Ningen No Joken - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(The Human Condition)

Japan, 1959–61

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Production: Ningen Productions for Shochiku Co.; black and white, 35mm; Shochiku Grandscope; released in three parts: Part I: Ningen no joken (The Human Condition) ; running time: 208 minutes; length: 5501 meters; released 1959; Part II: Zoko ningen no joken (Road to Eternity) ; running time: 181 minutes; length: 4938 meters; released 1959; Part III: Ningen no joken III (A Soldier's Prayer) ; running time: 190 minutes; length: 5197 meters; released 1959. All three parts rereleased in 1969.

Producers: Shigeru Wakatsuki (Parts I and III), Tatsuo Hasoya (Part II), Masaki Kobayashi (Part III); screenplay: Masaki Kobayashi and Zenzo Matsuyama, with Koichi Inagaki (Part III only), from the six-volume Ningen no joken by Jumpei Gomikawa; photography: Yoshio Miyajima; editor: Keiishi Uraoka; sound recordist: Hideo Nishizaki; art director: Kazue Hirataka; music: Chuji Kinoshita.

Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai ( Kaji ); Michiyo Aratama ( Michiko ); So Yamamura ( Okishima ); Eitaro Ozawa ( Okasaki ); Akira Ishihama ( Chen ); Shinji Manbara ( Kao ); Ineko Arima ( Yang Chun Lan ); Chikage Awashima ( Jin Tung Fu ); Keiji Sada ( Kageyama ); Toru Abe ( Watai ); Masao Mishima ( Kuroki ); Koji Mitsui ( Furya ); Kyu Sazanka ( Cho Meisan ); Seiji Miyaguchi ( Wang Heng Li ); Nobuo Nakamura ( Chief of Head Office ); Michio Minami ( Yoshida ); Hideo Kisho ( Kudo ); Kei Sato ( Shinjo ); Taketoshi Naito ( Tange ); Kunie Tanaka ( Obara ); Kokinjo Katsura ( Sasa ); Kaneko Iwasaki ( Nurse ); Keijiro Morozumi ( Corporal Hironaka ); Yusuke Kawazu ( Private Terada ); Kyoko Kishida ( Ryuko ); Reiko Hitomi ( Umeko ); Fijio Suga ( Captain Nagata ); Nobuo Kaneko ( Corporal Kirahara ); Tamao Nakamura ( Femle Refugee ); Hideko Takamine ( Woman in Settlers' village ); Chishu Ryu ( Village elder ).



Mellen, Joan, Voices from the Japanese Cinema , New York, 1975.

Bock, Audie, Japanese Film Directors , New York, 1978; revised edition, Tokyo, 1985.

Blouin, Claude R., Le Chemin détourné: Essai sur Kobayashi et le cinéma japonais , Quebec, 1982.


Richie, Donald, "The Youngest Talents," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1960.

Dyer, Peter John, in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1961.

Iwabuchi, M., "Japanese Cinema 1961" and "Kobayashi's Trilogy," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1962.

Blouin, Claude R., "Kobayashi, à l'uquam: Anarchiste ou utopiste?," in Cinéma Québec (Montreal), February-March 1974.

Tucker, Richard, "Masaki Kobayashi," in International Film Guide , London, 1975.

Niogret, H., in Positif (Paris), October 1984.

Tessier, M., in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), October 1984.

Télérama (Paris), no. 2284, 20 October 1993.

Niogret, H., "Entretien avec Masaki Kobayashi," in Positif (Paris), December 1993.

Gauthier, Guy, in Mensuel du Cinéma , no. 12, December 1993.

* * *

"It's not my fault that I'm Japanese—yet my worst fault is that I am." The words are those of Kaji, protagonist of Kobayashi's Ningen no joken ; but they can also be taken, in the fierce agony of their moral paradox, as speaking for the director himself. Ningen no joken , nearly ten hours long, four years in the making, undertaken in the teeth of opposition from Kobayashi's studio, Shochiku, and of virulent hostility from conservative forces in Japanese society, can be seen as the most massive act of personal atonement in the history of cinema.

The film is shot through—some would say distorted—with the intensity of Kobayashi's identification with his hero, whose experiences so closely paralleled his own. ("Film" rather than "films,"

Ningen no joken
Ningen no joken
since though released, and often shown, in three separate parts, the work forms an aesthetic and conceptual unity.) Like Kaji, Kobayashi had been conscripted wholly against his will, had opposed the rigidly authoritarian ethos of the Imperial Army, and had been held after the war in a prisoner-of-war camp. "I am Kaji. . . . The life the hero leads is much the same life I lived as a soldier." In Jumpei Gomikawa's six-volume novel, to which Kobayashi immediately bought the film rights, the filmmaker found the ideal vehicle for his perennial theme: the struggle of the individual against a harsh and oppressive society.

Kaji, in effect, becomes the conscience of wartime Japan, a lone voice raised in protest against a system whose sole principles are blind obedience to authority and brutality to everyone else. Yet, for all his antipathy, he finds himself repeatedly implicated in the system he loathes, simply by virtue of being Japanese. Attempting to improve the appalling conditions of Chinese slave labourers in the prison camp to which he's posted, he ends up mistrusted by both sides—by the Chinese as a member of the oppressor race, and by his compatriots as an "enemy sympathiser." Transferred, by way of punishment, to the army, he tries vainly to protect younger recruits from the officially sanctioned sadism of the veterans. Their prime victim, the sensitive and delicate Obara, is driven to a wretched suicide, while Kaji— whose stubbornness, ironically, proves him potential "officer material"—survives through his initiative on the battlefield. "I am a murderer," he reflects amid the mud and corpses, "but I must go on living."

The film's bitterest irony comes in the third part. Captured by the Russians, Kaji, the idealistic socialist, expects to be treated with justice and humanity. But Russia is dominated by a system as tyrannical as that of Japan—a huge portrait of Stalin glowers down on the interrogation room—and, labelled a "fascist samurai," Kaji finds himself enslaved and degraded like the Chinese whom he once supervised. Managing to escape, he tries to trek back to his beloved wife; but the Chinese peasantry, seeing in him only the hated and despised enemy, refuse him food, and he dies in the snow.

As Kaji, Tatsuya Nakadai—Kobayashi's favourite actor, in the role which brought him to fame—dominates the action with a performance of burning conviction, off-screen for no more than a few minutes of the film's epic duration. Repeatedly, Kobayashi emphasises his moral exposure, and the hopelessness of his stance, by isolating him in a bleak, sterile terrain—the ravaged mining landscape of the first part, the battlefield of the second, the final pitiless snowscape— that exploits Yoshio Miyajima's black-and-white scope cinematography to stunning effect. Yet the film includes moments of intimacy, even tenderness—as in the scene where Kaji, allowed a brief visit from his wife and sensing they may never meet again, asks her to stand naked by the dawn-lit window, to leave him with the memory of her beauty.

Ultimately, perhaps, the film suffers from its sheer size, from its relentlessly sombre mood. Content, impelled by the uncompromising seriousness of Kobayashi's vision, has burst the bounds of form; eased of the burden of his memories, the director would proceed to a finer alignment of the two in Seppuku ( Harakiri ) or Joiuchi ( Rebellion ). But Ningen no joken remains an achievement of extraordinary power and emotional resonance: at once a celebration of the resilience of the individual conscience, and a purging of that forced complicity in guilt (not just of a nation but, as the title implies, of the whole human race) which Kaji expiates through his death, and Kobayashi through the making of this film.

—Philip Kemp

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