The source novel has six parts, and each was made into a feature-length film by Nakadai. Nonetheless, the six movies are regarded as a trilogy. The first two films are No Greater Love (1959), the next two are Road to Eternity (1959), and the final two are A Soldier's Prayer (1961). All follow the travails of Kaji and his wife Michiko during the final years of World War II.
Kaji is an intellectual twenty-something whose pacifist sympathies put him at odds with Japan's imperialistic military culture. He begins the film as a steel company executive whose comfortable life is threatened by an expansion of the draft.
To avoid the draft, he takes a position as a labor manager at a Manchurian iron ore mine in Japan-occupied China. The camp has thousands of Chinese workers who are practically slaves, along with a few dozen Chinese "comfort women" intended to raise morale among workers. Kaji struggles to improve conditions for the miners, who are burdened by abusive Japanese foremen and ever-increasing quotas.
The Kempetai (Japanese military police) bring a trainload of Chinese prisoners to the labor camp. They are housed in a barracks surrounded by electrified barbed wire. Corrupt forman Furuya (Kôji Mitsui) manipulates naive Chinese worker Chen (Akira Ishihama) into a conspiracy to periodically briefly shut off the electricity at the power plant, thus enabling the escape of several prisoners. Apparently, the free China government then pays a bounty for each escapee to Furuya.
Kempetai leader Watai (Tôro Abe) is angered by the escapes, and decide to behead seven prisoners as examples. Kaji is aghast, and attempts to save their lives. This angers the Kempetai leader, who arrests and tortures Kaji. Upon release, he is drafted into the Japanese Army.
How others will see it. The extraordinarily ambitious film enjoyed moderate festival success. It was nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice, and Aratama won Best Actress at the Kinema Junpo Awards. The movie was a surprise commercial triumph in Japan, where it is still shown to this day in marathon special screenings.
Today at imdb.com, No Greater Love has a lofty user rating of 8.5 out of 10, but the user votes are less than 7500. By comparison, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) has 329K user votes. The gloomy subject matter, unlifting ending, black and white cinematography, and subtitles combine to make the movie inaccessible for most Western viewers.
The user reviews predominantly laud Kobayashi's great effort. There are those who see the films as a partial whitewash, in that, shocking as it is to contemporary viewers, it actually understates the cruelty of the Japanese occupation and its exploitation of "comfort women," who were forced into prostitution. Here, they have freedom of movement and housing akin to a Parisian brothel.
The other criticism is that Kaji is too good to be true. One reviewer compares him to Oskar Schindler, who (as memorialized in Schindler's List) attempted to save the lives of Jewish concentration camp prisoners. Kaji's efforts on behalf of the prisoners subjects himself to the whims of brutal and lawless Kempetai punishment.
How I felt about it. The star of the trilogy, Kaji symbolizes the guilt and regret experienced by postwar Japanese liberals. A superior physical specimen, he is head and shoulders taller than his peers, and is smarter, better educated, and has a hotter and more loyal wife. He is younger, yet more mature. The implication is that he would thrive if he only surrendered his ideals, though as a fictional character this will never happen.
What distinguishes him from, say, Luke Skywalker, is that he isn't a hero fighting the evil empire, he's working for it. He only attempts to make it less evil than it otherwise would be. Kaji's actions are constrained by the status of his wife Michiko. If Kaji becomes a political prisoner, what will happen to her?
The romance between Chinese prisoner Kao (Shinji Nanbara) and a Chinese comfort woman represents hope. But to quote Shakespeare, the fault is in our stars, and Kao is too defiant to survive long in a Japanese labor camp whose modus operandi is subjugation.