The Human Condition, directed by Masaki Kobayashi, is more than a mere movie. It is certainly not entertainment. It is an experience in which the viewer participates. It is not an easy movie to watch. The suffering Christ is encountered at every turn…
In one of the most ambitious cinematic projects ever undertaken, Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi translated to the silver screen the massive novel of Japanese author Junpei Gomikaw. Entitled “Ningen no jōken” (The Human Condition), the film was released in three parts between 1959 and 1961, with a total running time of nine hours and thirty-nine minutes, making it one of the longest films ever created.
Kobayashi strove to remain faithful to the original novel, which is the story of an idealistic young man named Kaji who is hired during World War II to supervise the prison-labor iron mines in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Kaji is part of a younger generation of Japanese men who believe in progressive principles such as worker’s rights and the equitable treatment of prisoners. He argues with his peers concerning the best way to oversee the mining camp, claiming that by improving the prisoners’ living conditions, the productivity of the camp will also increase. His opinions, however, are met with scorn and contempt, with the more war-hardened supervisors claiming that the only language the prisoners truly understand is that of the frequent use of the whip.
Central to the story is the righteous man who suffers at the hands of the unrighteous. More than once the Song of the Suffering Servant comes to mind as one contemplates the trials of Kaji:
There was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him,
nor appearance that would attract us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
One of those from whom men hide their faces…
Though he was harshly treated, he submitted
and opened not his mouth.
(Isaiah 53: 2-3, 7)
Everywhere Kaji is met with scorn, contempt, and ridicule. Whether he serves as supervisor of the mines, or later as leader of a battalion, his lot is one of continual suffering and abuse. Everywhere he is maligned, slandered, beaten, tortured, and undermined.
Humiliation and pain are his constant companions. Kaji emerges as one of the most poignant Christ-like figures ever portrayed in film. When struck, he opens not his mouth. When threatened to change his ways, he remains faithful to his principles. This exploration of the suffering innocent man in Kobayashi’s film is a frequent theme in Biblical prophecy; and the fact that it is so ubiquitous in this Japanese film is all the more remarkable given that the cultural context in which the movie was produced was not a Christian one. How are we to explain the close affinity between a Japanese film make by a non-Christian, and the shadow of the Mystery of the Cross that hangs over the entire story? Is it not due, perhaps, to what the Church Fathers referred to as the logoi spermatikoi—the Seeds of the Word? That is, the presence of Christ throughout the world, even in cultures that have not yet encountered the Gospel?
Although the film has been considered by many as an anti-war film, it seems more fitting to see it as a film that explores the many facets of human nature, especially when it is subjected to extreme conditions. The film candidly exposes the darkness that can lurk in the heart of any man during an intrinsically brutal event such as war. One also perceives how evil is like a contagious disease, spreading from one person to the next, resulting in a kind of unstoppable downward spiral. Only acts of heroism, of kindness, and of integrity, can light a lamp in such darkness and stop the flood of ever-increasing violence. The film also poses questions to the viewer, without necessary answering them, that are perennial to the human experience: Why must the innocent suffer? Why does goodness seem to lose and wickedness win? These are questions that can truly only be answered in the knowledge of the Cross of Christ—something that the film unconsciously seems to perceive in outline, but cannot be explicitly brought out due to the creators’ religious limitations. In this regard, I would compare The Human Condition to another epic film about the problem of human suffering directed by the great Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. In Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, an artist-monk living in Medieval Russia is surrounded by the brutality of man against man and seemingly inexplicable suffering. But in Tarkovsky’s work (and Tarkovsky himself was Russian Orthodox), the power of the Cross of Christ is made explicit; it is the answer to the suffering that is omnipresent. And in the final analysis, it is the salvation of man and the world.
For Kaji, the highest form of love that is knows is that for his wife, Michiko, whom he marries at the start of the film and who accompanies him to the Manchurian concentration camp. It is not God that provides Kaji with the hope necessary to endure his many trials, but rather his love for his wife. When he is removed from his post at the mining camp and placed in the front lines of the Japanese army, he is forced to leave his beloved wife behind. And yet it is his love for her, his memory of her, his hope to one day return and be with her again that gives him the endurance to live for one more day, to trudge on in the dismal conditions of a faltering army, while many of his comrades simply lose their will to live. There is something divine about this love, which remains faithful even when Kaji finds himself attracted to another woman in one of the Chinese villages in which his platoon encamps. Here again, we feel Kobayashi searching for God in the film, looking for something that is transcendent. He finds the answer in the unbreakable bond of marriage. In this we see God both revealed and concealed. Revealed, because there is obviously something more than mere natural impulses at work. Concealed, because though there is something transcendent about Kaji’s experience, his (non-culpable) ignorance of the Gospel limits the horizon on which he lives, and the saving power of Christ cannot be brought out in explicit terms.
The Human Condition is more than a mere movie. It is certainly not entertainment. It is an experience in which the viewer participates. It is not an easy movie to watch. The suffering Christ is encountered at every turn. When Kaji is ridiculed and mocked by his peers, one sees Christ wearing the crown of thorns and being humiliated by the Roman soldiers. When Kaji is strung up in an old warehouse by his arms and legs and brutally beaten as if he were a piñata, one sees the physical torture that Christ had to endure at the pillar. When Kaji must traverse hundreds of miles over desolate terrain, without food, without comfort, one is reminded of Christ’s journey to Golgotha. But the victory of the protagonist comes precisely when he does not return blow for blow; when he is still able to act virtuously even when there is no human reason to do so. The fact that man, under such circumstances, can still remain human gives us hope that humanity has not been utterly defeated.
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