Masaki Kobayashi’s epic nearly 9 hour film (released in 6 parts) asks a core question–can a human be a human in a wartime. His film follows Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) an idealistic young labor manager who rebels against the oppressive exploitation of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. He starts as labor manager of a mine where his humanistic treatment of the prisoners gets him arrested and inducted into the army. In training and under suspicion of anti-military sentiments, he takes beatings from the savage NCOs in order to save his own men from beatings. But when the Soviets roll through Manchuria in 1945, he is one of the only men to survive. He becomes a leader of the survivors, in part through using the violence that he hates. All he wants is to meet his wife again. When he finally surrenders to the Soviets, he think he will meet the socialist paradise but instead finds it just as brutal as the camp he ran in China. Like the Chinese before him, he escapes into the harsh wilderness.
One could say so much about a 9 hour film. Is it too long? Yes. It’s adapted from a novel and is very literary. There are a lot of characters, many of them not really necessary for the film. Kobayashi could have cut this to 3 1/2 hours and still have an epic well worth making. Yet the overriding human emotion of the film carries it through, not to mention some pretty good action from time to time.
A couple of notes I found interesting. For one, it’s the rare film that’s very much about labor relations. It almost could be shown in a labor relations class, or at least the first part in the mine. For a Marxist, Kaji is also a company unionist. Perhaps there was no other option for an idealistic young socialist in militarized Japan. But this was a guy born to be an American company union manager in the 1920s.
It also feels to me a bit like a justification for the American occupation of Japan. The Americans play no role in the film except in talk. But the film is strongly critical of both the violent Japanese militarism and of the Soviet alternative. Kaji is dealing with fascists and thugs all the time in his attempt to remain human. The real enemy is Japan. The film is a strong repudiation of that era. But Kaji socialist dream is a nightmare when he meets it. What’s left but the Americans and capitalism? Which would have been perfect for Kaji.
And the answer to whether one can remain a humanist during war is no, or at least not that war. Not that Kaji doesn’t try. But in some ways, he’s almost inhuman in doing so. He avoids women when all the rest of the men and women in the Japanese refugee camp are desperate for any kind of human contact, any hope of survival, even through the night. For a humanist, Kaji is sometimes not all that human.