quinta-feira, 30 de maio de 2013

The Human Condition (人間の條件) 1959-1961 by Masaki Kobayashi

by CarolGluck

This famous Japanese film re-creates the brutal end of World War II in Manchuria. Powerful in image and message, the movie is also long. Its three parts, lasting more than nine hours, present an often riveting, nearly unrelenting depiction of the inhumanity of war.

Americans and Japanese have long tended to think of the Second World War in Asia in terms of the Pacific War—from the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. But Japanese aggression began in Manchuria in 1931 and escalated to total war against China in 1937. The China War, in fact, was the reason for Pearl Harbor, which was a preemptive attack to knock out the United States so that Japan could prevail in the war on the continent.

Japan’s “Fifteen-Year War” in Asia, which began in Manchuria, came to a particularly bitter end there—an end that this film shows to have epitomized the cruelty of Japan’s military adventurism. Japan had touted Manchuria, a Japanese puppet state since 1932 under the supposed rule of China’s “last emperor,” as the jewel in its colonial crown—its defensive “lifeline,” industrial showcase, imperial granary, and racially harmonious “new paradise” for hundreds of thousands of Japanese peasant-settlers.

But the paradise, which was grim from the start for Chinese caught in the iron grip of Japan’s Kwantung Army, became, in the last years of the war, a living hell for everyone—Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans alike— as the Kwantung Army, the war, and the empire descended together to the lowest depths and then collapsed.

The film begins in 1943, well after Japan’s early victories have turned into a string of bloody and irreversible defeats. Taxed by the demands of a losing war, the colonial machines of wartime Manchuria grind on as they had before, but more brutally. Into this world comes Kaji, the idealistic hero of the film, who stands for decency and humanity in a military system that has no room for such niceties.

In Part I (the part most frequently seen), Kaji is a civilian employee of a state-connected steel company in Manchuria, who is sent off to the mines with a derisory challenge: to put his high-minded ideas for improving labor conditions into actual practice. Like many Japanese university students who had espoused socialism before the war, Kaji disagreed with the militarists but did not, in his words, have the courage to go to prison to resist them. Now he commits himself to do all he can to help the exploited workers, by acting at least like “a good dog who can lead the sheep to greener pastures.”

scores of so-called “comfort women” (Asians recruited to serve the Japanese army as prostitutes), and six hundred “special laborers,” halfstarved Chinese civilians transported from Japanese-occupied areas in North China. These prisoners become Kaji’s charges, and in their defense he confronts the limits of his own humanism, which falters in his inability to stand up to the military authorities. In retaliation for a foiled escape, three Chinese are executed while Kaji is forced to watch. As punishment for his attempted intervention in the execution, Kaji himself is drafted. Leaving his wife, depicted as the sentimental embodiment of Japanese woman- and wifeliness, Kaji becomes part of the heartless military machine that he—and the director—so despise.

Part II is all heartlessness as army order unravels during 1944 and 1945. Short now of men, materiel, and discipline, the Japanese military command calls troops away from Manchuria to defend Okinawa and the home islands, replacing them with young boys and middle-aged men who are supplied with birch lances as weapons against Soviet tanks. Once again Kaji tries to reconcile his sense of duty with his idealism: He is both a model soldier and the defender of his squad of brutalized recruits. When Soviet tanks roll into Manchuria on August 9, 1945, they literally (in a stunning scene) roll over the trenches of Kaji and his men. He has told them to hold their fire and save themselves, but only three survive, and Kaji himself has learned to kill.

Part III is about surviving and killing of a different sort. With the war over and Manchuria in Soviet hands, the Kwantung Army and Japanese civilian settlers are fleeing, like Kaji, toward the south. Brutality, so recently the specialty of the Japanese military, has become a free-for-all. Not only retreating Japanese soldiers but also Chinese peasants, guerrillas, and advancing Russian troops join in rape, murder, and pillage in the Manchurian countryside. Having expected more humane behavior from his Soviet socialist comrades, Kaji experiences yet another disillusionment.

When Kaji’s continuing good intentions land him in a POW camp doing the sort of forced labor he had once directed, a Japanese soldier turned collaborator calls him naive “for trying to lead a serious life in mad times.” In the end even Kaji cannot keep it up and finally deserts, stumbling deliriously homeward toward his wife through the vast Manchurian winter. He dies alone, the snow soon mounding over his corpse.

This last scene is powerful and famous—but is it history? The answer, in general, is yes. Much of the book on which the film was based— though not the death scene in the snow—derived from the author’s own experience in wartime Manchuria. He had, so to speak, been there. The director was there, too, if only for a short time as one of the green recruits he portrays sympathetically. Both author and director knew the personal pain of the young leftist intellectual who deplored and opposed, but did not resist, the regime of empire and the depredations of war.

While the main outlines of the story are accurate, the brush of characterization is broad. The hero, of course, is superheroic, his marriage sentimentalized, and Manchuria itself the stuff of inverted colonial romance. Stereotypes of Korean thugs, Chinese harlots, cruel Soviet officers, and even brutal Japanese military police present a cardboard parade of figures (and prejudices) marching in nasty unison. Still, to say that not every Soviet foot soldier was a rapist is not to gainsay the general fact that everything in the film probably happened—and not just once but repeatedly. At issue is not the reality of one scene or another but the way in which we remember war.

The Human Condition is one of the most important antiwar films of postwar Japan. It reflects the sense during the 1950s that what Japanese call the “personal experience of war” could act as a lodestone for memory against the recurrence of such a catastrophe. The military (and, by extension, Japanese society as a whole, which exacted similar obedience to obligation) was cast as the villain. The ordinary recruit (or the ordinary Japanese) thus became the victim—and the ordinary Chinese, the victim once removed. Humanism, which meant treating human beings as valuable in themselves, appeared as an antidote to the mindless triumphs of the imperial system.

Now, many decades later, this view of the human condition seems too simple. Antiwar films that concentrate on the human dimension, like the Vietnam movies depicting war at the platoon level, can leave unasked and unanswered the larger question of how wars come about in the first place and what might have been done—by human beings—to prevent them. Kaji’s tragedy was his heroic ability to go the distance without questioning the direction of the road others had laid for him to travel.

The execution sequence - from Part 2 of Kobayashi's The Human Condition - confronts Kaji (Nakadai Tatsuya) with the impossibility of the facade he has been trying to sustain

Sake cup tray with Manchurian flag design. Manchuria was a puppet state of Japan from 1932 to 1945. The pattern has both a Manchurian flag and a Japanese flag. In the center is a partial map of China, showing Manchuria. Among the places labeled are Jilin Province, Dairen, Port Arthur, Xinjing (the Japanese-made capital), and many others. Korea is also labeled at the bottom. A combat helmet, military star, and cherry blossoms complete the pattern. The characters on the reverse read 'Kanto-gun [Kwantung Army] Medical Unit, Morishima.'  


The 1,500,000 Japanese left in Manchuria at the end of the war included 600,000 military prisoners, of whom huge numbers were shipped to Soviet labor camps in Siberia. Of the civilian population of 270,000 Japanese settlers, 80,000 died— some at the hands of the Chinese and the Russians, others from starvation or suicide. About 140,000 civilians were eventually repatriated to Japan, only to find that their contributions toward building the “new paradise” in Manchukuo were little appreciated at home. The jewel in Japan’s imperial crown had turned to paste at a terrible cost to both Chinese and Japanese.


The film (1959-61) was based on Junpei Gomikawa’s six-volume novel of the same title (1956-58)—which, despite its formidable length, sold 250,000 copies. The movie, listed for a time in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest feature film ever made, was also a surprising success despite its length and subject. For years it was possible to revive a Tokyo theater’s fortunes with a through-the-night showing of all three parts of The Human Condition. The film made actor Tatsuya Nakadai famous and gave director Masaki Kobayashi a basis for future cinematic expressions of social protest—including his masterpiece, Harakiri (Ritual Suicide, 1962)

Northeast Asia

Consisting of three provinces in northeastern China between Siberia and Korea, Manchuria became the object of imperialist rivalry between Russia and Japan in the late nineteenth century. The Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, brought Japan colonial territory in South Manchuria. Japan seized the whole of Manchuria in 1931 and established the puppet state of Manchukuo. The Soviets occupied Manchuria in 1945, and it was finally returned to Chinese sovereignty one year later.

Empire of the Sun

In the 1850s, Japan felt the threat of Western imperialism as European powers began new encroachments into Asia. Japan was spared the experience of colonization—partly because the United States, which took the main initiative in approaching Japan, wanted trade more than territory and partly because Japan responded rapidly by adopting the ways of Western civilization, which included seeking an empire of its own. That empire was near-flung, encompassing Asian territory mostly close to home: Taiwan, Korea, southern Sakhalin (from Russia), South Manchuria, and after World War I the former German islands in the South Pacific. Manchukuo, established in Manchuria in 1932, was different. Mixing military empire, economic planning, and social utopianism, Japan undertook the prototype of what it later vainly promoted as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

World War II As We Don’t Know It

As its name indicates, the Second World War was a global conflict. For the United States, the end of the war meant the defeat of the Axis powers and the start of the Cold War. But for Asia it meant that and much more, as even the single case of Manchuria shows. Its empire gone, Japan moved toward peace, democracy, and alliance with its former enemy, the United States. Meanwhile China, finally freed from its Japanese predators, was engulfed in a civil war, which the Communists won in 1949, their strong support among the peasantry having been greatly expanded by the experience of fighting the Anti-Japanese War (the Chinese name for World War II). The ensuing struggle among Soviet, Chinese, and Korean Communists to establish their respective versions of socialism continued for decades, and a divided Korea represented a postwar legacy still unresolved more than a half century later.

Later ...

Public memory of the Second World War has a history of its own. In 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war revealed how much had changed since the 1950s, when this film was made—and how much had not. For decades Japanese had kept the focus of memory fixed on the Pacific War, the Japanese-American part of the conflict.

In this respect the film’s stark remembering of Japanese actions in Manchuria was a worthy exception to the more general forgetting of the China War. Chinese, Koreans, and other Asians had not, of course, forgotten what Japan had done to them. But it was only with the end of the Cold War and the growing importance of Asia during the 1990s that Japanese memory began to shift. The military exploitation of Asian “comfort women” depicted in this film had long been officially ignored or denied.

But it became an international issue during the early 1990s, when Korean women demanded compensation for the horrors visited upon them. Japanese prime ministers embarked on a series of “apology tours" to Asian countries, and people began to speak of the Asia-Pacific War, restoring at least the name of the war to its proper place.

Other parts of the story remained immobile in the amber of memory. The controversy in the United States over the planned 1995 exhibit of the Enota Gay, the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, demonstrated again how deep emotions run in any national memory of war. In Japan, one of the deepest was the sense of victimization that this film portrays so hauntingly. The Japanese people felt victimized by their leaders, by the military, by the system. This "victim consciousness,” as it is called in Japanese, had a double consequence during the postwar years. First, people paid less heed to the foreign victims of Japanese militarism than they did to their own experience.

(The Japanese suffering at the end of the war in Manchuria, for example, obscured what the Chinese had endured for many years.) Second, the Japanese themselves did not feel responsible for the war that their leaders had brought upon them. Like Kaji in the film, they felt helpless before the authorities. And while this feeling had not disappeared in the fifty years after the war, neither had the deep pacifism that was based on it. Indeed, the antiwar message had become integral to ordinary Japanese understanding of the postwar human condition.

Unit 731 (731部隊) - Harbin 

Background Reading

Saburo Ienaga, The Pacific War (Pantheon, 1978)
Louise Young, Total Empire (Harvard University Press, 1996)

Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai)
Michiko (Michiyo Aratama)
Okishima (Soh Yamamura)


DIRECTOR: Masaki Kobayashi; PRODUCER: Shigeru Wakatsuki; SCREENPLAY: Zenzo Matsuyama, Masaki Kobayashi; STUDIO: Shochiku; VIDEO: Sony; RUNNING TIME: 208 min. (Part 1); 180 min. (Part 2); 190 min. (Part 3)

In: Past Imperfect. Historu According to the Movies. General Editor: Mark C. Carnes. A Society of American Historians Book. New York, 1996, pp. 250-253.

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