The Human Condition III: A Soldier’s Prayer (1961)

Holy hell, that’s about all I can say… even knowing how a story will go (the DVD booklet thoughtfully tells the whole story), actually watching that story unfold usually tends to be another matter, and so it was with this film, or these films, or however you choose to designate The Human Condition; the watching was markedly more impressive than just the reading. At the time, and to some extent even since then, it was a fairly bold move to criticise the Japanese military’s behaviour, and this film wasn’t even the first time Kobayashi had a go at that subject; however, it should be clear by the time the third film gets underway that his target here is much wider than that. When it opens, Kaji has come out the other side of the previous film’s climactic battle and emerged into a different world, one in which only a few apparent optimists still believe the Japanese army has any role left to play in waging a war. With all his other liberal convictions given a battering by reality, about the only thing left to drive him on is whatever survival instinct he has left, as his last real belief—his faith in socialism, and his evident faith that at least the Soviet invaders will be better human beings than the Japanese army because of that—will be more sorely tested than any of his other beliefs by his belated realisation that the Russians are, after all, just as human as the Japanese, who find themselves forced into slave labour as POWs in much they same way as they themselves enslaved the Chinese. Right from the start Kaji has found himself compromised (remember he really takes the mine job not to help others but to save himself from conscription) but trying to put up a fight for his own decency, and by the time the film finally heaves to its end the overwhelming impression is that Kaji has been offered to us as something of a sacrificial lamb whose good intentions can only pave the road to hell, and not just for himself either. It’s largely thanks to Tatsuya Nakadai in the lead role, really, that the character becomes more than just emptily pathetic and the whole thing remains watchable for nine and a half hours; since he’s in almost every scene, it ultimately is the sort of film that depends upon the strength of its lead actor to carry it. On the whole, given its evident determination to be the ultimate anti-war film, I suspect The Human Condition is indeed the case of over-ambition that even its defenders recognise—even David Shipman, for whom it was the greatest film of all time, concedes its heaviness and lack of subtlety—but it still deserves the respect it expects; I wouldn’t go as far as Shipman (partly cos I don’t believe in making such absolute critical judgements in the first place), but I can totally understand why he makes such a large claim. Still not sure what I’ll be watching next, but after this it’ll have to be something relatively frivolous…


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