precious humanism is stripped away piece by piece. What begins with sadness over slapping a subordinate devolves into the eventual beating and murder of a man imprisoned with him.

Despite Kaji’s attempts to distance himself from the Japanese system he deplores, the more he tries to ameliorate the lives of his subordinates, whether they be Chinese prisoners, trainees in the army or a group of refugees he’s leading through enemy territory, Kaji’s naïve humanism eventually worsen the situation. In most situations, Kaji finds himself caught in between, enemy to the people he is trying to save and enemy to the higher-ups he defies. However, Kaji is not without good qualities. He is honorable, a good soldier and loving husband. Yet his convictions get the better of him and rather than succumb to the heartless morass of the Japanese war machine, his thrashings bring down the others around him.

Nakadai, a regular in Kobayashi’s later films and an actor often used by Akira Kurosawa, does an admirable job as the doomed Kaji. As Kaji is eventually captured by the Russians, he hopes they will treat him with more kindness than the corrupt Japanese system. Nakadai gives a masterful performance as Kaji learns one final time that his inexperienced expectations are trampled again. However, Kobayashi falters in his depiction of women. Kaji’s wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) fills her scenes with vapid platitudes and hysterical shouting. In fact, most women in the film fall into either the “whore” or “saint” category. It is particular noteworthy when Kaji is so well nuanced.

What is most astonishing about The Human Condition is its wholesale condemnation of Japan’s militarism in such a short time following World War II. It is a damning testament of a nation with a Napoleonic complex and a voice for those caught in its grotesque clutches.

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