The Human Condition: The Prisoner
“It’s not my fault that I’m Japanese . . . yet it’s my worst crime that I am!” The words are those of Kaji, hero of The Human Condition (1959–61), but in his anguish and existential despair, he also speaks for the film’s director, Masaki Kobayashi, whose own experience closely paralleled that of his protagonist. Like Kaji, Kobayashi found himself caught up, and unwillingly implicated, in his country’s wartime aggression. The Human Condition—nine and a half hours long, three years in the making—can be seen as one of the most monumental acts of personal expiation in all of cinematic history.
By Japanese standards, Kobayashi was unprolific, with fewer than twenty narrative features to his name. (Compare that with his contemporary Kon Ichikawa, who had clocked up eighty-four films by the time of his death.) But Kobayashi made up for his relative lack of quantity with a rare integrity and seriousness of moral purpose—allied to a visual and dramatic acuity—that earn him a place among the great humanist filmmakers.
The dilemma of the principled dissident—how can someone who rejects the basic tenets of an unjust society remain within it and avoid being tainted, and ultimately even corrupted, by it?—informs almost all Kobayashi’s mature work from the late fifties on (the sole exception being the visually stunning tour de force of his 1965 ghost-story anthology Kwaidan). This is the theme powerfully dramatized in his two most widely acclaimed movies, the samurai films Harakiri (1962) and Samurai Rebellion (1967), whose protagonists revolt against the cruel rigidities of the feudal system. But Kobayashi had broached these subjects early in his filmmaking career as well.