October 14, 2021

The Human Condition II: Road to Eternity (1959)
Grade: 75/100

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Michirô Minami

What it's about. The middle two films of six that adapt Junpei Gomikawa's six-part novel about a Japanese man during the World War II occupation of Manchuria, China. All six films star Tatsuya Nakadai as Kaji, who endures nearly endless suffering, partly because his pacifist beliefs are incompatible with his hostile environment.

In the second duo of films, Kaji is a private in the Kwantung Army. He is suspected of being an enemy sympathizer by the Kenpeitai (Japanese military police), and thus receives poor assignments in his barracks, such as latrine duty. He is friends with Shinjo (Kei Satô), a communist who longs to escape the camp and defect to the Chinese. Kaji tries to help hapless Obara (Kunie Tanaka), who is bullied by other soldiers, especially Yoshida (Michirô Minami).

Obara commits suicide, reminiscent of Vincent D'Onofrio's Private Pyle in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Shinjo flees the camp during a grass fire. Kaji and Yoshida pursue him but become mired in a swamp. Kaji is hospitalized, but recovers courtesy of comely nurse Tokunaga (Kaneko Iwasaki). Kaji returns to the camp, and is promoted by his old friend Kageyama (Keiji Sada) to train a new arrival of older draftees. Kaji accepts beatings from sadistic soldiers to shield the new soldiers.

Kaji's platoon is assigned to dig trenches on the Manchurian border with the Soviet Union. The assignment corresponds to the August 1945 Soviet invasion of Manchuria. Kaji's platoon is ordered to dig foxholes and take out a fleet of incoming Soviet tanks. Their mission is clearly hopeless, and nearly all of the soldiers are killed by the tank crews. Kaji and two other soldiers survive and end Part II trapped in the former Manchuria behind enemy lines.

Road to Eternity has the shortest running time of the three parts, purportedly because nude scenes of Kaji's wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) were censored. Michiko shows up unexpectedly at Kaji's camp, and in an equally surprising move, his commander allows Kaji and Michiko to spent the night alone in the camp store.

How others will see it. The Human Condition, either as a book or film series, never really received the attention that it deserved in the West. In Japan, both the novel and the films were acclaimed, and catapulted Gregory Peck-ish Tatsuya Nakadai to stardom. Aratama won Best Actress at the Kinema Junpo Awards.

Today at imdb.com, Road to Eternity has 6K user votes, a tiny number relative to Seven Samurai (1954) but much higher than the typical Japanese drama of its era. The user rating, though, is 8.5 out of 10, nearly as lofty as Seven Samurai. There is a slight decline among men with the advancing age of the viewer, from 8.7 under age 30 to 8.3 over age 45.

At imdb.com, Road to Eternity has no user reviews under 7 (out of 10). Most viewers are practically in awe at Kobayashi's trilogy and its relentlessly bleak assessment of man's inhumanity to man during wartime. Kaji may be smarter, better educated, taller, and more handsome than his fellow recruits. But his ideals stand in the way of ever fully adapting to the bleak environment in which he has been forced to attempt to survive. The very few naysayers wonder at Kaji's willingness to take beatings on behalf of his recruits, and his futile courage in his attempts to stop camp bullying.

How I felt about it. If one looks at the forest instead of trees, The Human Condition is an indictment of the militaristic Japanese culture that ended in crushing defeat in 1945. At one point, Kaji states that he is not at odds with his fellow soldiers that beat him, but with the Japanese Army itself. That is the moral of Road to Eternity, though it changes in Part III, when the Japanese Army has vanished in China yet Kaji's problems become worse than ever.

Thus, the enemy isn't even the Japanese Army, but the human condition. When times are hard, cruelty takes over. Kaji isn't so much a character, as a stand-in for the abuse heaped upon Asians, to the point of their death, during World War II.