Masaki Kobayashi's dream project was the Human Condition adaptation, and he pulled it off as a brilliantly told and filmed epic that tells of a man trying to cling to his humanity in inhuman circumstances. All three films have wonders in various supporting performances and set-pieces that astound with their moments of poetic realism, and the sum of it all makes Lord of the Rings look like kid's stuff. In the case of the first feature on the trilogy, No Greater Love, we're introduced to and see the young, idealistic and essentially good-hearted Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) as he gets a job as a labor supervisor at a POW camp in Manchuria following an impressive paper presentation. He wants to do his best, but the 'powers-that-be', which include the stalwart boss and particularly the fascistic Kempeitai (army personnel on site), keep things always on edge with tension, and as new Chinese POW's roll in and he finds himself torn: how to keep production up of the ore while also not becoming a monster just like the other "Japanese devils" to the POW's. While the story has an immediate appeal (or rather connection-to) the Japanese public as a piece of modern history- the occupation/decimation of Manchuria and its people- none of its dramatic or emotional power is lost on me. Kobayashi is personally tied to the material very much (he himself fought in the war and immediately bought the rights to the 6-volume series when first released), but he doesn't ever get in the way of the story. Matter of fact, he's a truly amazing storyteller first and foremost; dazzlingly he interweaves the conflicts of the prisoners (i.e. Chen, the prostitutes, Kao) with Kaji's first big hurdle of conscience at the labor camp as he sees prisoners treated in horrible conditions, beaten, abused, and eventually brought to senseless deaths thanks to Furyua and his ilk, and finds himself brought to an ultimate question: can he be a human being, as opposed to another mindless monster? Kobayashi creates scenes and moments that are in the grand and epic tradition of movies, sometimes in beautiful effect and other times showing for the sake of the horrors of wartime (for example, there will never be as harrowing an exodus from a half-dozen cattle cars as seen when the Chinese POW's exit from there to the food sacks), and is able with his wonderful DP to make intimately acted scenes in the midst of wide scapes like the outside ore mines and the cramped living quarters or caves. And damn it all if we don't get one of the great scenes in the history of movies, which is when the six "escapees" are put to execution with the prisoners, and horrified Kaji, watching in stark, gruesome detail. Everything about that one scene is just about perfect. But as the anchor of the piece (and unlike the other two films, he's not even in every scene of this part), Tatsuya Nakadai delivers on his breakthrough performance. Kobayashi needed a bridge between pre and post-war Japan, and Nakadai is that kind of presence. But aside from being an appealing star- the kind you don't want to avert your eyes from- he's mind-blowingly talented be it in subtle bits of business or when he has to go to town in explosive emotional scenes (or, also, just a twitch under his eye in a super-tense exchange). This goes without saying other actors right alongside him- Aratama, Yamamura, Manbara- are perfectly cast as supervisor, prisoner, prostitute, wife alike to Kaji. And yet, for all the praise worth giving to the film, one that gets even better in its second half than its first, this is only the first part!
The Human Condition I: No Greater Love
The Human Condition I: No Greater Love
A Japanese pacifist, unable to face the dire consequences of conscientious objection, is transformed by his attempts to compromise with the demands of war-time Japan.
April 26, 2020