One of the movie highlights of the year so far is the Film Forum screening of the well-paced Japanese epic The Human Condition. I saw the first part last night and frequently felt myself in the presence of greatness. Part 1 shows only one more time during this run, on Sunday—check the schedule here—but it might also be available via NetFlix.
Part 1 revolves around the idealistic Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), who accepts an assigment supervising a labor camp in occupied Manchuria. Keeping him out of combat service, this decision gives him enough hope for the future to marry his girlfriend Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), but it also thrusts him into an impossible situation, trying to apply his ideals to prison labor under a military regime.
Kaji's nightmarish predicament is the stuff of gripping drama, and its particulars make The Human Condition something of a revelation to me. Here is a major Japanese production, released from 1959 through 1961, that portrays Japanese human rights abuses against Chinese people, even showing the use of "comfort women." For the past decade or so, I have thought that Japan was largely in denial about its practices—if so, then it has somehow forgotten about this highly acclaimed movie despite its riveting plot, important themes, excellent acting, and artful cinematography, all under the direction of Masaki Kobayashi, a pacifist sent to Manchuria during the war.
The Human Condition is notorious for its length. Each of its three parts exceeds three hours, not including the intermissions. But the pacing of Part 1 is fast, almost to a fault—some cuts are so abrupt that they might lead you to think that sections are absent or reels mixed up. Even with the sporadic choppiness—and sporadic hamminess—the movie offers a powerful depiction of idealism in a world of compromise and brutality. Watching it, I mused over its parallels to the Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever?, a 1959 German movie critical of Hitler's invasion of Stalingrad. And now I realize that it also has an affinity with Luis Buñuel's Viridiana (1961) as well as the lesser-known Fever Rises in El Pao (1961). Look at the years—was there an international cinematic Zeitgeist at work? I might as well note that Catch-22 came out in 1961 as well.