Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Human Condition

I just finished the first third of "the greatest film ever made" (sayeth David Shipman in The Story of Cinema, and used, of course, for the Cinematheque's advert for the film.) Also recently released on a Criterion DVD - reviewed here - Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition will play in three parts - each designed as a stand-alone movie - through early November at the Pacific Cinematheque. I've been excited about seeing this film for some time, since I greatly admired Kobayashi's Hara Kiri and tend to like any films made by Japanese that dare to criticize their country (the more harshly, the better!); that it is set in occupied Manchuria during World War II makes it even more interesting for me. Alas, I am so fatigued from my week at work and the general state of my life - adjusting to the daily commutes, the sundry chores I'm helping my parents with, and other life changes - that I am unsure of my ability to finish all three segments of the film - the first alone is three hours long - before it screens.

The first third is certainly remarkable cinema. It's visually beautiful, for one - gorgeous widescreen black and white images rooted in the same classic sense of composition that Bergman drew from John Ford and Kurosawa from Bergman (one of the Chinese POW's even puts me in mind at times of John Carradine). It's politically quite startling, too, for a Japanese film made in 1959. It's unafraid to make the Japanese military into brutal, unsympathetic bad guys, and equally condemnatory of cynicism and apathy amongst various corporate higher-ups; it's as uncompromising in its sense of virtue and vice as Kurosawa is in The Bad Sleep Well and Ikiru, though Kobayashi has a much larger canvas to paint on, and is seems more politically committed than Kurosawa ever was. All three films follow Kaji, an idealistic but green young Japanese who wants to avoid military service, and - in the first film - is sent instead, with his new bride, to take control of a mine in Manchuria, where the abuse of Chinese laborers and corruption are widespread. His left-leaning idealism immediately pits him against the crueler of the Japanese foremen, then is sorely tested by the arrival of several hundred POW's - anti-Japanese villagers rounded up by the army, nearly starved to death in packed cattle cars, and shipped to the mines as forced labour. Kaji wants to win their trust, and perhaps worse, their approval - a difficult position to be in for someone supervising slave labour. Though he wins a certain amount of respect from the prisoners, he can't stop them from wanting to escape, which undermines his credibility with his bosses and seems to vindicate the call for harsher measures, which eventually manifest themselves... The first two-thirds of the film establish the conflicts and characters at a somewhat leisurely pace, as Kaji's idealism faces test after test, but the last hour abundantly rewards patience, as various threads come together. This is essential cinema for anyone who values morally ambitous, courageous cinema; I doubt I'll be able to attend the Cinematheque screenings myself, but I hope that Vancouver audiences check them out - with luck, I'll get through all three by the time they start playing at the Cinematheque (Nov. 2nd is the first screening; on November 11th, starting at 12, there will be a ten-hour Rememberance Day marathon of all three films. I strongly advise you to bring a big, comfy pillow). I'll be highly recommending the films to my Japanese students, tho' I'm not sure that they'll like what they see - most Japanese, now as then, are not that willing to look long in the face of history, when the reflection is as unflattering as this.

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