Hey there, and welcome to another edition of Your Japanese Film Insight. this week, I want to cast your mind back to early postwar Japan, a period stretching from 1952 until the early 1960s where the lifting of postwar occupation censorship laws led to a cinematic re-appraisal of Japan’s relationship with its colonial past.
It’s a fascinating period that saw the large-scale group of major movie studios following the end of American occupation in the country, a period which also allowed directors to tell stories they were previously unable to. Whether directly discussing the Japanese war effort or issues relating to nuclear weapons or abstracting these tales through genre cinema, this period is one that shaped and was shaped by a rejection of the war the country had just escaped from.
With that in mind, I want to focus on one of the best movie trilogies ever produced, developed during this tail end of this period of post-war cinematic reconciliation and defined the growing anti-war sentiment that exemplified early postwar Japanese reactions to the atrocities of World War II and the Sino-Japanese War. In this article, I want to discuss The Human Condition, Masaki Kobayashi’s humanist anti-war masterpiece.
The Environment Crafting The Human Condition
To fully explore what made Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition such a powerful anti-war trilogy that continues to resonate with audiences today, we need to understand the environment that birthed this film in the first place.
Due to the circumstances that surrounded Japan’s surrender in World War II following the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan never had the opportunity to collectively work through the country’s wartime actions and pre-1945 militarism. The surrender that brought an end to World War II was immediately followed by a 7-year occupation of the country by the United States. While censorship was weaponized by the Japanese government during wartime to promote Japan’s military policy and justify the expansion into Asia, censorship continued during the US occupation to construct their own postwar narrative.
Censorship restrictions included a lack of reporting on the fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki (leading to much information about the harms of radiation and the events to remain unknown for years after the attack), while reporting that featured wartime propaganda, justified wartime actions or defended war criminals was censored.
This happened against a backdrop of the start of the Cold War that soon required Japan’s status as a capitalist democracy to be weaponized against the perceived threat of the communist Soviet Union. As a result, Japan became a shining example of the strengths of capitalism and democracy as a tool for rebuffing the spread of communist ideas to other countries, particularly in Asia. Mixed with wide-scale censorship banning all reporting and literature on the war that wasn’t pre-approved until after the occupation was over, reporting that tackled World War II was suppressed, robbing the country of a chance to evaluate their past actions.
The early years of the occupation of Japan defined how the war was consumed and understood in postwar Japan. Without collective reconciliation and critical evaluation of Japanese acts of aggression alongside the infliction of punishment on high-ranking officials like former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, a consideration of colonialist expansion by Japan was never entered mainstream discussions. This allowed for a distancing from these events as a consequence of the people in power without considering why they occurred or the system that perpetuated them.
When censorship in Japan ended and Japanese cinema began to tackle Japanese acts of war, this became the preferred method for exploring wartime stories. Even stories covering the war itself focused their stories on Japanese national trauma while overlooking deeper discussions on the war itself. Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp is centered on Japan’s Burmese campaign in the closing stages of the war and has a powerful anti-war message, but it’s a film that ignores atrocities in Burma to solely focus on the Japanese lives lost to war. While there were exceptions, many films like this overlooked difficult conversations in place of films that found collective grief or hope in collective Japanese suffering.
Whether discussing films that directly covered the events of war or the post-war reconstruction, almost every genre was impacted by the effects of World War II. Whether exploring the changing family unit in the family-focused dramas of Yasujiro Ozu, films like Yuzo Kawashima’s Suzuki Paradise: Red Light which centered on those left behind in post-war reconstruction, or even films like Godzilla which is constructed in the shadow of the atomic bomb, almost every genre of Japanese cinema changed as a result of Japan’s interactions with war.
All these stories share a collective humanist streak that rejected the violence of pre-1945 militarism, even if these stories mostly shone this humanist light on Japan and not the areas impacted by Japan’s military actions.
A Humanist Critique of an Unflinching System of Violence
So where does Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition fit into all of this? While not the first or only film to do this during the 1950s reconciliation with World War II, The Human Condition is arguably the largest and most powerful example of a Japanese film that tackled the systems that perpetuated wartime atrocity. This film shone the humanist ideals of 1950s Japanese cinema on the victims of Japanese aggression as opposed to the Japanese people.
The Human Condition centers its exploration of Japan’s war effort on left-wing humanist Kaji (played by Tatsuya Nakadai). Kaji is a staunch pacifist who chooses to become a labor camp supervisor overseeing Chinese prisoners of war in Manchuria as a way of avoiding military service. Here, he tries to stand up for the prisoners and stand true to his humanist beliefs as he fights from within the system for the rights of prisoners of war who are otherwise mistreated by the other officers.
His conflict with the wartime system eventually forces him out of this role and into the battlefield and, later, into a fight for survival in the wilderness of a disintegrating Japanese empire. Throughout the trilogy, his beliefs are challenged by a system that seeks conformity and quashes dissent, no matter how noble.
To discuss the film from a purely technical perspective, it’s hard to argue that this trilogy is anything other than one of the most ambitious and large-scale cinematic epics in Japanese history. This story takes you from occupied Manchuria to the frosty wilderness of the Soviet Union with an extreme level of attention-to-detail. Despite being set in the heart of the Japanese war effort, we only briefly bear witness to the atrocities on the front line when Kaji himself enters the battle, with the film spending the majority of its time focusing on the conflict between Kaji and his moral beliefs in the face of the realities of war. To tell this tale, massive sets and hundreds of extras are used to tell this cross-continental story philosophizing on, well, the human condition.
In the same way that David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is aggrandized for its monumental scale when following the story of a British officer aiding Arab forces in a revolt against the Ottoman Empire, there are parallels to be made between the two films in terms of scale and content. Although the politics of Lawrence of Arabia are somewhat more questionable with a certain level of admiration for colonialism that this trilogy rejects, both movies are inherently human stories of men whose political leanings stand at odds to their military superiors, told on a massive scale unlike anything the medium of cinema has seen before or since.
While Lawrence may reject the British view on the inability of the people of Arabia to rule themselves, he does succumb to colonialist thinking as he becomes a man insistent that he knows what’s best for the Arabian people. Conversely, The Human Condition is more focused on the concept of principled dissent and the strengths of someone’s beliefs in the face of a system that crushes such individualist thinking.
In the first film, we witness Kaji’s attempts to follow his humanist beliefs in a system that sees his failure as inevitable. Kaji is left in a difficult situation as a man who fundamentally rejects the Japanese war effort and everything the current government stands for, yet for the sake of his wife and his life is trapped within this system of violence. How can Kaji’s well-intentioned ideals survive without being corrupted and made complicit in Japanese acts of aggression and torture?
What The Human Condition exposes is the idea that a system driven by conformity is resistant to change from within. In the first film in the trilogy, where Kaji is placed in charge of a group of Chinese prisoners of war, his hope to put a series of theoretical ideas on labor camp reform that would see the prisoners treated with dignity has its sympathizers within the camp hierarchy is put to the test, yet is ultimately doomed to failure when the system itself is unwilling to change. Attempts at reform aren’t beneficial to those at the top. They’re acts of rebellion that must be quashed.
The policies that Kaji wants to implement are relatively minor, all things considered. He doesn’t want to beat the prisoners to compel them to work, and he wants to ensure the prisoners are well-fed. Ultimately, he wants the prisoners to feel safe and to work not out of fear of death but because it’s a chance to find purpose in their fight for survival. These ideas come from a recognition from Kaji that these prisoners aren’t too different from himself: people trapped in a system they can’t change, fighting a war they don’t believe in while facing the consequences of state-sanctioned violence as those in control run free.
His plans for reform face resistance on all sides. Those less sympathetic within the camp hierarchy work to undermine Kaji at every opportunity. Meanwhile, the Chinese prisoners are understandably suspicious after maltreatment from countless other Japanese supervisors in the past. Plus, no matter how sympathetic Kaji is to their plight, he is still fighting on the side of the Japanese, not the prisoners. No matter the platitudes, Kaji is the person with all the power in their relationship, and can easily take away any privileges he grants them.
Even as this film brings with it the hope that small-scale change is possible as the Chinese prisoners are brought on side, The Human Condition makes it emphatically clear that this is inconsequential and easily overturned. No matter how noble his actions may be, it’s impossible to escape being a pawn to an unjust system of power. He desires to live through the end of the war and to reunite with his wife that sees him fight for the Japanese army on the front line when he is extracted from camp duty for his dissent. At each step, it becomes clear that his efforts to reform the system are in vain, and his ideals begin to drift as his desire to survive overrides his humanism.
By the third film, he finds himself trapped in a Soviet prisoner of war camp in the same position as the Chinese prisoners he once nurtured. No matter the moral actions he once swore his life towards, in this camp he’s nothing more than Japanese scum, a ‘fascist samurai’ who can’t garner sympathy from the guardsman or any of the surviving Chinese civilians. Kaji is alone. What may have been a principled stance in his eyes only created enemies on all sides, and still failed to free him from guilt by association.
This trail of suffering isn’t an argument by director Masaki Kobayashi against the political ideas that Kaji holds dear. Indeed, even as we witness Kaji’s suffering and the harm his ideals cause for himself and others in the context of war, this suffering isn’t blamed on these ideas but the brutal system that strips him of his dignity. Over time, it becomes clear that, no matter how principled, living to these ideals will only doom him to failure.
The most idealized people will eventually be corrupted by a system that cares nothing for them if they fight alone. Even the people who stand in the way of Kaji’s push for reform aren’t the enemies in this story. Instead, the unjust, unnecessary war which gave them power and condoned their actions of torture and suffering is the true villain of this story.
It’s this human story of degradation and suffering at the feet of an unflinching system that demanded atrocity and conformity that makes The Human Condition so successful. We never lose sight of the humanity of Kaji no matter where the story takes us, and it all culminates in one of the most haunting ending sequences ever put to film.
Films that objected so strongly to the Japanese war effort, even 14 years on from the end of the war when the first film in the trilogy was released, were rare. This trilogy inflicted a wound right at the heart of a system that perpetuated suffering upon not just the Japanese population but an entire continent. It shifted the focus of Japanese humanist cinema onto the victims of Japanese aggression and stood out upon release for this bold, against-the-grain stance. The Human Condition a brave, haunting trilogy of films, and one deserving of greater recognition.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl!