The Human Condition

The Human Condition – Masaki Kobayashi

Ningen no jôken CoverOriginal title: Ningen no jôken
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)
Year: 1959, 1959 & 1961
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Duration: 208, 181 & 190 min.
Genres: Drama, History, War


It rarely happens. A trilogy – or any subsequent number of films – in which the films only get better. The Human Condition is one of those rare cases. Almost ten hours (!) of film, three times just over three hours, six parts, two parts per film. That is what we get from director Masaki Kobayashi. Everything gets better each film. Directing, acting, the story. One can clearly see the improvement, which does not stop after these three films. Kobayashi went off and made three more masterpieces: Harakiri, Kwaidan and Samurai Rebellion.

The films are based on a series of six novels (hence the six ‘parts’). They follow a Japanese man called Kaji during the second world war. Kaji is an extreme pacifist and socialist, but more importantly, he is insufferably stubborn and outspoken. The latter gets him into many bad situations. Especially when a country is at war, there is no room for pacifism or socialism. People become selfish and violent. The complete opposite of what Kaji believes in.

The Human Condition

Since the story follows Kaji, I can say without spoiling anything that he is the main character in all six parts. Each part follows him during a particular part in his life. Without revealing too much, we get to see him in slightly happier times when he marries Michiko. We see him attempting to align his ideas with the cruel reality of war. We see him trying to convince his superiors about his humanist ideals. He goes off to fight in the war against the Russians on the Chinese mainland called Manchuria (above Korea, in between Russia, Mongolia and the rest of China).

The films are filled with many memorable scenes. Things that will stick in your mind for days after watching. A hanging in the Chinese woods springs to mind, as does the Russian invasion in the second part. Or the Chinese prisoners walking in line (see header image). And the less impressive scenes from a visual perspective, e.g. when two soldiers return to a bunker after guiding a young boy and girl home. Or poor poor Obara, who just isn’t fit for army life.

A man’s suicide as comical relief. You could almost say that it was, as the whole trilogy mainly focusses on the atrocities of war, the inhuman work conditions in labour camps, the army and in the front line. Kaji deals with his struggle all throughout the nearly ten hours. How to deal with the inhumanity of war. How does a pacifist deal with being a soldier behind enemy lines? It’s kill or be killed.

Quality goes up and up

As I mentioned The Human Condition only gets better, my personal favourite being part five. I found Kaji to be quite annoying at times, mostly during the first film. This was because he kept arguing his points in vain. Sometimes I just wanted to tell him to let it go. Pick your battles and so on. It didn’t stop him though (no kidding). While annoying, his perseverance is admirable. As are his beliefs, albeit a little naive.

But as a viewer you get ten hours to think about how you would’ve acted. The Japanese kept a lot of Chinese prisoners in labour camps. Would you have been the one telling your superiors to be nice to the prisoners because they are humans too? Would you have been the one hiding a Jewish family? Would you have been working for the resistance? Or would you have been the one just living their life minding their own business? Like most Germans didn’t openly oppose to Hitler. Instinctively we would all say that of course we would have been righteous and heroic. But really, would we all have been? The answer is of course, no, we wouldn’t have.

That is what makes these films so powerful. We see someone actually making a stand and we see it only gets him into trouble. The bad thing is that it is likely exactly what would happen in the real world too. It is very confronting that way, and makes you think about how lucky we are for living in relatively peaceful times. On a smaller scale however, these things still happen today. Stick out your neck and have it chopped off. Just think about whistle blowers and such…

The Human Condition

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