The issue of film length seems most often considered in terms of directorial self-indulgence testing a viewer’s patience. How many times have you or a friend walked out of a perfectly fine film and, when considering its flaws, come up with such time-tested (and time-centric) critiques as, “It could have been tightened up a bit” or “It would have been great if they cut that last act”? Length becomes synonymous with a seeming lack of choice or discipline on the part of the filmmakers; and indeed, this can often be the case. But it’s also worth considering how a film’s length can become an artistic strategy in and of itself: how shortening or elongating the cinematic experience fundamentally alters the way we view the story, the characters, and themes.
Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition, as its sweeping title suggests, is a long, long film. Clocking in at around nine-and-a-half hours, Kobayashi filmed his epic in three parts, and Japanese studio Shochiku subsequently released each third separately between 1959 and 1961. Certainly, the running time can be justified when considering the length of Junpei Gomikawa’s six-volume novel, upon which the film is based. Yet many a filmmaker has condensed sprawling literary source material into three- or even four-hour movies. Why would Kobayashi, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Zenzo Matsuyama, choose to create so massive an adaptation?
Having watched Human Condition in a relatively condensed period of time, what most stuck with me was the way in which the sheer size of Kobayashi’s film, its unapologetic and at times difficult length, contributed to how intimately and powerfully I came to know the disappointments and disillusionment of its protagonist. With all due respect to the film and Gomikawa’s novel, Human Condition tells a fairly conventional story of an idealistic young man, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), whose abstract principles of social justice become slowly ground down by an inexhaustible tide of bureaucratic inertia and self-serving hypocrisy. His plans for instituting humane working conditions as supervisor of a WWII labor camp run against the violent methods of control laid down by the hardline Japanese army commanders. Kaji’s conflicts with similarly inflexible and/or brutal military leaders, as well as his own growing sense of moral disenchantment and anger, continue when he is drafted in the Imperial army and, eventually, ends up in a Soviet POW camp. Such stories tend to say well-meaning (and sometimes meaningful) things about human corruption in a schematic fashion, with the protagonist becoming a Job-like figure upon which all of a given society’s ills can be placed. Yet here the sheer amount of these incidents—the punishment of innocents, the broken promises, the unjust killings—and their unceasing recurrence throughout the film become a verifiable mountain of evidence for Kobayashi’s view of societal institution as fundamentally inhumane.
This is achieved through a strong reliance upon repetition and variation, seen within both the narrative and Kobayashi’s visuals. Each of Human Condition‘s three sections has similar sets of characters: the vicious enforcer of violent military ethos; the uneasy ally of Kaji’s humanist ideals; the innocent accidentally endangered by Kaji’s well-meaning efforts. If these similarly patterned types, and the conflicts they incite, tend to wear on the viewer, they underline the film’s unswerving vision of the individual’s unending battle with soul-deadening complacency. Kobayashi and cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima similarly return to a collection of recurring images whose meaning shift and expand as the film progresses. Human Condition is filled with groups of people—workers, soldiers, refugees—trudging through barren fields and rocky pathways. Kaji often stands outside such assemblages, signaling both his resistance to conformity and his distance from the very people he seeks to help. Indeed, the film’s most powerful and iconic images cast Kaji as a solitary figure walking alone on an abandoned mountain path or across a desolate plain. Here, Kaji is placed on the horizon line between the empty, shadowy land and the bright, often smoke-shrouded sky: an increasingly isolated man overwhelmed by his own frustrated and divided soul.
It all sounds like a downer, and Human Condition is an indisputably solemn film. Yet it also possesses a restless vitality, with hard cuts juxtaposing abject brutality with pastoral tranquility and romantic longing. Scenes between Kaji and his fretful, yearning wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) sometimes fall into domestic melodrama, yet often poignantly convey a loving couple’s struggle to remain connected as professional and personal failings weigh heavier with each passing day. And Kobayashi was certainly rewarded when he cast the relatively new Nakadai in the central role. Without a continually fascinating and empathetic Kaji, Human Condition could have quickly become rote and dreary, even with Kobayashi’s considerable cinematic gifts. Nakadai’s performance burns ever so slowly, with each new humiliation and ethical lapse expressed through glances by turns ravaged, dejected, and stubbornly hopeful. Such moments ground Human Condition‘s grand message in painfully human terms, making this prolonged journey an ultimately enriching and worthwhile one.