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.

terça-feira, 28 de maio de 2013

Goethe in Hollywood and L.A. as Hell: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

The Farewell of the Sonata Form by Professor Kretschmar - Theodor Wissengrund Adorno -  Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111

What did he talk about? Well, the man was capable of spending a whole hour on the question: Why did Beethoven not write a third movement to the Piano Sonata Opus 111? It is without doubt a matter worth discussing. But think of it in the light of the posters outside the hall of Activities for the Common Weal, or inserted in the Kaisersaschern Railway Journal, and ask yourself the amount of public interest it could arouse. People positively did not want to know why Op. 111 has only two movements. We who were present at the explanation had indeed an uncommonly enriching evening, and this although the sonata under discussion was to that date entirely unknown to us. Still it was precisely through these lectures that we got to know it, and as a matter of fact very much in detail;

for Kretschmar played it to us on the inferior cottage piano that was all he could command, a grand piano not being granted him. He played it capitally de­spite the rumbling noise the instrument made; analysing its intellectual content with great impressiveness as he went, describing the circumstances under which it — and two others — were written and expatiating with caustic wit upon the master’s own explanation of the reason why he had not done a third movement corresponding to the first. Beethoven, it seems, had calmly answered this question, put by his famulus, by saying that he had not had time and therefore had somewhat extended the second movement. No time! And he had said it "calmly," to boot.

The contempt for the questioner which lay in such an answer had obviously not been noticed, but it was justified contempt. And now the speaker described Beethoven’s condition in the year 1820, when his hearing, attacked by a resistless ailment, was in progressive decay, and it had already become clear that he could no longer conduct his own works. Kretschmar told us about the rumours that the famous author was quite written out, his productive powers exhausted, himself incapable of larger enterprises,  And then Kretschmar talked about the Sonata in C minor, which indeed it was not easy to see as a well-rounded and intellectually digested work, and which had given his contemporary critics, and his friends as well, a hard aesthetic nut to crack. These friends and admirers, Kretschmar said, simply could not follow the man they revered beyond the height to which at the time of his maturity he had brought the symphony, the piano sonata, and the classical string quartet. In the works of the last period they stood with heavy hearts before a process of dissolution or alienation, of a mounting into an air no longer familiar or safe to meddle with; even before a plus ultra, wherein they had been able to see nothing else than a degeneration of tendencies previously present, an excess of introspection and speculation, an extravagance of minutiae and scientific musicality — applied sometimes to such simple material as the arietta theme of the monstrous movement of variations which forms the second part of this sonata.

The theme of this movement goes through a hundred vicissitudes, a hundred worlds of rhythmic contrasts, at length outgrows itself, and is finally lost in giddy heights that one might call other-worldly or abstract. And in just that very way Beethoven’s art had overgrown itself, risen out of the habitable regions of tradition, even before the startled gaze of human eyes, into spheres of the entirely and utterly and nothing-but personal — an ego painfully isolated in the absolute, isolated too from sense by the loss of his hearing; lonely prince of a realm of spirits, from whom now only a chilling breath issued to terrify his most willing contemporaries, standing as they did aghast at these communications of which only at moments, only by exception, they could understand anything at all. So far, so good, said Kretschmar. And yet again, good or right only conditionally and incompletely.

and busying himself like the old Haydn with writing down Scottish songs. Such reports had continually gained ground, because for several years no work of importance bearing his name had come on the market. But in the late autumn, returning to Vienna from Modling, where he had spent the summer, the master had sat down and written these three compositions for the piano without, so to speak, once looking up from the notes, all in one burst, and gave notice of them to his patron, the Count of Brunswick, to reassure him as to his mental condition.

For one would usually connect with the conception of the merely personal, ideas of limitless subjectivity and of radical harmonic will to expression, in contrast to polyphonic objectivity (Kretschmar was concerned to have us impress upon our minds this distinction between harmonic subjectivity and polyphonic objectivity) and this equation, this contrast, here as altogether in the masterly late works, would simply not apply. As a matter of fact, Beethoven had been far more "subjective," not to say far more "personal," in his middle period than in his last, had been far more bent on taking all the nourishes, formulas, and conventions, of which music is certainly full, and consuming them in the personal expression, melting them into the subjective dynamic.

The relation of the later Beethoven to the conventional, say in the last five piano sonatas, is, despite all the uniqueness and even uncanniness of the formal language, quite different, much more complaisant and easy­going. Untouched, untransformed by the subjective, convention often appeared in the late works, in a baldness, one might say exhaustiveness, an abandonment of self, with an effect more majestic and awful than any reckless plunge into the personal. In these forms, said the speaker, the subjective and the conventional assumed a new relationship, conditioned by death.

At this word Kretschmar stuttered violently; sticking fast at the first sound and executing a sort of machine-gun fire with his tongue on the roof of his mouth, with jaw and chin both quiver­ing, before they settled on the vowel which told us what he meant. But when we had guessed it, it seemed hardly proper to take it out of his mouth and shout it to him, as we sometimes did, in jovial helpfulness. He had to say it himself and he did. Where greatness and death come together, he declared, there arises an objectivity tending to the conventional, which in its majesty leaves the most domineering subjectivity far behind, because therein the merely personal — which had after all been the surmounting of a tradition already brought to its peak — once more outgrew itself, in that it entered into the mythical, the collectively great and supernatural.
He did not ask if we understood that, nor did we ask ourselves. When he gave it as his view that the main point was to hear it, we fully agreed. It was in the light of what he had said, he went on, that the work he was speaking of in particular, Sonata Op. 111, was to be regarded. And then he sat down at the cottage piano and played us the whole composition out of his head, the first and the incredible second movement, shouting his comments into the midst of his playing and in order to make us conscious of the treatment demonstrating here and there in his enthusiasm by singing as well; altogether it made a spectacle partly entrancing, partly funny;

and repeatedly greeted with merriment by his little audience. For as he had a very powerful attack and exaggerated the forte, he had to shriek extra loud to make what he said halfway intelligible and to sing with all the strength of his lungs to emphasize vocally what he played. With his lips he imitated what the hands played. "Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tr-r!" he went, as he played the grim and startling first notes of the first movement; he sang in a high falsetto the passages of melodic loveliness by which the ravaged and tempestuous skies of the composition are at intervals brightened as though by faint glimpses of light. At last he laid his hands in his lap, was quiet a moment, and then said: "Here it comes!" and began the variations movement, the "adagio molto semplice e cantabile."

The arietta theme, destined to vicissitudes for which in its idyllic innocence it would seem not to be born, is presented at once, and announced in sixteen bars, reducible to a motif which appears at the end of its first half, like a brief soul-cry — only three notes, a quaver, a semiquaver, and a dotted crotchet to be scanned as, say: "heav-en’s blue, lov-ers’ pain, fare-thee well, on a-time, mead-ow-land" — and that is all. What now happens to this mild utterance, rhythmically,

harmonically, contrapuntally, to this pensive, subdued formulation, with what its master blesses and to what condemns it, into what black nights and dazzling flashes, crystal spheres wherein coldness and heat, repose and ecstasy are one and the same, he flings it down and lifts it up, all that one may well call vast, strange, extravagantly magnificent, without thereby giving it a name, because it is quite truly nameless; and with labouring hands Kretschmar played us all those enormous transformations, singing at the same time with the greatest violence:
"Dim-dada!" and mingling his singing with shouts. "These chains of trills!" he yelled. "These flourishes and cadenzas! Do you hear the conventions that are left in? Here — the language — is no longer — purified of the flourishes — but the flourishes — of the appearance — of their subjective — domination — the appearance — of art is thrown off — at last — art always throws off the appearance of art. Dim-dada! Do listen, how here — the melody is dragged down by the centrifugal weight of chords! It becomes static, monotonous— twice D, three times D, one after the other — the chords do it — dim-dada! Now notice what happens here — "

It was extraordinarily difficult to listen to his shouts and to the highly complicated music both at once. We all tried. We strained, leaning forward, hands between knees, looking by turn at his hands and his mouth. The characteristic of the movement of course is the wide gap between bass and treble, between the right and the left hand, and a moment comes, an utterly extreme situa­tion, when the poor little motif seems to hover alone and forsaken above a giddy yawning abyss

— a procedure of awe-inspiring un-earthliness, to which then succeeds a distressful making-of- itself-small, a start of fear as it were, that such a thing could happen. Much else happens before the end. But when it ends and while it ends, something comes, after so much rage, persistence, obstinacy, extravagance: something entirely unexpected and touching in its mildness and goodness. With the motif passed through many vicissitudes, which takes leave and so doing becomes itself entirely leave-taking, a parting wave and call, with this D G G occurs a slight change, it experiences a small melodic expansion. After an introductory C, it puts a C sharp before the D, so that it no longer scans "heav-en’s blue," "mead-owland," but "O-thou heaven’s blue,"

"Green-est meadowland," "Fare-thee well for aye," and this added C sharp is the most moving, consolatory, pathetically reconciling thing in the world. It is like having one’s hair or cheek stroked, lovingly, understandingly, like a deep and silent farewell look. It blesses the object, the frightfully harried formulation, with overpowering humanity, lies in parting so gently on the hearer’s heart in eternal farewell that the eyes run over. "Now for-get the pain," it says. "Great was — God in us." "Twas all — but a dream," "Friendly — be to me." Then it breaks off. Quick, hard triplets hasten to a conclusion with which any other piece might have ended.

enrique del pozo muerte en venecia death in venice dirk bogarde  luchino visconti

Kretschmar did not return from the piano to his desk. He sat on his revolving stool with his face turned towards us, in the same position as ours, bent over, hands between his knees, and in a few words brought to an end his lecture on why Beethoven had not written a third movement to Op. in. We had only needed, he said, to hear the piece to answer the question ourselves. A third movement? A new approach? A return after this parting — impossible! It had happened that the sonata had come, in the second, enormous movement, to an end, an end without any return.

And when he said "the sonata," he meant not only this one in C minor, but the sonata in general, as a species, as traditional art-form; it itself was here at an end, brought to its end, it had fulfilled its destiny, reached its goal, beyond which there was no going, it cancelled and resolved itself, it took leave — the gesture of farewell of the D G G motif, consoled by the C sharp, was a leave-taking in this sense too, great as the whole piece itself, the farewell of the sonata form.

With this Kretschmar went away, accompanied by thin but prolonged applause, and we went too, not a little reflective, weighed down by all these novelties. Most of us, as usual, as we put on our coats and hats and walked out, hummed bemusedly to ourselves the impression of the evening, the theme-generating motif of the second movement, in its original and its leave-taking form, and for a long time we heard it like an echo from the remoter streets into which the audience dispersed, the quiet night streets of the little town: "Fare — thee well," "fare thee well for aye," "Great was God in us."

Translated by John E. Woods