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Film Club: The Human Condition (Kobayashi, 1959-1961)

The Human ConditionFebruary’s Akira Kurosawa film club title is Masaki Kobayashi‘s epic film trilogy The Human Condition (人間の條件, Ningen no jōken), released between 1959 and 1961. The almost 10 hour long work follows the story of Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a Japanese pacifist with socialist leanings, as he navigates through World War II under the oppressive conditions imposed by the fascist totalitarian state. The individual films are titled No Greater Love, Road to Eternity and A Soldier’s Prayer.

For a proper introduction to the films, I refer you to Philip Kemp’s essay, which is part of the Criterion set and can also be read online. It gives a good overview of the films’ background and spells out the trilogy’s themes and topics without going too deeply into the storyline.

Thematically, we have paired The Human Condition with January’s film club title Red Beard, and it would be interesting to hear how you think Kobayashi’s epic may have influenced or inspired Kurosawa.

The Human Condition is available as a Criterion (Region 1) DVD.

Next month, we will not be returning to a Kurosawa directed film but will start our short detour through Kurosawa’s Hollywood adventure, watching Runaway Train (Konchalovsky, 1985) in March and Tora! Tora! Tora! (Fleischer-Fukasaku-Masuda 1970) in April. For background reading on these films, I would highly recommend Hiroshi Tasogawa‘s excellent book on the subject, All the Emperor’s Men. It is one of the best Akira Kurosawa books out there.

We return to our regular programming in May with Dodesukaden. Information about the availability of all of these films, as well as the full Kurosawa film club schedule can be found here.


Discussion

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Vili Maunula

I finished the first film today and quite liked it. However, I was left with a couple of observations and thought that I’d drop them here in case anyone else has started going through the trilogy:

1) I found the framing in the film a little strange. What’s up with it?

Often the camera frames the on-screen characters in a way that makes them look like they are drowning. These shots are somewhere between a medium shot and a medium close up, with the frame cutting the characters off around their stomach area. Yet, plenty of space is left above these characters. It feels very uncomfortable, almost amateurish framing, but I wonder if it was done on purpose.

At least in a few cases it probably is, as characters move in ways that use the space better. But I would say that in a majority of cases, this is not true, as characters don’t move.

It is an interesting contrast to Kurosawa, who would probably have moved the camera to constantly re-frame as characters move around.

These shots are also typically given from low angles. In fact, there seemed to be very few high angle shots in the whole film. It keeps us grounded.

2) Does the content of the first film justify its length? I’m not sure that it does. It’s not a slow film, or at least my time passed nicely while watching it, but ultimately not that much happens, and the characters aren’t really developed that much either. As a three-and-a-half hour film, it could perhaps have included more?

Of course, it really is just the first third of the whole story, so perhaps we will be rewarded later for our patience.

3) With that said, the characters are quite one-dimensional.

4) And I’m not sure if Kaji is the most interesting point of view character here. I was wondering what the story would look like if seen primarily through the eyes of the young Chinese man who is trying to get flour to his sick mother and later ends up helping the prisoners escape.

5) Also, Japanese actors speaking Chinese didn’t really work for me, even if I don’t speak a word of Chinese myself.

6) But boy are the Japanese guards really strong! The people they attack are often hurt even when the guards are actually just waving their arms close to them and not making any contact. 😉

Anyway, all in all I did like it and look forward to continuing the story and seeing what happens to Kaji’s humanism.

By the way, I know that I’m a little behind with all the other discussions here but I hope to get to them soon.

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Ugetsu

I’m still waiting for my copy from Amazon – I ordered it two weeks ago, but it seems it has to come via the US. Amazon seems remarkably slow these days, I’ve ordered a few things lately which seem to be stuck in some sort of limbo.

Its a pity its not on Moviemail, they are doing a big sale on Japanese dvd’s right now, including a few Kurosawa films.

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Ugetsu

I’m half way through the second film now, and really enjoying it. The first film was a bit overlong and melodramatic for my taste, but its really getting into its stride in the second film – it is very gripping and dramatic.

A few thoughts so far:

1. This is maybe worthy of a post in its own right, but the theme seems to owe a lot to The Idiot (presumably the original book, not necessarily Kurosawa’s film). I’ve written before that I’ve struggled with the book/film – but in the case of The Human Condition I see the central ‘good’ character as a much more believable and better version of a ‘good man in a bad world’. Perhaps because in this film it doesn’t have the layers of Christian allegory that seems to go with Dostoevsky.

2. I am very surprised at just how brutal and realistic the film is, given the dates it was made. It really does not hold back in showing the horrors of the Japanese colonial system. I’m surprised that it is so wholly on the side of the Chinese. Having said that, I think the depiction of the various minor Japanese authority figures is very well done – a realistic mix of decent men who have stopped fighting the system, jumped up opportunists, socially maladjusted men who have found a ‘meaning’ in discipline, blind ideologues and pure psychopaths.

3. Related to the above, I find the performances universally superb, a masterclass in ensemble acting. Great to see so many familiar faces from Kurosawa and Ozu films, although maybe not so good to hear their horrible mangled versions of mandarin.

4. Related to 3, I really wish they’d dubbed the actors Mandarin! Even with my limited language skills, I can see they are making a horrible attempt to speak it.

5. I really like Kobayashi’s directing style – very direct and muscular. But – and this is something I’ve noticed in his other films – his films lack the natural flow and rhythm of Kurosawa at his best. How much is down to the director and how much to the editor I don’t know, but the film has a bit of a choppy feel to it. The ending of film one is also quite peculiar, it seems to have been hacked up a little, there are some unconnected scenes.

6. I love the photography and the use of sets – the spoil heaps of the iron ore mines are used superbly. I kept wondering where the film was made – some of the scenes do look very like northern Manchuria, although I doubt it could have been shot there. Maybe north Hokkaido?

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: 1. This is maybe worthy of a post in its own right, but the theme seems to owe a lot to The Idiot (presumably the original book, not necessarily Kurosawa’s film). I’ve written before that I’ve struggled with the book/film – but in the case of The Human Condition I see the central ‘good’ character as a much more believable and better version of a ‘good man in a bad world’. Perhaps because in this film it doesn’t have the layers of Christian allegory that seems to go with Dostoevsky.

That’s an interesting comparison. I think that another reason why the character in The Human Condition feels more real is that he is not introduced as someone suffering from an illness. He just is what he is. Also, although his intentions are good he doesn’t really manage to do good.

Ugetsu: 2. I am very surprised at just how brutal and realistic the film is, given the dates it was made. It really does not hold back in showing the horrors of the Japanese colonial system. I’m surprised that it is so wholly on the side of the Chinese.

I wouldn’t say that the film is on the side of the Chinese. They, too, are very flawed and the outcome of the first film could have been much better for everyone had they co-operated with Kaji. But they are unable to trust him, Kaji is unable to understand or accept that what should work in theory doesn’t work in practice, and the Japanese war machine is more interested in ends than means.

Ugetsu: 5. I really like Kobayashi’s directing style – very direct and muscular. But – and this is something I’ve noticed in his other films – his films lack the natural flow and rhythm of Kurosawa at his best.

In terms of directing style, there appears to be a difference between the first and the second film. In the first film we had plenty of low angle shots, but these seemed to have disappeared in the second one.

I agree that the films lack the dynamism of Kurosawa’s best films. Some edits are even a little awkward, and there are camera movements which didn’t feel quite right. But I would say that the second film seems visually more confident than the first.

Ugetsu: 6. I love the photography and the use of sets – the spoil heaps of the iron ore mines are used superbly. I kept wondering where the film was made – some of the scenes do look very like northern Manchuria, although I doubt it could have been shot there. Maybe north Hokkaido?

That would indeed be interesting to know! Much of it looks very much like a set to me, but some of the scenes, especially in the second film, must have been on location somewhere.

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Ugetsu

Vili:

That’s an interesting comparison. I think that another reason why the character in The Human Condition feels more real is that he is not introduced as someone suffering from an illness. He just is what he is. Also, although his intentions are good he doesn’t really manage to do good.

I think its interesting that we are given no reason for his ‘goodness’. The film seems resolute in avoiding any suggestion that he may have been influenced by religion or philosophy – just the vague intimation that he is left wing politically.

I wouldn’t say that the film is on the side of the Chinese. They, too, are very flawed and the outcome of the first film could have been much better for everyone had they co-operated with Kaji. But they are unable to trust him, Kaji is unable to understand or accept that what should work in theory doesn’t work in practice, and the Japanese war machine is more interested in ends than means.

I think that the way the Chinese are portrayed is very interesting. Rather than being a mass of ‘innocents’ or whatever, the variety of prisoners are emphasised – some nobel and strong, some headstrong, some venal and cowardly, some just doing their best to survive. I think its impressive how the script is so even handed. I suppose its an advantage of a film of such length that you can develop minor characters. I find it hard to think of many – if any – war films which has depicted both sides in such depth and complexity and fair-mindedness.

In terms of directing style, there appears to be a difference between the first and the second film. In the first film we had plenty of low angle shots, but these seemed to have disappeared in the second one.

I just finished film 2 last night and its fantastic. It is very obviously much better edited and put together than the first film – perhaps the first film was chopped about a little by the studio? It certainly looked that way to me. There was something very wrong about the last scene, it seemed quite disconnected.

The tank battle scene at the end of film 2 is one of the very best I’ve ever seen (and it had me wondering again where they shot it – I think the tanks were US Shermans so perhaps it was in Korea).

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Ugetsu

I just watched part 5 last night. Really gripping tension and heart-rending. The story never lets up on the horrors of war and the deep damage it does to the psyche of the soldiers. The depiction of the ‘minor’ characters – in this case, the various Japanese refugees the soldiers have to help is impressive. Again, technically the film is superb, some amazing shots, especially the opening scenes where a line of Soviet trucks power through the darkness lighting up the landscape with their headlights. Kobayashi’s technique of using flashbacks to illuminate the horrors of individual moments which are quickly shown previously is very powerful. And the scenes in the forest have something of the mystery and horror of Rashomon. Although again, curiously, the final scenes of this segment have a curiously choppy and abrupt feel to the editing, making it feel like it was done in a rush, or something was crudely edited out either for timing or other reasons.

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Ugetsu

I finished the last part last night. What an incredibly intense film. It is easily the best anti-war Japanese film I’ve seen and arguably the best I’ve seen from any country. I can’t think of any equivalent film which gives such equal weight to the humanity of all players in a war – the different sides, the civilians, soldiers and hangers-on. Some of the scenes in the last 2 parts are quite extraordinary. The final parts are desperately gruelling and the ending intensely sad, but it is very much the work of an angry poet.

I’ll post more when I do a little more reading and I watch the rest of the ‘extras’ on the Criterion disk, but I did watch the interview with the director Masahiro Shinoda which was very enlightening. A few points from this:

1. The film was indeed mostly filmed in Hokkaido, but they went to huge lengths to get exactly the right landscapes and even to wait until the clouds were right to match the landscapes Kobayashi remembered from his time in China.

2. I hadn’t realised this, but both Kobayashi and the writer of the book (Jumpei Gomikawa) had both been soldiers and POWs in Japan, and both had refused promotions to the officer class because they did not wish to be implicated in the militarism of the time. Many elements of the story and of Kaji’s experiences seem quite autobiographical for both men. This would obviously account for the incredible realism of so many of the scenes and I think gives us assurance that this really is what it was like for a Japanese ordinary soldier of the time. It is also clear that Kaji’s political journey reflects their own – a vague hope that Soviet socialism offered an alternative way to Japanese militarism and fascism, but experience as a POW in Manchuria cured them of that illusion.

3. A major criticism Shinoda (and others) had of the film is what they considered the unrealistic and distracting central love story. He attributes it to the romanticism of Kobayashi and Gomikawas reputation and their love of 1930’s French cinema (or more broadly, the popularity of this cinema with Japanese people at that time).

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lawless

Obviously I’m far behind the two of you, but … I finished watching Part 1 a couple of days ago and am not sure when I’ll find time to watch the remaining hour and a half. (Sharing a TV with someone who doesn’t like to watch anything subtitled or in B&W is a pain.) So here are my thoughts on Part 1:

1. I <3 Tatsuya Nakadai. Seriously. I have yet to see him in something and not think he's doing a stellar job. Plus, while he doesn't quite have a much range as, say, Shimura, he's got somewhat more range than Mifune.

2. The script is a little, shall we say, didactic? Simplistic? But this may be the fault of the source material itself.

3. Oh, Kaji, you are so doing things wrong. He's something of a cliche, but if nothing else this proves how useless idealism is as a way of coping with a corrupt and brutal world. I am reminded of this: "The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light" (Luke 16:8, the parable of the dishonest steward, one of the most puzzling and problematic of Jesus' parables) and "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16).

The bottom line is: Be wise and shrewd, not naive, understand human psychology, and act strategically. Otherwise you will be as ineffective as Kaji, who is going to reap the exact opposite of what he wishes to sow because he's congenitally unable to come at a problem from any direction but head-on.

4. I cannot let this pass without a comment about the "comfort women." This is going to sound like a repeat of my comments about Rashomon, but of everything in Part 1, their depiction is the one that strikes a false note to me. It is inconceivable that women in their position would uniformly be as upbeat and seductive as they are depicted, especially behind the scenes. See this video and these articles, all of which discuss rape and sexual slavery/coercion. Among other things, the video shows Japanese shouting epithets at former “comfort women” from Korea demonstrating in Tokyo, calling them bitches and whores. WTF, I don’t even.

This is true even if Kobayashi encountered so-called “comfort women” during the war; what he saw wouldn’t necessarily be indicative of their lived experience, and if he availed himself of their services, it’s likely that they were acting during his encounter with them, as in he thought it was sex and from their perspective it was just another act of subjugation and rape. (And I am giving him the benefit of the doubt here and assuming that he was one of the minority of Japanese soldiers who were not brutal and uncaring toward the “comfort women.”)

This is said in all seriousness. It’s possible that I have relatives in Korea who were so-called “comfort women” during the war (certainly many of the women shown in the video resemble my now-deceased aunts). The government of Japan to this day refuses to acknowledge and formally apologize for coercing, kidnapping, and tricking women from all over Asia (but primarily Korea and China) to participate. (There were Japanese comfort women too; it’s possible some of them went willingly and without any form of coercion (including economic), but I’ll bet most of them didn’t.) This is one war crime from WWII that has gone unredressed.

So yes, the movie is good at showing the brutality of war. Except when it isn’t.

5. Ugetsu said:

A major criticism Shinoda (and others) had of the film is what they considered the unrealistic and distracting central love story.

Which central love story — the one between the prisoner and the comfort woman (which did happen occasionally) or the one between Kaji and his wife?

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lawless

Some more points I forgot to include in the previous post:

6. Notwithstanding my comments on the portrayal of the “comfort women,” this was a movie that took courage to make even as is. But it would have been more powerful and less clunky (especially if the love story referenced in 5. above is the one between the prisoner and the “comfort woman”) if the whole story could have been told.

7. I realize that this was probably improbable (or impossible) and impolitic at the time the movie was made, but using Chinese actors for the Chinese roles would have solved the problem with the mangling of Mandarin. (I’m a little surprised (and impressed) that Kobayashi bothered to use Mandarin to begin with instead of Japanese.) These days this would be an even bigger issue. I remember the furor over the use of Chinese actresses in Memoirs of a Geisha. The argument was that there were Chinese actresses able to work and take direction in English who had the requisite cinematic presence and were familiar to American audiences when there were no Japanese actresses with equivalent credentials. (The movie was almost entirely shot in the US.)

Then there are all the roles that have historically been or continue to be whitewashed (Ricardo Montalban and Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan; Johnny Depp as Tonto; just about every role in M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action movie The Last Airbender, etc., etc.) In this regard, it is interesting (and instructive) that parts written as African-American are almost always cast with African-Americans; it is First Nations/native American, Middle Eastern, Asian, and some Latino roles that continue to be whitewashed.

It also works from the opposite end of the spectrum with regard to fantasy/superhero roles: white people protest casting Anthony Mackie as the Falcon and Idris Elba as Heimdall, as well as characters whom The Hunger Games books described as dark-skinned but whom millions of white readers perceived to be the default race: white.

For a website devoted to calling out this kind of thing, see this.

8. It is ironic that the very thing that allowed Kaji to marry because it guaranteed an exemption from the military not only causes problems in his marriage, but his performance on the job (or lack of it, from the company’s point of view) also causes him to lose his exemption, so he winds up in the military anyway.

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Ugetsu

Lawless

Obviously I’m far behind the two of you, but … I finished watching Part 1 a couple of days ago and am not sure when I’ll find time to watch the remaining hour and a half. (Sharing a TV with someone who doesn’t like to watch anything subtitled or in B&W is a pain.) So here are my thoughts on Part 1:

Thats a pity! Parts 2 and 3 are very significantly better than Part 1. Its not just that Part 1 has the problem of setting up the characters and the scene, I get the impression that the director and crew simply developed more confidence as they went on – the editing and acting becomes more natural and has a better flow. I hope you get the chance to see them, because certainly Part 2 is gripping and very entertaining (if you can use such a term for such a grim topic).

This is true even if Kobayashi encountered so-called “comfort women” during the war; what he saw wouldn’t necessarily be indicative of their lived experience, and if he availed himself of their services, it’s likely that they were acting during his encounter with them, as in he thought it was sex and from their perspective it was just another act of subjugation and rape. (And I am giving him the benefit of the doubt here and assuming that he was one of the minority of Japanese soldiers who were not brutal and uncaring toward the “comfort women.”)

I will put my military nerd hat on now (I’ve been using it too much with Tora Tora Tora ) here to say that I do actually think the depiction of the comfort women is possibly accurate. One of the key features of the Japanese army at the time was that in comparison to western armies it was incredibly decentralised – local commanders had a huge amount of discretion as to how they ruled the area under their control. The result was that Japanese Imperialism had a very different nature across its range – from Taiwan, where the soldiers were kept under a tight rein and the commanders were (relatively) humane, to Korea and parts of non-Manchuria China where it was staggeringly and sickeningly brutal. Unfortunately, the ‘comfort women’ issue has been politicised to the extent that it is assumed that it was the same everywhere. The academic work on comfort women that I have read (and I have read quite a bit on this topic in the past) indicates that the most brutal treatment was in Korea and parts of China, where local women (and sometimes ethnic Korean or Buraku Japanese women) were recruited and used as sex slaves. But otherwise, the women (and sometimes boys/men) recruited ranged from refugees doing tricks for money to professional prostitutes maintaining at least some autonomy and control over their professional lives, to lower social strata local women uses as chattels by brothel keepers, with slaves recruited by the Army at the end most appalling end of the spectrum. So I don’t think the notion that the soldiers were served by a group of professional Chinese prostitutes with some autonomy is necessarily un-historic. But obviously the background of Kobayashi and his writer means that they would not necessarily have really known or understood much about those women – and indeed it is possible that depicting them as sex slaves might have been seen as a step too far in realism for the contemporary audience to stomach so he deliberately stepped back from this.

7. I realize that this was probably improbable (or impossible) and impolitic at the time the movie was made, but using Chinese actors for the Chinese roles would have solved the problem with the mangling of Mandarin. (I’m a little surprised (and impressed) that Kobayashi bothered to use Mandarin to begin with instead of Japanese.) These days this would be an even bigger issue. I remember the furor over the use of Chinese actresses in Memoirs of a Geisha. The argument was that there were Chinese actresses able to work and take direction in English who had the requisite cinematic presence and were familiar to American audiences when there were no Japanese actresses with equivalent credentials. (The movie was almost entirely shot in the US.)

I’d agree with this, but by the standards of the day it was unusual I think that at least the characters spoke Mandarin (bearing in mind that this film was made at the same time as Breakfast at Tiffany’s could feature Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man). There are several Japanese films from the period which had Japanese actors playing Chinese. I suppose much of it was simply logistical – the studio would insist on using the usual range of actors rather than go to the trouble of maybe going to somewhere like Malaysia or Taiwan to recruit ethnic Chinese. But I’m glad now that film makers are at least a little more sensitive about the subject.

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lawless

I watched Part 2, and don’t have much more to add to my reactions to Part 1 other than to say that I thought some of the unusual way shots were framed (such as when Kao is executed) were meant to reflect how disorienting the experience is for Kaji and that Part 2 got more melodramatic than I expected. Also some of Nakadai’s acting is hammy, but I think that goes hand in hand with the melodrama.

Tora Tora Tora is next on my Netflix queue, so it’ll be awhile before I have more to say about The Human Condition.

As for the question of the “comfort women,” (a) the term, which was used in the subtitled translation, means something specific to me; (b) since they’re in Manchuria, wouldn’t most (if not all) of the women involved be Chinese, which would increase the likelihood that they were unwilling participants to begin with? Maybe not all of them, but most.

I’m more familiar with the stories of those women who were forced by the Japanese military into such work as young teens than anyone who did it of their own volition. We can also argue about how voluntary the choices are of anyone who engages in sex work for lack of other opportunities or because it pays significantly better than other kinds of work, which is often the case for women and sometimes is the case for teenage boys, but that’s kind of beside the point here. I still don’t believe in the depiction of women who engage in sex with prisoners of war as glamorous, sexy, well-dressed, and seductive. Some of them, maybe. All of them? That’s another archetypal male fantasy that is jarring in a movie that clearly aims for realism.

As for using Chinese vs. Japanese actors: Maybe this is unfair, given when the movie was made, but I expect more out of Asian cinema than out of Hollywood, so I don’t think the comparison with Breakfast at Tiffany’s is apt. Asian actors were all but invisible in Western (read: US media) at that point — not surprising, given that legal immigration from Asia (as in coming to the US to live permanently) wasn’t thrown wide open until changes in immigration law that took place in 1965. Nowadays we have reason to expect more, but Asian actors still get the short end of the stick.

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Ugetsu

Lawless:

As for the question of the “comfort women,” (a) the term, which was used in the subtitled translation, means something specific to me; (b) since they’re in Manchuria, wouldn’t most (if not all) of the women involved be Chinese, which would increase the likelihood that they were unwilling participants to begin with? Maybe not all of them, but most.

I’m at the limits of my knowledge of the period, but I do think that the Japanese establishment at the time made quite a firm distinction between Manchuria and the rest of China – Manchuria being considered essentially ‘home territory’, almost a Greater Japan and as such the locals had more recourse to the law than people in other conquered territories. So I think its likely that ethnic Chinese from Manchuria would have been treated significantly better than Koreans or ‘other’ Chinese – this being reflected in the way the slave labourers in the quarry were non-Manchurian. I can’t recall if there was any hint that the comfort women were considered Manchu or not. Its not clear to me in the context of the film as to whether the comfort women were considered the equivalent of the slave Chinese labourers or the paid Manchu labourers – I assumed that because their camp was outside the secured wire area the latter was the case, but I’m not so sure about that now. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into the details supplied by the film. I take your point though that for most of the sex workers, the question of whether they could be considered to have free choice in the matter is moot – clearly all of them would have rather been doing pretty much anything else. And you are right of course that the film does veer uncomfortably close to depicting some of the women as being quite glamorous, which is certainly not realistic.

As for using Chinese vs. Japanese actors: Maybe this is unfair, given when the movie was made, but I expect more out of Asian cinema than out of Hollywood, so I don’t think the comparison with Breakfast at Tiffany’s is apt. Asian actors were all but invisible in Western (read: US media) at that point — not surprising, given that legal immigration from Asia (as in coming to the US to live permanently) wasn’t thrown wide open until changes in immigration law that took place in 1965. Nowadays we have reason to expect more, but Asian actors still get the short end of the stick.

Yes, sorry, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is perhaps a bad example. I recall reading a somewhat apologetic interview with Blake Edwards who said that they cast Rooney as they considered the character a ‘comedy’ role, a bit like having Peter Sellers play a comedy Frenchman. It was only much later he said that they realised how insensitive it was. It does seem a curiosity that Hollywood in that period almost never cast Asian-Americans in appropriate roles, even to the point of getting in Japanese actors from Japan to play parts when there was a need for a Japanese or Chinese character. Interestingly, casting was a bit more ethnically mixed in the old days of silent films – perhaps then the industry was less interested in being uncontroversial and playing to a notional white middle-American audience.

I’m not sure that modern Asian cinema is necessarily better. I know some of my Chinese friends loathed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon because of the casting of Cantonese and Chinese-Malay actors in mandarin speaking roles (not quite the same thing I know), and there have been various controversies about the topic in a few Asian countries, mainly I think when Korean or Japanese actors who were seen as ‘box office’ have been cast as Chinese or other Asian characters in various films.

Incidentally, the other Japanese film I was thinking of which cast Japanese as Chinese characters was Mizoguchi’s Princess Yang Kwei-fei, easily the worst Mizoguchi film I’ve seen.

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lawless

I’ve now watched Disc 2, and have the following comments:

1. I concur that this is a noticeable improvement on Disc 1, particularly in terms of story/writing and cinematography, and am impressed by how realistic it all seems. In particular, the amount of careless, unthinking brutality that takes place among the soldiers and during combat takes my breath away. I am surprised that Kobayashi got away with such an unvarnished portrayal. Subject to revision upon seeing disc 3, this is by far the most anti-war film, not to speak of the most effective anti-war film, that I’ve ever seen. Seven Samurai (which I consider an anti-war film) pales in comparison. So does Saving Private Ryan, which, while it shows the violence of war, still makes it seem noble.

Part 3

2. Obara (the soldier who commits suicide) came across to me as physically incapable of performing his duties, which made the abuse he was subject to that much harder to watch. Were a physical exam and medical clearance required before induction, and were there exemptions for medical conditions?

3. Kaji blaming Obara’s wife to her face for his suicide seemed out of character for someone normally more compassionate than that. The only explanation I could think of was that this meant that she heard more about the circumstances of her husband’s suicide than she might otherwise and might motivate her to question what had happened, potentially leading to a consideration of the problem by higher-ups. But this may be giving him credit for more wiliness than he deserves. Certainly this would exhibit more wiliness than he was capable of in the first movie.

4. I disagree with the commanding officer (whose name I forget and didn’t write down) who says that someone like Kaji makes a good soldier. What I think he really meant was that someone like Kaji, who questions the status quo in order to improve the lot of the common soldier, makes a good leader. It’s also possible that it’s a bad translation.

5. I no longer remember the scene that prompted this, but I wrote that we see Kaji turning into a cynic. He is beginning to learn to be strategic in order to accomplish his objectives without being sidelined.

6. The scenes of the fire made me wonder if they had any water available. All they seemed to be doing was fanning the flames. Or was the fire so extensive that water would not have helped?

7. That head nurse is scary! It goes to show that women aren’t immune from perpetuating war’s brutality and sometimes are more enthusiastic enforcers of the rules than the men.

Part 4

8. All I could think of was how universal this is and yet how not universal. It rings true as a depiction of soldiering and warfare in general, yet it also functions as a detailed depiction of what the Japanese imperial war machine of the time was like, with its own peculiarities that differ greatly from, say, the US Army, or at least common depictions of it, which emphasize the stupidity of the bureaucracy and most higher-ups while insisting on the common sense and humanity of most common soldiers. (Tora Tora Tora is an example.) Given the way the Japanese military is depicted and the presumed authenticity due to Kobayashi’s and the underlying story’s author’s participation in the war, it is no wonder that so many war crimes were committed on its behalf.

9. What is the deal with Kaji and Kageyama? It’s clear that Kageyama was a character in Part 3, but I don’t remember him.

10. I assume that the loincloth referred to in the scenes about the photo of a naked woman the soldier wants to keep is a fundoshi (basically, a strip of cloth wrapped in such a way as to function as a loincloth/underpants). Otherwise I don’t get the reference. If I’m right, it’s interesting to see Japanese men continuing to wear fundoshi as late as this. I’ll bet that very few of them wear them anymore.

11. The last few scenes show the desperation of war and to some extent remind me of Hawkeye Pierce’s dilemma in the final episode of the TV series M*A*S*H, when a crying baby threatens to give away their location. Kaji being Kaji, he blames himself for Onodara’s death. Despite the other soldier’s statement that Kaji didn’t have to kill Onodara, though, I view it as an unfortunate and unintentional accident. Kaji was distracted, and even if he hadn’t been, how do we know he would have been able to quiet the out-of-his-mind Onodara short of strangling him?

I’m sure this will have an adverse effect on Kaji’s mental health in the next film, and possibly lead him to recklessly sacrificing himself as a sort of atonement. But Kaji would be more correct to blame the war, not himself, for Onodara’s breakdown and death.

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lawless

I finally finished this more than a year after watching disc 2. That meant that I didn’t remember all the characters or some of the detail, and I was a little confused about where they were and who was who (I probably should have looked at a map), but that aside, it was as powerful as everyone else said it was. It may be the most effective anti-war film ever made. It certainly did a great job of showing the futility and stupidity of war — particularly that war — and how it brutalizes everyone, even Kaji. There were a few hokey scenes, particularly in part 6, but they can be forgiven and forgotten considering what Kobayashi accomplished. In terms of length and sweep, this movie or sequence of movies is not unlike The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Also, he somewhat redressed the lack of realism of the “comfort women” in part 1 by his depiction of women preyed on in part 5 and the left-behind wives in part 6. Hollywood movies of the time would likely have judged them quite differently.

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Vili Maunula

Reading your comments lawless makes me want to watch the film again!

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lawless

Always here to help! Speaking of “comfort women,” here’s an analysis (from the viewpoint of a Korean whose family emigrated to the States when he was 16) of the recent government-to-government settlement of this issue.

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