The Human Condition II: Road to Eternity (1959)

The descent into the Grand Canyon of despair continues, and the terrain does not get any lighter. We ended part 1 with Kaji losing his military service exemption and begin part 2 with him in basic training… or basic bastardisation, as is more the case. If non-military life in the first film was seen to still operate under something of the military ethos (the Kenpeitai, of course, being its most obvious manifestation, a military police force that also had jurisdiction over civilians), there’s even less separation and escape available here, and if life at the mining outpost was about the Japanese treating the Chinese and Koreans as less than human, life in the second film is about the Japanese treating each other the same way, going beyond just basic nastiness into outright sadism (surely Kubrick took at least some of this on board when making Full Metal Jacket?). It’s interesting to consider all this in light of what we know of director Kobayashi’s own military service, i.e. that he refused all opportunities to rise above the rank of private… interesting because, as we see in the film, “private” was itself a rank you had to attain in the Japanese army, and it was a rank that evidently let you treat the new un-ranked recruits going through training like complete dogshit; I found it kind of disconcerting to see Kaji be addressed as “sir” by the recruits when he gets elevated to private first class, even though the other NCOs who are barely superior in rank to him treat him no better than one of the recruits. The evident message seems to be that it doesn’t matter how little power you actually have in real terms, as long as you have at least some power over someone under you there is always the potential for viciousness and thuggery. Kaji himself does what he can to resist this in himself, but really he’s just become even more morally compromised than in the first film; the pacifist finds himself not only serving in the military, but actually doing a good job of it too—and, come the film’s lengthy climactic invasion by the Soviet army (the USSR declared war on Japan two days after the Hiroshima bomb, which event is conspicuous by the absence of references thereto in the film), not even he’ll be able to avoid crossing one ultimate line. And there’s still another three hours in which things can go even further south, but that’ll be in the next review…

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