Film Review: Ningen no jôken (The Human Condition), Episode 1: No Greater Love

Posted: January 22, 2013 in Films
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The Human Condition (film trilogy)

The Human Condition (film trilogy) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Japanese film trilogy Ningen no jôken (1959-61) is an ethicist’s smorgasborg.

The protagonist, Kaji, is a well-meaning humanist who constantly finds himself swimming against the tide first as a factory manager in Japanese-occupied Manchuria (Episode 1), then as a drafted soldier (Episode 2) and lastly as a battle survivor trying to survive amid enemy forces (Episode 3).

In this review I’ll look only at Episode 1 because of its focus on labour and management. Episodes 2 and 3 deal with warfare.

It’s fair to say the film, and novel on which it is based, are the fruit of a penitent Japanese wondering, post-war, how things got so out of hand and what happened to the voices of restraint.

Kaji begins the film as an idealistic and newlywed graduate sent to Manchukuo, Japan’s puppet state in Northeast China, during World War II. He works in a factory making iron which is of course critical to the war effort. It feels like a long time ago but then I remembered that Samsung was created next-door in Japanese-occupied Korea prior to the events portrayed in this film (as covered in this book).

Fresh from his studies, one of Kaji’s core beliefs is that workers will be more productive if treated well, rather than being beaten and punished for mistakes. This belief is treated with contempt by all the other Japanese. The factory manager indulges him however, believing he’ll learn better in time.

Kaji’s strong principles would make him a whistleblower if the circumstances arose but the film presents him in a much more tragic light. There are no rules being broken because the standards that Kaji espouse have never been legislated, have never become the standards of Japanese society. The corruption of the system is so complete that no one higher up would hear his appeals anyway.

Eventually it goes terribly wrong. Firstly his moralising makes Kaji a target for his colleagues who want to teach him a lesson. Secondly though he gives the workers, most of whom are prisoners, too much credit. They are desperate men while he is a pampered Japanese and they continue to act self-interestedly, weakening Kaji’s influence. In the end several are put to death for an escape attempt which Kaji inadvertently facilitated. He is stricken with guilt and interrupts the execution but has now become an isolated figure, disliked by the Japanese but now hated even more fiercely by the Chinese. The film closes with him being called up for army service, apparently at the behest of the fed-up site manager, which sets the stage for Episode 2.

The film is an exceptional tragedy, a story of a man brought down not by his character flaws but by his high principles. It’s also an indictment on indifference, on comfortably going along with what everyone else does. Even in A Few Good Men, for example, there was some moral ambiguity. The Colonel’s departing line “You have just weakened a nation” has some truth to it. However in Ningen no jôken there is no question that Imperial Japan is totally corrupt and really needs to be weakened. No one proves capable of doing it from within.

As we look around our present-day milieu, what do we see? Looking at environmental and human rights problems, there’s always an argument for moral greyness about them, which usually comes down to prosperity. Well Imperial Japan and even its vassal territories prospered too; history doesn’t judge them kindly. Prosperity is not reason enough. Are we the bit-part characters of the film? Happily going along with what is ugly in the world because we benefit from it?

Update 4/4/13: Incredibly a group of Chinese who were forced to work for the Japanese in Manchukuo -specifically for Mitsubishi- are just now banding together to demand an apology and compensation. To quote another film (Magnolia): ‘We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us’.

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  1. marksolock says:

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  2. […] Film review: Ningen no Joken, Episode 1 22 January 2013 […]

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