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Be Prepared to be Shattered,
This review is from: The Human Condition (The Criterion Collection) (DVD)
How should an individual respond to deep-set social injustices - ones that are built into the structure of the country's national morality. This is the core of Kaji's story (performed by the brilliant Tatsuya Nakadai). This epic trilogy is a biography of a man, a dissenter, a nation. During the critical years 1930's to 1940's, Japanese aggression was founded on radical nationalism, a policy which expected everything in its path to bend or break. The director films the cruelty of Japanese and Russian authority with unflinching honesty. As is always true of this director...he is an absolute master of cinematography in the brilliant way we think Akira Kurusowa is a master of the same art. As an example, after one of the Chinese slave laborers is brutally beaten to death, the group of laborers complain to Kaji - accusing him of being just like the other insensitive Japanese. The crowd of prisoners and Kaji are separated by an electric barbed wire. Then suddenly - through the barbed wire - the prisoners view 30 comfort women approaching to service them sexually...almost as a mirage...and the complaint against Kaji drips away. It is a deeply powerful image - a form of cinema poetry and a form of cinema realism.
In the first installment of this extraordinary trilogy, Kaji is sent to be an overseer of a Japanese slave labor camp in Manchuria. At this time, the Japanese are using Chinese men or unlucky POW's for mining operations under inhuman, horrific conditions. Appalled by the viciousness, Kaji proposes reforms and basic human rights for the prisoners...but in doing so he is considered an obstacle to the Japanese War effort and so the idealist is next sent into the military. In the second installment, Kaji challenges the military officers' cruel approach and humiliation of Japanese recruits. Again, he is unsuccessful. This leads him to the third part where the Japanese army is routed by the Soviets. But the Russians are not the liberators the liberals believe them to be. Now for the third time, Kaji refuses to accept the Russian injustices.
What seems "all important" to the director Kobayashi is not the success of his quiet hero, but the very attempt - however futile - to challenge injustice, even alone. Here we have a conscientious objector, sometimes portrayed by others as weak, who is actually more ready to put his life on the line than the soldiers.
As a final point, the film trilogy is part autobiographical. Even though a soldier in the Japanese army, the film director Kobayashi refused to accept any position in the Japanese military system other than a private as a personal protest to its aggressive fascism.