dir. Masaki Kobayashi
“Is that the universal solution to human dilemmas: it can’t be helped?”
Jesus good God fuck Christ. Man. Fuck. I mean...Jesus. How do I...I mean, what can you...I mean...man.
Has a movie ever just completely knocked the wind out of you? I mean, just completely cock-punched what remained of your soul after it spent hours battering it into near oblivion? Well, that would be paradise compared to what was done to me by Masaki Kobayashi’s Human Condition series—my new favorite film trilogy (yeah, I really like the sad).
As listeners of my podcast are already aware (listen to the podcast if you don’t already, fuckers), I’ve spent the last few weeks making my way through Kobayashi’s mammoth nine-and-a-half-hour trilogy. As you podcast-listeners also know, long movies are generally not my thing, so I’m just as surprised as you that I actually got around to watching Kobayashi’s sad-fest. The Human Condition trilogy had long been one of those good intention films: I put it on my Netflix queue so that I could say, ‘see, I’m a good film scholar; I’m eating my cinematic vegetables; I’m putting this long-as-fuck, revered Japanese film series on my list...to watch eventually,’ knowing full well that I’d continue to push it further down on the list so that I could make room for Jason X and the like. But, as you also know (Jesus, I’m really assuming that people love reading my blog and listening to my podcast), I made a vow to myself last year that, not only would I stop rearranging my queue, I wouldn’t even look at it—let come what may. Like hiding pees in mashed potatoes, I knew it the only way to trick myself into watching what was good for me.
And though I actually loved Kobayashi’s trilogy, I wasn’t even sure at first I’d write about it. I mean, setting aside the fact that I am none too comfortable writing about classics, I already talked it up a great deal on the podcast. But seeing as I wasn’t able to record an episode after finishing the third film, I felt I had to cover it somewhere on my blog; so why not just do a catch-all review of all three films. This is about the only way to approach these films, anyway: all together like. After all, despite the massive combined running time and sprawling nature of these films, they are best appreciated as one piece. One depressing, depressing, depressing nine-and-a-half-hour piece.
Which, yeah, what balls on Kobayashi. He led us on this agonizing three-movie long journey, visiting unspeakable harm on his idealistic, humanist hero Kaji, a man who slowly hardened as the series progressed, becoming just as brutal and cynical as the instruments of totalitarianism he previously despised; a man bowed by a system, a force greater than himself: ultimately succumbing to the unrelenting, unforgiving, indifferent yet cruel totality of existence. Where an American film of this sort would offer us hope in the final act, reaffirming the primacy of the individual in the face of great odds, Kobayshi pantses us and takes our lunch money.
Now I don’t want to imply that Kobayash was ballsy just for giving viewers a downer ending. I actually believe most movie-viewers are more forgiving, far more open to bleak than they’re given credit for. It’s somehow taken as fact that movie-watching people don’t want sad endings; they want happy times, trouble-forgetting escapes from reality. Well, then how do you explain the success of such unhappy-ending fare as Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, and pretty much every noir? So, no, I don’t buy that people refuse to pay to be saddened.
But there are limits to what they’ll take. If people are going to sit through nine and a half hours of anything, they’re gonna want at least a little something to feel good about afterwards. I mean, imagine if, during the climax of the third Lord of the Rings film, just as Frodo is about to toss the ring into the fires of Mordor, he slowly starves/freezes to death after escaping a Soviet POW camp so that he can trudge through the harsh Siberian hellscape and make his way back to his beloved Michiko, a woman he hopes is still waiting for him, but who had already been violated to death after Allied forces liberated Manchuria from the Japanese. Now, I can’t say I can predict exactly how Rings fans would have reacted to such an ending, but I’m pretty sure that photos of Jackson would have been accompanied by somber music on various nightly newscasts. (Of course, as far as I’m concerned, such an ending would have been far preferable to Jackson’s decision to give his film as many endings as there are stars in the sky.)
So it’s astounding to me that something like The Human Condition trilogy got made. Yes, you might be saying, but it’s a Japanese series; it is not tethered to the rules of Hollywood dream-making. It’s all just cultural differences: non-American audiences are more sophisticated; they don’t need to be spoon-fed pabulum. Explain that to the mid-century Japanese fans of Kobayashi’s first two Human Condition movies who sent the director letters, pleading to give Kaji a happy ending in the finale. Well, you can’t because time travel doesn’t exist. And most of those people are probably dead by now.
And yes, I do realize that I just spilled close to a thousand words without yet actually discussing the movie, but...yeah, I just did that.