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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Sun Sets in the East
by Donald Levit

Granted that it was fully a third of a century ago, that superlatives are meaningless, that the film title is not well known outside the Home Islands, and that David Shipman himself prefaced “in my opinion” to The Human Condition/Ningen no joken “is unequivocally the greatest film ever made.” Wherever it ranks, the b&w trilogy is must-see. Co-presented with the Japan Foundation, in partnership with Subway Cinema, the Museum of the Moving Image offered a weekend of rare subtitled 35mm of the full total nine hours thirty-nine minutes, plus an introduction by and Q&A with Japan’s iconic Tatsuya Nakadai, a spry eighty-two-year-old who regularly spends a fair portion of the year in New York and is marking his fourth time at MoMI. The stage-trained actor half-joked that, had he been paid like actors here, he would not have had to make some hundred sixty-five films.

No Greater Love, Road to Eternity (both 1959) and A Soldier’s Prayer (1961) are each divided into two parts, the whole beginning and ending in snowfall. Within a May series of nine films of director Masaki Kobayashi and his “discovery” Nakadai, they are among their country’s cinema considerations of World War II and the atrocities of which it was guilty which, seventy years on now, remain officially under-acknowledged. Uncompromising criticisms of war, nationalism, capitalism and blind obedience to authority, “all my pictures are concerned with resisting entrenched authority. . . . I’ve always challenged authority, true of my own life, including the military.” Despite the national success, and succès de scandale, of the trilogy, he was to make only twenty-two features altogether, more than partly because of a lack of Shochiku support.

Others, too, shook and took the nation, even the emperor, to task -- Kamei Fumio in the banned A Japanese Tragedy; Kon Ichikawa in The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain; Kazuo Hara with The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On; Shohei Imamura in ironic documentary A History of Postwar Japan As Told by a Bar Hostess and, from a different view, Black Rain; Koji Wakamatsu in also banned Caterpillar; and others. But, based on a six volume Jumpei Gomikawa novel, Kobayashi and Zenzô Matsuyama’s script goes on to fault the Imperial Army and, further, military mentality per se as also personified in the Manchuria/Manchukuo-conquering Red Soviet Army which turns out not to embody theoretical socialist freedom, equality and dignity but the same old rigid discipline only under a different pecking order. As Russian-American Vladimir Nabokov noted, “from time to time a thing called revolution would occur, turning the slaves into bullies and vice versa.”

Twenty-eight-year-old humanist-pacifist Kaji (Nakadai) is so idealistic that he will not sleep with Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), who just about launches herself at him, and only decides to marry the lovelorn woman when, to ensure draft deferment, he agrees to test out his management theories at desolate Loh Hu Long mining enterprise in Manchuria. Repeatedly throughout the three films, naïve insistence on upholding the “rights” of the defenseless downtrodden only gets him into hot water and worsens conditions for those he would “save.”

In this first part, he is opposed by corrupt gang bosses who oversee Chinese civilian slave workers and by arrogant army officers and Kenpeitai, military police, who cattle-car in POWs as additional forced laborers. His cohort Okishima (Sô Yamamura) is more realistic in insisting that tyranny can be countered only by force. Kaji refuses to give an inch and indirectly brings about the degradation or deaths of those who adhere to him and the retreat into greater venality and cynicism of the scores of comfort women.

In the latter two-thirds of the trilogy, Kaji’s liberalism is tested time and again, and while it will not yet break or bend, so-called moral victory emerges at best debatable. In retaliation for his championing the rights of each individual human being – humanism -- he is conscripted into the already-retreating army in 1943. His anguish at his own ineffectiveness strained husband-wife relations with Michiko to the point that she had briefly left, but his promise to return to her and to the life that was, keeps him faithful despite offers of flesh at the front and strengthens his resolve to survive.

Now PFC, Kaji cares for his platoon, which is sacrificed to military expedience and doomed by incompetence and shattered against Soviet tanks, weaponry, confidence and supplies. (In fact, and outside the film, the USSR, which Tokyo hoped would mediate to soften the Potsdam Conference call for unconditional surrender, only declared war on Japan two days after Hiroshima.) Joined and then left by various fleeing Japanese civilians and soldiers (on the whole too well fed to look “starving”), he and his few soldiers are taken prisoners of war, mistreated by former brothers-in-arms who kowtow to the victors as puppet overseers, and mistreated by Russian officers and Party members. Bearded and changed into sterner stuff, Kaji still suffers for the individuals under him. But a man can be driven only so far, and, human himself, he reacts in violence and base disregard for principles.

Sustained by his love in interior voiceovers to Michiko, he forces himself to physical and emotional limits. Austere in arrestingly uncluttered widescreen photography by Yoshio Miyajima, his tale of determination may be the true “final victory” that escapes army fanatics. Or it may be defeat, viewed through the lens of realistic pessimism.

The Human Condition is demanding and draining. At such length, the “titanic journalism” naturally has its longueurs, the many fights are awkwardly done, and the many characters at times difficult to keep straight. The whole, nevertheless, is film experience not to be missed. “It’s not my fault that I’m Japanese, yet it’s my worst crime that I am,” anguishes the hero whose every good intention turns to dross. Others see him as a “Japanese devil,” an enemy soldier or a traitor, a “filthy Red” and yet a “fascist samurai,” “faithless” and a breaker of promises, an arrogant bluenose or a timeserver, or as nothing but a man, that is, “a mass of lust and greed that absorbs and excretes.” Not only Japan’s centuries-sanctified beliefs crumbled in this war, but the entire world’s, to be replaced by uncertainly and existential angst.

(Released by Janus Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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