Cineastes often share a mutual reverence for auteurist films that far exceed conventional running times—an admiration that might just be masking a hifalutin set of clubby bragging rights that comes from enduring, say, seven and a half hours of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó or 12 and a half hours of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1. (I’ve done both—so eat it!) Yet marathon length does not a sacred cow make, and not every epic warrants its gluteal punishment.
The three-part fuming World War II bummer The Human Condition (1959-61)—considered the magnum opus of socially critical Japanese filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri)—runs just shy of 10 hours and is an arduous watch in ways beyond its creator’s intentions. Based on Jumpei Gomikawa’s ambitious novel and seasoned with Kobayashi’s own experiences, this overly melodramatic trilogy set in Japanese-occupied Manchuria depicts the dehumanizing brutality of war with on-the-nose pedantry, never subtext, and offers little richness to Western eyes already adjusted to the next half-century’s deeper anti-war tales.
In Part I, No Greater Love, doe-eyed pacifist and loving husband Kaji (Film Forum’s summer hero, Tatsuya Nakadai) dodges conscription by taking a managerial position at a prison mining camp, where he’s quickly outraged by the merciless slave-labor conditions and the corrupt bosses condoning them. Futilely fighting for humane reforms, his idealism begins to buckle under the weight of daily oppression. It’s a damning portrayal of Japan’s mistreatment of the Chinese, to be sure, and even more so for the Japanese director’s adherence to actual history so soon after the war—though it needn’t take three-plus hours to repeatedly hammer home that angry point.
Part II indeed feels like The Road to Eternity, in which Kobayashi employs every battlefield cliché as the increasingly embittered Kaji is drafted as an army grunt and continually accused of being a “Red.” Holding up better A Soldier’s Prayer, set in the war’s aftermath as Kaji—the sole survivor of his wandering, starving unit—surrenders to Russian troops and faces more spiritual shattering in a POW camp. One could easily conclude there’s no happy ending in sight.
Nakadai gives a wonderfully wringer-wrung performance, and Kwaidan cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima’s black-and-white ‘Scope spaciousness is stunning (John Ford called from beyond the grave; he wants his clouds back), but neither justifies the anticipation over this vaunted rarity’s Film Forum run. Lesson learned: Man exploits his fellow man while being exploited himself. We get it already!