A film that lasts three hours and twenty-six minutes is an inherently daunting prospect; when it’s merely the first part of a trilogy whose other two installments also weigh in at over three hours, it only becomes even more of one. Finding the time to watch something this long isn’t the problem for me, finding the will and inclination is. There’s a reason why I’ve had this thing for nearly a year without watching it before now, i.e. a reason other than my usual slackness with these things (I’m trying to do better at not letting new DVD purchases lie unwatched for months); and be honest, when faced with a choice between a really fucking heavy nine and a half hour Japanese war movie and, oh, let’s say one of those film noir boxes I was going through last year, aren’t you less likely to go for the former than the latter?
But enough’s enough, it’s time Kobayashi and his trilogy cleared themselves from my backlog of unwatched stuff, and so tonight was the night I decided to finally embark upon the epic voyage. How to actually review it, though? As three films or as one? Cos it’s based on what’s described as a “six-volume novel”, and I just wonder what that means (obviously I’ve never read the thing); is it six separate books in a series, or a single story published across six books (cf. Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien apparently said was not a trilogy)? And should the three films (each of which adapts two of the books) accordingly be considered individually or separately? In the end I’ve opted for the latter, since the films were made and released that way, and since each offers its own distinct segment of the overall story.
So what actually happens in this “Grand Canyon of Despair”? Well, the first third of it begins in Manchuria in 1943, when Japan were still ruling that roost; Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) has submitted a report on how Japanese business interests there can be profitable while still treating the local Chinese labour like, you know, actual human beings; he’s given a chance to put this bizarre concept into practice at a somewhat remote mining outpost (a task with the fringe benefit of meaning he’s exempt from the military service he dreads), where he has to face up to the problem that theories of this sort generally tend to face, i.e. they have to be enacted by actual human beings—people who, in this particular case, resent this young man from intruding into the frankly corrupt nice little deal they’ve got going. On top of the viciousness of the pit foremen, though, the shadow of the Kenpeitai (kind of a Japanese Gestapo, I gather) hangs over all of them as a higher authority and a reminder to us, if we forget at any point, that this is a wartime story, and the horde of Chinese POWs the Kenpeitai dump on will prove to be a problem for Kaji on more than one level. I think Grady Hendrix’ characterisation of him as a “self-righteous leftist wanker” is perhaps unnecessarily harsh; while Kaji obviously does think of himself as better than those around him I think he is at least sincere in trying to do good, which is if nothing else more than the other Japanese miners do; and after all they view him with suspicion at best and their own sense of superiority at worst. If idealism is a failing, then that’s where Kaji fails in spades, of course; obviously hopeful that he can influence the system in more positive directions, he finds the system somewhat impervious, and the film’s horrific climax becomes the true test of whether or not he can retain his own humanity in the face of the inhumanity of the broader “society” around him. It is, to be sure, not the most cheering of visions, but there is something awesome about the sense of scale and seriousness of purpose at work; the next couple of days’ worth of viewing should be good ones.